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I have a Japanese friend from university whom has known about my love of Japanese culture since I first tried to show off my basic Japanese to her. When I excitedly announced that my cousin and I were going to Japan this summer, she happily said that we should meet up, along with my sister (who has been studying in Japan over the past year)- either around Tokyo, or at her home town of Kamakura. At the time, I wasn't really aware of how great a destination Kamakura was for tourists. However, after visiting the town with my cousin and sister at my friend's behest, it certainly proved itself an interesting place and offers something different from the busy streets of Tokyo or other big cities in Japan.
==---Kamakura: The Facts---==
Located about an hour away from central Tokyo, Kamakura is a not-quite rural seaside town on Japan's east coast. It holds some historical importance as a former capital and political center between the 12th and 14th century. Nowadays Kamakura is a popular tourist destination for its temples, shrines and sandy beaches. Arguably it is very similar to Kyoto (except for the beaches) in terms of the sights you can see, and just by wondering around the city I could enjoy the break from the concrete jungle of Tokyo.
==---Getting There & Around---==
Kamakura is easily reachable from any of Tokyo's central stations on either the Yokosuka or Shonan Shinjuku lines (both of which a JR pass is valid on).
There are three important stations within Kamakura: as well as the main Kamakura Station, Kita-Kamakura ("Kita" means "North", and is an earlier stop on the train lines if you're arriving from Tokyo) is the best place to access some shrines that aren't within the town center, while Hase Station is best for accessing the Great Buddha and the beach. Getting around Kamakura is relatively simple as the town isn't that big and most places of interest were in reasonable walking distance or accessible via the two mentioned JR lines or the Enoden Electric Railway. There are also city buses and taxis as well, but I cannot comment on those since using the trains and walking appeared to be much cheaper.
The first place we visited upon meeting my friend at Kita-Kamakura station was this temple, as it was located the closest to her place. Engakuji is one of the largest and most important Zen temples in Japan and has a history going back to the 13th century. It is open all year round between 8am-5pm and only costs ¥200 (about £1.40 by the current exchange rate) to enter.
As with many other temples in the country, the historical buildings making up the temple are nice, but what really caught my attention was the wildlife and plants, since the temple is built into the hills. If I had gone in spring or autumn Engakuji would have looked even better as there are many maple trees over the place, but even in summer the place is still impressive and I took some lovely photos from the top of the temple hills.
The best bit of my time here is more due to my friend's connections than anything, but still a great experience. My friend has an acquaintance who works as an assistant monk of sorts at Engakuji, and he was able to arrange a little meal of green tea and Japanese style sweets at the teahouse! I believe the same opportunity is on offer to tourists if interested, although it isn't publicized as the teahouse is located at the top of the shrine hill.
==---Hachimangu: The Main Shrine---==
After going down the main streets of Kamakura main shopping area and having lunch, we then proceeded to the Hachimangu Shrine. Built in the 11th century, Hachimangu is the town's biggest and most important shrine. There is a long, straight path from the town center leading to the shrine, bordered by a row of trees (which, again, would've been nicer to see in spring with the cherry blossoms). The shrine hall is at the top of a long flight of steps and looks very grand and impressive. Whilst I prefer the scenery of Engakuji, the size and scale of Hachimangu also makes it a worthwhile visit in a country teeming with temples. It is also free to enter and has long opening hours (5am-9pm in the summer).
==---Daibutsu: Kamakura's Main Spectacle---==
In English, the Daibutsu refers to the 'Great Buddha'. This is Kamakura's most famous attraction and the one thing I definitely wanted to see through my limited research about the town. Standing in the open grounds of Kotokuin Temple, the Great Buddha statue is made of bronze and over 13 metres high. It has been preserved well and looks magnificent.
Entry to Kotokuin Temple (between 8am-5.30pm in the summer) costs 200 yen and it hosts a few other temple buildings you'd come to expect to see in a Japanese style temple. For a further 20 yen however, you can actually enter inside the statue through the back of the. A small, narrow flight of steps takes you to the Daibutsu's hollow interior. Admittedly it's dark and there is not much to see but more stone, but there is a plaque explaining in both Japanese and English how the Daibutsu was constructed, which may prove interesting for some.
We walked about 25 minutes from the Daibutsu to Yugihama beach. Although the beach was very busy as per summer, I noted that the beach was very clean and there was still plenty of space to sit down and/or pitch a tent. It provides some lovely views out towards the sea and I imagine it would be nice to sit down watch the sunset. Otherwise, the beach reminded me of those back in the UK; there isn't anything that really stands out about Kamakura's beaches except that they are in Japan and much cleaner!
==---A worthwhile trip? ---==
Overall, Kamakura is a great day out for those looking for a more rural/old-fashioned side of Japan but who don't have the time to travel to Kyoto. However if you get bored of temples easily or aren't interested in that side of Japan at all then Kamakura doesn't really have anything to offer you except some peace and quiet. There is nothing that would make you want to stay longer than a day either; the town center is rather small and ordinary with the most interesting shops being souvenir ones.
Nevertheless, what Kamakura does have to offer are some beautiful shrines and temples as well as the awe-inspiring Buddha statue. With cheap entry fees to attractions and good transport links I certainly recommend this town as a sidetrip to anyone coming to Japan. My sister and I really enjoyed myself and learning about the history of some of the shrines/temples (courtesy of my friend) proved more interesting than I expected.My review has only covered some of the sights in the city (albeit the most important ones), so be sure to look into Kamakura some more and see if any of the other shrines and temples around catch your fancy.
