Until early February I had never heard of Kamakura, a sleepy beach town about 90 minutes south of Tokyo. But Alice had visited 30ish years ago and highly recommended it. Between that, its proximity to the big city and our desire to do more than just the cities it became the first stop on the trip and it exceeded expectations at nearly every turn. The town was, many years ago, the center of life in Japan. It served as the seat of government during the Shogun era spanning the 12th – 14th centuries and that brought about construction of many temples in the area. A number were damaged or destroyed over the intervening years and the migration of the government to Kyoto and then to Edo (Tokyo) left the city in a bit of a decline for hundreds of years. But the introduction of train service connecting Kamakura to Tokyo revived the city, making it a recreation destination for urbanites and delivering tourists in masses.
Our visit was somewhat atypical in that it included an overnight; most visitors come for the day from Tokyo and return back that evening. We had the pleasure of exploring the town before the first train-bound guests arrived and of walking the quiet streets after the others had left. It was definitely a different scene compared to the day tripper version. We also benefited from the services of the Kamakura Welcome Guides Association (“KWGA”). I reached out via email a few weeks before our arrival and coordinated a free, half-day tour with an English-speaking local. In our case Junko spent about 3 hours with us, making sure we got on the correct buses and that we learned a bit of history along with our tour. She also provided much needed translation services with a local artisan along the way.
Hokokuji (Bamboo) Temple
Our first stop in the morning was a short bus ride out of town at the Hokokuji Temple. Apparently I chose this when selecting an itinerary from the list offered by the KWGA. I have no memory of that and it wasn’t no purpose but I’m very, very glad I made the choice. We were the only visitors and had the massive bamboo grove to ourselves. And it was not massive in the sense of its expanse but the height. The individual stalks were huge.
The rock gardens were also rather pleasing.
This was a good introduction to the temple culture in town and also an easing in to the spiritual side of the trip. Which was good because our next stop was one of the largest temple sites we would visit in Japan.
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shinto Shrine
Located in the heart of Kamakura town and also the largest Shinto shrine in the region, this site dominated our morning as well. The approach to the shrine is along the main road of town, with three Torii Gates connecting the waterfront to the Shrine. Before making it to the main shrine structure we visited one of the smaller shrines on an island just off to the side of the site. All around the grounds here were prayer flags. Our guide explained that they were placed by one of the local monks at the request of visitors mourning the loss of family members. Given the recent passing of my grandmother-in-law it made quite a bit of sense for her son, my father-in-law, to have one of the flags placed in her honor at the site.
This is where the translation help from our guide was exceptionally useful. I’m pretty sure we would have never figured that out without her. And it was a wonderful moment to be able to honor Alice at a location she had such fond memories of from years ago.
The rest of the visit to the site was pleasant as well, though this was a much busier and more crowded site which comes with the size.
We did manage to find a few quiet moments, even with the crowds.
At this point our guide left us on our own to explore the town and other temple sites. It was a wonderful entrée to the city and the country overall. Much better for our group to ease in slowly than dive right in to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo on this trip.
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