Kamakura is most famous as having been the center of the nation's power for the thirteenth century when the Hojo clan – successors to the legendary Minamoto clan - exercised several generations of strict military rule over the country, including the imperial court in Kyoto which, as the ceremonial center of power, was reduced to puppet status. As a focus of power Kamakura was inevitably the scene of political and military struggles and much blood has been shed there.
Nothing of Kamakura's warlike history remains visible in its streets today. The thriving, pleasantly laid out city of approximately 120,000 people is notable – beside its crowds of tourists - for its wood and garden atmosphere and its many vistas of Buddhist inspired architecture and statuary.
Friends and I spent the afternoon of our second to last day of our Golden Week in Kamakura – not even 60 minutes from Shinjuku station in Tokyo on the JR Shonan Shinjuku and JR Yokosuka lines.
Most people know of Kamakura as home of the “Daibutsu” or “Great Buddha”, an 11.4 meter (37 ft), 121 ton bronze statue of the Buddha, constructed in 1252 at the height of Hojo power. While not as big as the Buddha in Nara that inspired it, it is considered better in terms of artistry. This is where we started the day. Bus No.1 was delayed so we were directed to take Bus. No.6 which got us to‘Daibutsu Mae’ in about 10 minutes. You pay 200 yen to get in to the temple grounds.
The first structure on entering is a small shelter with a water trough for the washing of hands: a purification ritual common at many temples. The grounds were ablaze with the azaleas and set among them in the near distance was the great head of the Buddha. Get near to it and, for all its bulk, to children of the 20th century weaned on skyscrapers and monumental art, the Daibutsu is not as awe-inspiring in its size as you'd expect. Its impact is as much in the atmosphere it exudes, hands resting, eyes closed but intently attuned to everything around it, head bowed in the benevolent mystery of meditation.
Next stop was a 10 minute walk to Hase-dera, AKA Hase Kannon Temple. It is distinctive for the trees that feature at its entrance: a tortured pine that looks for all the world like a pumped-up bonsai and that presides over its gate like a many-armed protector, and nearby a grotesquely lumpy camphor tree that whose warts and excrescences conjure up, Escher-like, a multitude of weird entities waiting only for the imagination to set them free. Inside is Japan's tallest wooden statue, the 9.3 meter (30 ft) statue of the 11-headed Kannon Goddess of Mercy. The temple grounds have a large collection of the much smaller Jizo: the patron saint of travellers and departed children.
Five minutes on from Hase Kannon Temple was Kosokuji (literally ‘light gauging’) Temple, founded by a disciple of the persecuted Buddhist sect founder, Nichiren, near where another of Nichiren’s most famous disciples, Nichiro, was confined to a dungeon. Kosoku-ji is a must-see for those who love natural-style gardens: full of tiny groves, colored delicately by a multitude of flowers, and presided over by songbirds. Not the least of its attractions is that it is virtually devoid of the tourists who mill loudly only minutes' walk away.
It was only 10 minutes walk from Kosoku-ji directly south to the beach, Yuigahama. It was windy and the sea was host to dozens of windsurfers high-speed scudding over the choppy waves. We got an packed Enoden Enoshima Line train at nearby Hase station and went three stops north to Kamakura Station and then one stop on to Kita-Kamakura on the Yokosuka Line where we checked out three temples: Enkakuji , Tokeiji and Jochiji.
Engaku Temple (tel: 0467 22 0487) houses the largest bell in Kamakura. It was founded in 1282 and is one of the five major Rinzai Zen temples, its first abbot having been Chinese. It is also distinctive in having a particularly massive gate at the top of the long flight of steps leading up to it that is unusual in its supporting posts being totally exposed. The spacious grounds with its many sub-temples are ideal for strolling in the late afternoon. Engakuji offers zen meditation sittings in the early mornings throughout the year.
Tokeiji Temple (tel: 0467 22 1663) is also a Rinzai Zen temple founded in 1285 by the widow of the Hojo Regent Sadtoki. It was known as the ‘Divorce Temple’ as it offered refuge to women who took advantage of laws promulgated by Sadatoki allowing them respite from abusive husbands and mothers-in-law. Until the end of the 19th century was a Buddhist nunnery. It is characterized by particularly beautiful and meticulously tended gardens, elegantly laid-out in a natural style and showcasing a wide variety of exquisite blooms.
Our final temple in this area was Jochiji (tel: 0467 22 3943) founded in 1238 and ranked fourth of Kamakura's Five Great Zen Temples most famous for its “Kanro-no-Ido” or “Nectar Well"’, as the water that it gives is free of the saltiness characterized by most wells in the area. The temple is set on a hillside in a cedar forest. Unfortunately the buildings themselves were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The three wooden statutes on the central altar of Nyorai, Shaka amd Mitoku (the Buddhas of Past, Present and Future) are designated as Important Cultural Assets
Back on the bus, we alighted at Hachimangu Jingu-mae and paid our respects to the town's most prominent shrine: Tsuruagoka Hachimangu Shrine.
The road leading from Tsuruagoka Hachimangu back to the station and the parallel Komachi dori are lined with expensive souvenir shops and places to eat and drink. We ate at the recommended Kawagoe-ya – a soba restaurant with over 120 years of history, now located below the McDonalds in the station square. Check out the local Kamakura beer ale on offer to wash down their appetizing and reasonably-priced sets.
Japan's Temples and Shrines
Japan Kamakura Tokyo