A Trip To Kamakura

So, its been a million years since my last update. Well, not quite that long, but at least 3 weeks, which is pretty poor form for a blog I intended to update at least weekly originally. This post comes with the aid of D.J.Nickle-Pickle (Nick Ballantyne) because after sitting down and writing almost the entirety of this in one sitting, I honestly had zero desire, motivation or time to read it all again several times over to edit it. Nick crossed my Is and dotted my Ts, or rather fixed my amazingly sporadic capitalisation and then made fun of me when sentences i wrote at 3:00am and never read again made no sense. So many thanks to Nick otherwise this would likely be another week in the making.

For the past month, I have been attending a language school to get my lingo up to scratch. Its kind of working, though I still have trouble with just about anything involving language. I’m learning to build more complicated sentences slowly, though with few Japanese friends to practice with, I’m becoming increasingly book smart without having much chance to apply it in real life and thus get it nice and lodged in my noggin. I’m hoping to attend some social/language exchange activities this month so I can practice more. School runs for about 3 hours a day on week days, and because one of my many flaws is that I struggle with rote learning (which is about 80% of language. SO MANY WORDS!!!!), I spend a similar length of time each night on revision trying to pound the content into my grey matter so I can remember it the next day.  The result of this is that I haven’t done a massive amount of super happy fun times activities this month, though I have been trying out many of Tokyo’s increasingly diverse selection of cafés, many of which are spectacularly good. Expect a blog about coffee at some point in the future!

Now, onto the photo stuff.

More than a month ago now, I headed off for a trip to Kamakura, the one time capital of Japan situated about 70Km south-west of Tokyo. Kamakura is often referred to as the Kyoto of the East, due to its high concentration of shrines and temples as well as its cultural significance. Between 1185 and 1333, Japan was primarily ruled by the Kamakura Shogunate. While the North and West of Japan retained a level of autonomy and the old court/emperor still resided in Kyoto, the primary seat of economic, social and political power rested here with a military government for about 150 years. Today Kamakura is a fairly small city of 170,000 odd people surrounded by the sea on one side and steep hills bearing dense forests on its east and west flanks. Its cultural heritage, fairly low density and pleasant beach make it a popular day trip location for Tokyoites and a renowned tourist destination both domestically and internationally.

I have visited Kamakura once before, and thus had already done a smattering of the more famous sites in the city. As a result, this time I decided to focus on the eastern side of the city, which I previously spent little time in. If I get a chance, I would like to return and see what I can find in the west and north of the city.

Somehow on my previous visit, I managed to miss one of the the number one most visited spots in the city: the shrine complex of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. Originally founded in 1063, The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine was expanded and moved to its current location in 1180 by the Kamakura Shogunate due to the temple’s worship of deities linked to this governing family. The primary focus of worship at the shrine (as I understand it, at least) is to the Shinto deity of Hachiman. Hachiman is said to be the ascended spirit of Emperor Ojin, who after his reign ascended to the role of patron deity of the samurai class and protector of Japan. I don’t claim to be an expert of East Asian religions, but it’s my understanding that as the influence of the shogunates spread across Japan during this period and increasingly supplanted the governance of the imperial family, the worship of Hachiman amongst the general population skyrocketed. Today, Hachiman shrines are the second most prevalent of all Shinto worship sites nation wide.

If you are confused about this or it flew over your head as your eyes glazed over, you aren’t alone. I know little about either the Shinto or Buddhist religions, and though I would like to learn more, I have found Japanese religion and much of its early history largely impenetrable despite my best efforts. If I ever learn enough to speak reliably on the subject, I will do my best to write a ‘Japanese religion and history for dummies’ post. For now it would be a case of the blind leading the blind, I fear. [Or the blind leading the more blind – N]

One thing that I CAN tell you, though, is that this shrine complex remains at the heard of Kamakura, both geographically and spiritually. The approach to the shrine is a wide walkway which begins near the central station and extends to the north east for nearly a kilometre. Visitors taking this path pass below three large Torii gates, the large red gates you have probably seen in photographs of Japan that signify the entrance to a sacred space. The approach to the shrine contains 3 of these gates, but I believe the shrine complex itself holds several more (I didn’t count those, so no specific numbers from me). The walkway is lined with freshly planted trees (Sakura, I believe) as well as hundreds of stone lanterns donated by local companies. I believe the whole walkway has recently undergone modernisation judging from the size of the trees and the spotless lanterns. Right now, it looks a bit sparkly fresh for me, but I’m sure in a few years as the trees grow and the stone ages, it will be quite a lovely place to walk.

