Visiting heritage city of Kamakura in a Day Trip from Tokyo
Just an hour away from Tokyo, Kamakura is an ancient heritage town. With a sea beach and an island thrown into the mix, it has something for everyone. So for our first day trip out of Tokyo we headed to this Heritage city Kamakura to cover what maximum we could in one Day Trip from Tokyo.
The original city of Kamakura was established as a fortress town, naturally guarded on three sides by hills, approachable only from sea. Over time this town grew in importance as the top religious and social center on the east coast of Japan, second in influence only to capital Kyoto.
Now Kamakura is one of the busiest tourist town. As one gets down at Kamakura station, the station decor and the adjacent spacious tourist office indicates the importance of this place as a tourist center. There are several tour circuits covering a cross section of the Buddhist and Shinto shrines. It is quite impossible to visit all the popular shrines in a day,or even in two days. So we decided to pick two routes covering the most famous of Kamakura shrines, with a quick hop to Enoshima island, if time allowed. We took the Odakyu line with Kamakura Enoden free pass.
Leg 1: Dai Butsu and Hase Dera
First on our list was Dai Butsu and Hase Dera temple. Dai Butsu, the Big Buddha, is iconic of Kamakura. And Hase Dera traces its origin back to seventh century arrival of Buddhism to Japan. This back ground, coupled with the fact that there is a direct connect to Hase by the narrow gauge Enoden line helped us choose this as our 1st destination.
Enoden line has its own charm. Its is a small train that goes snaking behind terraces and kitchens, sometimes like a tram right in the middle of road, sometimes right by the sea side. Its an experience on its own. Especially for children.
Dai Butsu- The Big Buddha
Getting down at Hase station, we crossed the rail line heading towards Daibutsu. The narrow road divides at a point where the left lane goes to the great Hase Dera temple. We headed straight. First target was Dai Butsu. Traditional art and crafts shops crowd into the pavement. Shortly the entrance way shrouded in bamboo groves and maple and cedar trees appear in front.
We queue for tickets. Ticket jackets describe the story of Daibutsu – the great Buddha. Its a gigantic bronze statue that survived many a tsunamis and earthquakes. Now it is surrounded by manicured Japanese garden, with shaded rest areas. As one walks through the garden past the ancient cedars, the Buddha in meditative pose comes fully into view.
We walk further close, up the stairs, past the incense stick stand. The Buddha had his hands folded into a mudra, eyes closed deep into introspection. There are shades with wooded benches on all three sides. Sitting there were devotees with rosaries in hand, serious photographers, curious tourists. We walk around. Step into the garden. Garden of cedars and junipers. Shaded, calm and quiet. There was a hillock close by, with a small wooden temple at its foot. On a side there is a souvenir shop. Visitors bought incense sticks to offer with prayer. Pretentious human existence suddenly appeared so small.
There was this tunnel beneath the Daibutsu statue. It led inside the statue. A few narrow dark steps ends at a small platform. There was nothing much to see. Just satiated curiosity. We stepped out and sat down on the wooden benches under the shade. Let go of the tiredness. Started early in the day, packing, rushing, huffing and puffing boarding the train at Shinjuku station. Then squeezing into the Enoden train. Finally following the crowd to Dai Butsu. At last we are there. Read about it, always wanted to see.
From Daibutsu we headed back walking towards the junction where the road forked. This time took the one heading to Hase Dera. This road was narrow, claimed both by pedestrians and cars and tourist buses. So had to stop and go. There were craft shops, antique shops and restaurants all jostling for attention on the two sides. The ambiance changes once you walk up to the gate of Hase Dera.
Tera or Dera means (Buddhist) temple. Legend has it that in the eighth century a monk dreamt of a log floating in by the sea. He actually found that log in the morning and enshrined it as god. Over time its fame spread.
Right inside past the entry gate, a Japanese garden, with a stream and a lily pond, welcomes you. Through the floating leaves colored fishes swim by. A bridge crosses the stream to the base of a stone stair. The steps lead to landing, with a small temple, then goes further up to the main temple complex at the hill top.
The temple was originally by the shore, but over time residences cropped up all around. The view from the top though is still beautiful. The entire shore comes into view, with fishing boats here and there and few hazy outlines of ships in the distance.
