A Nearby Escape
I asked for recommendations on nearby adventures from Tokyo. Everything near and far was offered up: what to see in Tokyo, somewhere closer to Mt Fuji, Niigata, and a few others. Eventually, my colleagues settled on Kamakura as an ideal day trip. So, early in the morning, I set off on the JR Keiyō line for Tokyo station where I switched to the Yokosuka line for Kamakura. I got off at the very small Kamakura station and just started walking. My colleague and good friend, Charlie, told me not to miss Hase-dera, so I sort of wandered in that direction but ended up walking towards the spectacular and relatively abandoned beach where seaweed dried in the spring sunlight.
Kamakura was once the de-facto capital of Japan from 1185 to 1333. Today, the town is peaceful and indistinguishable to an outsider as anything more than another small beach-front town. Underneath the surface, there’s a long and rich history hiding almost in plain sight. Only an hour or so outside of Tokyo with one of Japan’s rare un-concreted beaches, Kamakura is a popular weekend destination, but in mid-March, it wasn’t too crowded.
The one place I was instructed to absolutely not miss was Hasedera, so I made it the first proper stop of the day. Hase-dera is a Buddhist temple set against a hill just above the beach. The temple became significant during the Kamakura period, though legend has it that it was initially established in the 700’s CE. As it was the start of spring, the Sakura were all in bloom along with a host of other types of flowers. The temple grounds were peaceful and beautiful, allowing plenty of time for reflection and peace. The views over the city give a sense of why this town with its protected and large beach developed so long ago as a major settlement and why today it’s so popular.
While the temple itself was started a long time ago and has a long history, it’s been well-maintained and updated over time. Many small Buddhas decorate the slope as one wanders up the hill towards what is considered the main attraction, the Kannon Buddha. The Kannon Buddha at Hasedera is a towering, carved wood statue with 11 heads to represent the phases of enlightenment. While the statue is remarkable and massive, I was actually more struck by the overall setting of the temple as I wandered the grounds. The gardens and small statues blending with the architecture.
Kamakura Great Buddha (鎌倉大仏)
Another major attraction in Kamakura is the Kamakura Great Buddha, which ia an impressive and massive Bronze Buddha from 1252 CE. Just up the street and around the corner from Hase-dera, it was the natural next stop. After entering the temple grounds—the statue is inside of a temple called Kotoku-in (高徳院)—I waited in a line to go into the interior of the statue. For a giant bronze statue built in the 1200’s, the scale, level of complexity, and quality of the metal work was astounding.
Wandering Aimlessly on the Forest Path
From the great buddha statue, I started walking further up the road and towards a trail I saw indicated on the map. I decided to leave Kamakura for Tokyo from Kita-Kamakura station and wander through the forest to get there. Off the beaten path, I started to discover for the first time that Japan is just as full of shinto shrines, small temples, and unexpected torii outside of the main sites as it is in the well-known areas. Wandering through the forest, I came upon a wide variety of unexpected sites and beautiful and serene temples and shrines.
One often reads from an American perspective about the mystical or mysterious nature of Japan. While urban Japan is sort of shabby in many ways, it is in the near-urban and countryside Japan that one actually finds physical places that demonstrate that sense.
Kamakura in spring is filled with marvelous textures that I’ve captured below.