The一の鳥居 (Ichi-no-Torii or outer most Torii) of the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu approach looking towards the shrine.
Stone lantern so shiny and new, you don’t even need to light it at night!!!
The walk to the shrine isn’t exactly short.

After a fairly long stroll, visitors once used to cross this bridge; nowadays you walk around it and take photos of it instead. I am interested to know how old that tree is… Its trunk looked well aged to the extreme, and I would not be surprised if someone told me it was centuries old.

Curvy bridge, Feat.[oldtree]
After passing through the third great Torii and entering the temple grounds, one finds several small walkways branching off to the right that lead to gardens and auxiliary shrines and another large central walkway that leads up to the shrine proper. This second stage of the central avenue is now lined with food vendors, though, rather than trees. After a short walk, the climbing of stairs begins. The topography of Kamakura is unusual from an Australian perspective, being fairly flat for the most part, but being intersected by often incredibly steep hills that jut out far into the city limits like a lush green arterial system. The Hachiman shrine sits part way up one of these hills, significantly above the surrounding city, thus commanding a nice view of the area. This means… stairs! While this particular shrine wasn’t too bad, some shrines in Kamakura may leave you with lovely 6-pack abs on your thighs as a reminder of your visit.

In front of the shrine proper, and well below it, stands this building. Named ‘Dancing Maiden Stage’ which is used for various performances throughout the year relating to festivals and worship at the shrine.

Dancing Maiden Stage: A stage where I presume maidens dance from time to time.

Behind this are the stairs leading to the shrine proper, as seen below.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine.

Photography inside the shrine is prohibited, as is usually the case with Shinto buildings. This combined with the fact that the building appears newly refurbished, and thus lacking in the texture and detail that I like photographing in Japan, meant that I took surprisingly few photos. I did finally discover the answer to a question I had long asked myself though, what is this symbol.

The symbol of Hachiman.

During my previous adventures in Japan, I often saw this symbol and wondered what it was. It adorns many shrines I have visited, as well as several other buildings and many roof tiles. As it turns out its the crest of Hachiman, and because he is such a popular dude, his crest is not only used on buildings used for worshiping him (as I mentioned before, second most popular fellow in the country as ranked by number of shrines made for him) but has become rather ubiquitous nation wide.

As a small aside from today’s adventure, lets talk a little about something I DO know about Shinto. Near many shrines in Japan are small shops that sell charms and other assorted religious (and often not so religious) paraphernalia  to visitors. These typically take the form of small paper envelope style charms, inside which a small prayer is written. As I understand it, these are carried for a period of 1 year, after which the owner should replace them with a new one. Shinto, as a religion, places a strong emphasis on renewal. The strongest example of this is perhaps Ise Jingu. This, the most holy site of the Shinto religion, is completely rebuilt to the exact same specifications as the original building every 20 years. This undertaking requires decades of planning and is colossally expensive due to the scarcity, quality and size of timber required. This tradition of rebuilding has persevered for well over a millennia, with the building now in its 62nd iteration. This mindset of replacement is so integral to the functioning of the shrine that two identical plots of land exist side by side so the new shrine may be erected before the old is torn down. (Remember boys and girls. That’s a different shrine, not this one)

This particular day, however, I saw something I have not noticed before. Small slabs of wood being sold, onto which visitors write a message before hanging the token by the shrine. Perhaps I am wrong and these are everywhere and always have been, but I have never noticed them at a Shinto site before.

Dreams and wishes are more likely to come true if you hang them in plain view, perhaps?

From the shrine, you can look back over the whole central approach corridor as well as central Kamakura. I wont lie, after a month of Tokyo, it was nice to see some green and a blue sky.


Behind the shrine was a smaller auxiliary shrine, with FOXES!!!! I like foxes. Not so much in Australia where they don’t belong and cause significant damage to our habitat, but I do think they are a lovely looking animal and have a soft spot for their behaviour as well. Why was there a Fox shrine? I honestly have no idea. I believe that foxes are often messengers for the gods in many Shinto fables, so perhaps that’s why. Perhaps one day, I shall discover why, and at that time, I’m sure I will say, “AHHHHHHH!!!!!” as everything starts to make sense, hopefully along with the raccoon men on the side of the road often chilling next to vending machines.