A giant prayer wheel is there in an adjacent hall, with its own Japanese garden, lily pond, little bridge and stone paved path. For the curious, and untired, there are some more but smaller temples a little walk away towards the rear boundary. And there is a cave too, walk-able up to a distance.
We explored around for sometime. The sun got stronger. In summer the sandy sea side heats up quickly. We step inside the main temple hall. It was dark, torched partially by the hundreds of candles lit. The golden Buddha is silent deep in meditation. Occasional drum beats, gong of the temple bell, flickering candle light, all helped bring up an imagery of a thousand years gone by. You don’t need to be a believer. The ambiance sweeps you in.
Leg 2: Hachimangu and Hokokuji
From Hase station we head back to Kamakura. The road out of the rail station crosses the city bus stop. This time our destination is Hachimangu, Its walkable from station. So we cross the bus stop. And merge into the central arterial road of Kamakura. This road has been there for some thousand years at least. Emerging from the sea shore it heads straight on to the stairs of Hachimangu, dissecting the city into East and West. The city life revolved around this temple.
Tsurugaouka Hachimangu Shrine
Hachimangu was the cultural and social epicenter. The stairs of Hachimangu have seen major power struggle and blood letting. The East and West sides had traditionally been strongholds of two opposing Samurai clans. Stories of their valor and struggle made these portals of Hachimangu part of Japanese lore. There are lily ponds on the two sides of Hachimangu, named after the two clans.
None of the old are there any more, but it’s history as the power center and the family temple of Shogun has bestowed an unmistakable aura to Hachimangu. The city of today still centers around it.
But in last few centuries there have been major events that shook Japan. Meiji revolution, world war. Fall of the shoguns, rise of the emperor, Japans rise as colonial power, followed by eventual fall. Somewhere through this the once glorious Kamakura lost out. So did Hachimangu. The huge complex that was there once upon a time is barely discernible now.
Tourists have replaced the devotees. Flashy souvenir shops, upscale restaurants and travel operator signboards adorn the two sides of the road to Hachimangu. The main thoroughfare takes a boulevard appearance as it heads out from the station. Tradition is still valued, and followed, but packaged in a very modern getup. Rickshaws still ply, only if as tourist attraction.
In about ten minutes we reach the shrine entrance. Vermilion colored Tori gates. Old stone bridge. The main temple visible at a distance ahead. We make our way through the crowd. Foreign tourists, locals, busy taking selfies. Occasional claps follow a reverential bow.
Some festival was going on the day we went. There were a few shops selling traditional gyoza (dumplings) on the two sides. From the main approach road a street forks out to the right. Priests quarters. A red bridge on the left leads to a lily pond. We headed straight towards the stairs.
From a distance we could hear traditional musical instrument playing. A marriage ceremony was being held. Social ceremonies are held in the ceremony hall at the base of the stairs, facing the temple entrance. Tourists with cameras were recording the proceedings. Bride, groom and their guests in bridal best were seated on the two sides. The head priest in the middle was chanting shlokas. Offerings of fruits and sweets were kept on a table facing the temple pulpit.
We stopped for a while, then took the stairs up. Stepped past the Tori gate into the inner sanctorum. A ceremonial function was being held in an adjacent hall. It was certainly some auspicious day. Police were controlling the crowd. Most of the heavy wooden doors around leading to the inner halls were closed to ordinary visitors. An open side pavilion stood there, with a display of richly decorated mikoshis, kept ready for special occasions.
We stepped out. Into the open space at the top of the stairs. A wide angle view of the entire complex is available from this point. Perhaps hundreds of years ago here the Shoguns stood, addressing followers from this very step!
We take a side walk on the way down. The marriage ceremony was over by then. Guests in their ceremonial dresses were still sticking around taking a few more snaps. Wandering further to the left we reach a tree-shaded area, covered with Japanese maples, cedars, and bamboo groves. A small rivulet, with a wooden bridge, comes into view. We were short of time otherwise would have loved to spend some more time there.
We moved on crossing the bridge, not quite sure going where but carried on to see what follows. The passage wound its way out into an opening that ended at a lily pond. One of the two belonging to the warrior clans. Colored fishes here were comfortable with tourists, eagerly posing in front. Almost jostling for the best location. Same goes for the flocks of pigeons that flew down from somewhere. None afraid of human presence. Rather expected to be fed, petted, photographed. A practice perhaps for over a thousand years.
Next on our list was Hokokuji. Famous for its tea house housed in a bamboo grove. The tea house is at the end of a cobbled stone walkway that winds behind the main temple. It passes by a zen garden. Passes by an area where from you can see old caves on the hill side. Now prohibited, separated by wire mesh, but perhaps a thousand or so years ago these caves were humble dwellings for the temple hermits. This temple traces its history to the time the original settlers established the town of Kamakura. It was extended and taken care of by later era Shogun clans who converted it into their family temple.
Unlike Hachimangu, Hokokuji is somewhat off the tourist center of Kamakura, being reachable only by bus. But rather than being a disadvantage, that has perhaps helped preserve its originality. The walkway to the temple is through a rustic neighborhood. Seems to be just waking up from its village past. The path way to the temple is rather narrow. Traffic sergeants at the two ends warn tourists when a car approaches. Moss and fern covers some portion of walls of the neighborhood houses. Hasty patches of cement work covers others that gave way under age.
But once inside the temple gates, one forgets all that was left outside. Velvet green moss covered garden, with a Buddha, beckons. Japanese maple branches curl up around stone boulders. Spring water dribbles down a water fountain. Wooden ladles kept to wash oneself before entering the inner precincts..
Past the ticket gate, the Zen rock garden comes into view. The walk way bends here and there. Goes past stone statuettes, covered in green moss. At one point one can see the caves on the hill side. The walkway makes its serpentine way further ahead. Now through a bamboo grove. Ends at a tea house. This is Hokokuji.
We spend some time here. Allowing our imaginations a free run through time. Who were the folks who came for prayers here, over the past hundreds of years? Celebrating their life events – birth of a child, marriage, death. Generation after generation. Would somebody from amongst my descendants also come visit this place one day? Would he or she realize that I was here, and imagined about him/her coming back to this place?
Hunger breaks the stupor. It was already well past our usual lunch hour. We rush back,to grab a quick grub.
Leg 3: Enoshima
Post lunch, we again board the Enoden train, this time getting down at Enoshima station. Our day pass is used to its maximum. As we walked down towards the beach, the roadside characteristics gradually change. From the heritage temple town to hip and happening US West. Most houses looked like they were lifted straight out off some American soap – the red bricks, the curved railing etc. Even the trees were no longer maple or juniper but palms – beach side palms!
The main road running by the beach was wide. Seafront apartments with balconies could easily give one the impression of being in California, Florida or Hawaii. Orange hued stone walled restaurants greet tourists with “Aloha” in neon. Surfing boards dry on the sand. Beach side shacks play music, dish out seafood with beer. Young guys and gals on skate boards zoom past.
Checked the time. It was 3 o clock in the afternoon. Just in time for the last ticket sale for the dolphin show in the sea life park – the enoshima aquarium. Famed for its Dolphin show, but its collection of sea anemones, jelly fishes, sting rays and sharks are also varied. For kids there’s a touch and feel section, to experience how it feels to touch a sea cucumber or a star fish! There is also a deep water submersible that was once used by Japan for ocean research. Outside the halls, in the open deck overlooking the ocean shore, there are telescopes to view ships anchored in the distance. Certainly the aquarium merited a whole day on its own but we were short of time. So sped through from hall to hall, to finally flop down for the dolphin show.
By the time the show ended, evening was setting in. Evening glow reflected in the sea. Restaurant lights came up. We walked along the beach. Reached the bridge that connects main land with Enoshima island.
Surf boarders, sail boarders were heading home after the day’s play. We crossed the bridge. Reached the point where from a road goes up an incline to the temple at the island top. The two sides of the street are lined with souvenir shops. And eateries. Fresh grilled food. Ice cream. The usually colorful Japanese fan and handbag shops look more colorful in the evening light.
Further into the island there were caves one could visit. But it was already late evening and the chill in the air set in. Sea gulls were hovering above for the last bits before retiring for the night. It was a long day. We were tired. But it was a memorable day well worth a second visit. In a little while we were speeding down in super express train zooming past the suburban stations. Half asleep half deep in thought as we headed back home to Tokyo. Hectic, but memorable one day trip to Kamakura.