It looks like its telling me to fox off….
Not my picture, i stole this from google as I was too lazy to walk outside at 11:30PM to get a photo of one of these dudes. if i get a good photo of one i will post it later. 

After this, I set off towards another temple complex, Kencho-Ji. Kencho-Ji is the most important of several Buddhist temples scattered around Kamakura. Though much smaller than it was during its heyday, this temple still holds several world heritage items and is one of the most visited sites in Kamakura. The site of this temple complex was some way north east from Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. While the city center of Kamakura is relatively flat, I soon discovered that the outlying parts are often far from flat. What I expected to be a fairly easy walk ended up being rather sweaty given the unusually warm weather and continuous uncomfortably steep slope. Houses lining the side of this road were often as much as 10 meters above the level of the road with the only visible access being via absurdly steep steps. Perhaps the reason for Japan’s population’s longevity is all the cardio exercise they get walking up and down cliff faces… If it weren’t for the fact that there was a major road carving its way through the area, I imagine this route would actually not be traversable by foot.

Somebody’s ‘drive way’. Looks significantly less steep here than in reality. There were 7 flights of stairs to reach the house.

After a while (and lunch, and beer) I arrived at Kencho-Ji. Forking out my dosh and entering the grounds, I was immediately met with the sight of Sanmon, the main (now internal) gate to the complex. At this point, I guess it’s a good idea to go read a bit about Kencho-Ji from the information pamphlets because its been AGES and I have forgotted [sic, in the sense this is just misspelt for MAXIMUM COMEDY – N] most of the information…

Sanmon Gate, walking beneath it is said to purify visitors before they approach other buildings. Note: people for scale, that’s a lot of wood!

RIGHT!!!!! So, Kencho-Ji was founded in 1253 during the Kamakura period you read about above. Zen Buddhism, while often thought of as traditionally Japanese, actually originated in China, and adoption of its teachings only started relatively late in Japan compared to other religions. The first records of Zen Buddhism in Japan appear around 1191, long after Buddhism was adopted and incorporated with Shinto to form the native Japanese religious structure. However, soon after its arrival in Japan, the Zen sect of Buddhism gained favor with the Samurai class, the most influential class in Japan’s society at the time. As a result, financial and social support were strong, and its influence spread rapidly through Japan.  Within only 60 odd years of it being introduced, some of the largest temples in the nation were devoted to the Zen faith. Early Zen Buddhism and the rule of the Hojo Clan from Kamakura were closely linked. Apparently, Zen Buddhism and many of its affiliated temples were used by the Shogunate to monitor happenings in the nation distant from their seat of power in Kamakura. Monasteries, and those who worked in them, were often far more effective at dispersing social norms, ideology and laws to distant regions than direct attempts by the Shogunate. Many monks who trained at Kencho-Ji and other such temples in Kamakura took on the function of translators, advisor and diplomats all over Japan, extending the reach of the Hojo’s influence despite their rather modest resources.

The family crest of the Hojo clan, who ruled for much of the Kamakura period.  Also, the Tri-force, created by the gods of wisdom, courage and power…. in Hyrule…. in Zelda…

Kencho-Ji is the oldest remaining Zen training monastery in Japan. At its peak, it housed some 49 major structures as well as various sub temples. Today it’s much smaller, but not so small that I had the time (or notion) to visit all the sites it has on offer. It makes me wonder just how large the complex was during its heyday. Moving further into the complex, I found the Butsuden, which houses a large statue of Jizo Bodhisattva. You may remember from several weeks ago stone statues with red hats devoted to the souls of lost children. At that time, I believe I talked a bit about a Bodhisattva that guided those souls to heaven. That was the Jizo Bodhisattva. He has many other roles as well, and was said to have taken a vow not to ascend to Buddhahood [dope – N] until he succeeded in emptying the various Buddhist hells. To my understanding, he is one of the primary points of worship in the Buddhist faith. This Building originally stood at Zoujou-ji in Tokyo in the 1600s.

Butsuden exterior. Note the detail on the everything, sorely lacking in most modern buildings here.
The Jizo Bodhisattva carrying the two tools he is often portrayed with. A staff to prize open the gates of hell and a wishing stone, to light the way in darkness. (Also note the wooden carving to the right hand side.)

Its worth mentioning that unlike many Temples in the Tokyo region, almost all the temples in Kamakura are still made of wood, having been spared the firebombing campaigns that destroyed much of Tokyo’s heritage. To me, this is important because for all its benefits and convenience, I find concrete very soulless. I feel this is especially true when used to recreate heritage locations where it often completely kills the magic of the buildings. To me, the aging of the wood and paint in the above picture adds character that concrete and fresh paint never could. For this reason alone, Kamakura is well worth the side trip, in my opinion.

Behind the Butsuden is a building named the Hatto. This houses a small (comparatively) statue of Kannon, another figure from Buddhist history and a lightning dragon themed roof. I found out after my visit that this is actually the largest Buddhist structure in eastern Japan and is amongst the most important buildings at this complex. Unfortunately, I was ignorant to this at the time, and due to it holding less intricate statues than many of the other buildings, I sort of scooted through it. Mistaking its age for modesty is something I now regret, and I may return soon to see if I can do more of this complex.

Kannon and the thunder dragon. Both things I don’t know enough about to talk about intelligibly.

Nearby was the Karamon gate. Which, because it’s late and I know nothing much about it, you can read about from the sign below. It was well impressive with its intricate design and shiny, shiny gold.


You know… usually people build big gates to keep people AWAY from your rich person gold… its amazing none of this was stolen over the years really. 
shiny shiny gold. 
SO MANY TRI-FORCES!!!!! (more seriously, the Hojo clan emblem can be found all over Kamakura due to their prominence during its more notable historical period)

By this stage in the day, I was beginning to get a bit templed out. A combination between my lack of knowledge on the topic, a lack of understanding of what the various buildings significances are and the number I have seen in the past means that this is something that happens more often than not if I visit several sites in a day. Luckily, Kamakura is more than just a series of temples and shrines. For those interested in escaping dense poulations and human constructions, Kamakura also offers a series of hiking trails between sites that provides a welcome escape from the concrete jungle of Tokyo. One of these trails begins behind the Kencho-Ji complex and leads through the mountains to the east of the city, offering access to some of the smaller shrines on offer. After completely missing the point of the Hatto, I decided it was time to get out of the sun, and escape along this forest trail.

Getting there meant walking past many small, active shrines and temples within the complex. Many of which, due to their smaller size and natural setting, were, to me, more picturesque and likeable than the grand structures talked about so far. The fact that I kept stumbling upon lovely locations meant that the 10 minute walk to the hiking trail ended up taking almost an hour…. The up side of this? Pretty pictures to look at, which I imagine is something you are more interested in than all this text. (It’s ok, I like the pictures better too)

Tree lined avenues, a time honoured way of making things feel special.
Someone must spend a lot of time pruning here.
There be childer here!

Behind the temple complex, I was surprised to find there was what appeared to be a small town. Why was this surprising? Well, because I had to pay several hundred yen to get into the complex, but there must be some kind of access in here if these people live here. I wonder how it’s all set up. Also, while we are looking at one, a note on Japanese roads. They are often incredulous tiny, and I’m almost certain no sort of rational planning ever went into residential road design in many of Japan’s cities. Many roads (like the one above) are barely wide enough for a single Kei car (a Japanese subcompact sized car which makes Australian small cars look about as compact as the Death Star) but are in fact two-way roads. Similarly, I have found several minor roads in Tokyo which wind through high-density housing areas, and somewhere along the way, have either a dead end or a power pole slap bang in the middle of the road, making them impassable for even the twiddliest of cars. I imagine if you were to stumble upon one of these while operating an automobile, it would rather ruin your day as you reverse your way some 100 meters up the road to the last intersection so you can escape. An outcome of this appears to be that many people simply ride bikes or walk to destinations that Australians would typically take a car to. And don’t get me started on Japanese cyclists. They typically share the sidewalks with pedestrians and are amazingly skilled. Even granny has the ability to weave between pedestrians with ease while sending a text on her flip phone. On the first day, it was unnerving to have a mother and two children on the same bike whizz past me with only centimeters to spare.  However after the first day, I quickly stopped paying attention to the bicycle born commuters as I came to realise that they were more nimble than I and better able to avoid me than me them.

Further up the hill, past a house I really would like to live in, I found the hiking trail, and one of my favorite locations from the trip so far.

I don’t mind Japanese cities, but it’s sites like this that make me love the country.

I really enjoyed the hiking trail. I have always liked nature, though I don’t get out into it as much as I would like. After spending a month in Tokyo which under the mostly grey sky was starting to feel like a literal interpretation of the title ’50 Shades of Grey’, getting far away from man-made things was a very welcome change. The map estimated the walk would take about one and a half hours, but between my photoing, stopping to explore and occasional stops at spots I liked just because, I ended up being in there for nearly 4 hours.

With 4-6 kilometers of magical path to explore, I was in a very green heaven.

Many of you who know me will know that I have a fondness of insects/bugs in general. While it was a bit early in the year for bug hunting at this point, I stumbled upon a new friend. He, like most of the path, was VERY green.

Green bug of many shines!

While he looked beautiful, he was a crotchety little fellow. Any time I came remotely near him, he decided that instead of trying to escape into the greenery, where he would be all but invisible, the best way to protect himself from this thing several hundred times his size would be to charge at it and try and eat it, or in this case, my shoe. I’m sure he could give you a nasty nip, as he left tiny marks on my shoe, but self-preservation doesn’t seem very high on his agenda. After convincing him to stop nibbling my shoe and distracting him with a nice tasty leaf, I set about trying to google what he was. I didn’t have much luck though, as “shiny green bug that likes eating shoes” isn’t much to go on.

My new friend, chilling with his lunch leaf.

Just up the road from my little 虫(Bug) friend, I came upon a clearing which is supposedly the highest spot in Kamakura. Strangely, this sign is not at the top of the hill, but at the bottom of a set of natural stairs carved into a rock face… So, either the mountain has grown, or sign positioning man takes a very “close enough is good enough” approach to his job.

Nice hand written sign… in not the right place.

Regardless of the signage (and its accuracy), though, the view was rather swell.

From here you can see what I was talking about before, with Kamakura city center being flat and located on the coast, while the surrounding area is intersected by land too steep to build on.

As you can see from the sun, it was getting late in the day. I had intended to visit a small temple at the far end of the hiking trail, but with over a kilometer to go I decided that I would be better to return for that another day. This ended up being a good plan, because just down the path I found this.

A “tea” house. If by tea you mean beer. I didn’t see any tea anywhere.

Located in the middle of the forest, with little to no access other than on foot as far as I can tell, stands a rest house/tea house run by a nice little old lady. What with it being a hot day and all, and my having had almost nothing to drink all day, I decided it would be a swell idea to drink a beer in the middle of a forest. This ended up being an even swellier idea, as not only was the beer spectacularly cheap (basically bottle store prices, about $1.80 for the can) but the lady wanted to talk with me, so I got some Japanese practice to boot. (I say Japanese, but really, my Japanese is so poor its more interpretive dance and key words when its my turn to speak.)

After this, it was getting dark at a mildly alarming rate, so I decided to head for civilisation as fast as I could before I had to sleep in a damp forest. Not much of note happened during this period, except I stumbled upon some kind of small eagle which took offense to me interrupting its river water drinky dink time and decided to swoop me. Location photo below; no photo of said bird, as I was busy fleeing!

Where I met the second grumpy animal for the day.

I escaped the forest maze finally (I say maze, but if it were a maze it would be a crummy one) and headed for the train station. Walking through the outer districts of Kamakura left a nice impression of the place with me. Its got a lot more greenery than Tokyo, and has a much more small town vibe about it too (probably because it is a fairly small town). It’s also pretty, in a suburban Japanese way. House prices here are pretty astronomical from my brief look at a realtor’s window though.

Nice road. Much green. Do like.

I shall leave you with two pictures I find amusing together. I found these two cars within a few hundred meters of each other. The first is an original Austin something or other, sorry, I don’t do old British cars. The second is a Daihatsu Gino, a Japanese Kei Car designed to look a bit like a Mini or Austin classic car, while costing a fraction of the cost to own and maintain to try and row the novelty boat and tempt buyers. While it might sound like I’m down on that idea, I’m not. Compared to most Western markets, where every car maker is competing to make the most futuristic and modern looking cars possible with little variation between brands, I think working an existing design into an oldschool throwback is a great idea. I know I would much rather drive some cooky looking retro micro hatchback than a Hyundai-Yaris-Spark….



This brings us to the end of my mad adventure in Kamakura where as usual i didn’t get to see everything i wanted to, but enjoyed myself all the more for it. Hopefully some time soon you will hear from me again with another exciting (hopefully shorter) story. But until then have fun!