Thanks for reading!
Kamakura is a beautiful seaside town about an hours train ride from Tokyo. It boasts the must see tourist attraction of the Daibatsu (Giant Buddha) which is nearly 12 metres tall and weighs over 800 tonnes! The statue sits out in the open and costs about 200yen (about £1) to gain entrance to the grounds. A further small charge can then be paid to actually walk inside the huge bronze structure! The surrounding gardens are pleasant enough, but most of your camera memory will be filled with images of the hugh Buddha from various angles.
Just down the road from the Daibatsu is Hase-Dera which is an expanse of gardens and temples to visit. It quite eerily houses a number of statues of children whose souls have departed. Also present within the grounds is another impressive image, the carved 9 metre high deity Kannon. It is believed to be dated back to the 8th century and has 11 faces. Beware, in both this and many of the other temples, photographs are not allowed!
We walked to both locations from the town centre on a baking hot day and I can recommend NOT doing this if you are not reasonably fit! There are various buses that can be caught from the town centre to the attractions but I would avoid the taxis which are quite franky, a rip off!
There are various other smaller less significant sights in the area, but the above two are the main ones and can be easily explored in half a day. Kamakura is a beautiful little seaside town, we even saw a crab waddling down the road at one point, if a little scant on attractions after you've seen the above two. We stayed there one night and I think that is about right if you're travelling around the country.
Kamakura was a capital from which the Minamoto clan, and subsequently the Hojo clan, ruled Japan from the 12th- 14th century. It is regarded as one of the most culturally rewarding day trips from Tokyo that you can take, and although there is enough to fill an entire day we chose to make it a half day trip. Kamakura's position on the outskirts of Tokyo means that it managed to avoid being totally flattened by Allied bombing during the Second World War, and for this reason we decided to restrict our shrine and temple visits to the best that Kamakura had to offer. (This seemed necessary after we had been spoilt by all the marvellous shrines in Kyoto.) GETTING THERE Kamakura is reached by JR train (taking 50 minutes from Tokyo and approximately 800 Yen) into Kitakamakura or Kamakura station. I would suggest coming into Kamakura as there is a small tourist information centre where you will be able to buy a small English guide for 200 Yen; which is pretty much necessary as signs in English are sporadic. ATTRACTIONS The following descriptions are the shrines that we decided we most wanted to see. As Kamakura does have a great deal to offer, I would suggest reading the 200 Yen booklet and map in order to decide what most interests you. Daibutsu (200 Yen to see, additional 20 Yen to go inside) This Great Buddha is certainly an impressive sight, at an impressive 37 feet tall. Apparently the Buddha was originally gilded and contained within a large temple, but this was destroyed due to a tidal wave and typhoon with the Buddha also surviving an earthquake. I have to very strange and slightly unique experience. As far as I know, this is the only Buddha that you can actually go inside - truly bizarre! (Buses are available from the station to the shrine.) Enno-ji (200 Yen) This temple can be reached from the opposite side of Kamakura station to Daibatsu and takes you along a pleasant walk with souvenir shops se
lling ice cream and roasted chestnuts. This temple depicts the Hindu deity Emma (also known as Yama) and the various judges of hell. The ferocious face of the red faced Emma and the various expressions of the judges make it a little bit different to many of the other temples that you may see. Unfortunately the Japanese seem to assume that foreign visitors will not be interested in this shrine (or 'ji') as it is not marked in English - from your map you should be able to tell which it is though. Tokei-ji (200 Yen entry, 300 Yen for the little museum) This was one of the most peaceful shrines I saw in Japan, but it wasn't for main attraction, but for the stone Buddha that greets you walk towards as you enter. Set against the foliage of the attractive gardens it was a truly beautiful and serene sight, with a strangely attractive cemetery set against the hillside that is definitely worth a wander. The little museum attached to the shrine is also very interesting. They provide an excellent English language leaflet that really helps to put things in context. Apparently this shrine used to be a nunnery which Japanese women could run to if they wanted a divorce, all they needed to do was stay at the nunnery for three years. Engaku-ji This shrine is close to Kitakamakura station, and encloses some wonderful grounds. Take a walk up the hillside to see the enormous bell - you'll probably need the refreshments at the top by the time you get there! (We avoided these as they looked at little expensive.) The shrines were founded for Zen monks to pray for the soldiers who had died defending Japan against the Kublai Khan. FOOD AND ACCOMMODATION IN KAMAKURA I would suggest visiting Kamakura for a day trip rather than staying there overnight as the town is very small and did not appear to have many places to eat and drink. GENERAL INFORMATION JAPANESE FOOD [Apologies - I have used similar sections on Kyoto a
nd Osaka] Sushi, tako-yaki (battered balls containing octopus), okonomi-yaki (a fried batter with seafood, vegetables and a special sauce that varies from region to region), tempura - the list of great food goes on. The only thing that I would avoid is Oden which is a variety of fried food. The main problem with it is that it is often reconstituted fish which I found soggy and tasteless, even if it is cheap. You'll probably find that lunchtimes are the ones you want a light snack. Convenience stores such as Lawsons and Seven Elevens seem to crop up everywhere. One of my particular favourites are triangles of rice wrapped in seaweed with fillings such as tuna (generally the blue label one!) Although eating food on the street is frowned on a little. Different flavours of ice cream such as sweet potato and green tea are a refreshing change, along with a snack that contains similarities with slush puppies - ice flakes that have flavoured syrup poured over them. Vending machines are found everywhere, including inside temple areas and have a variety of drinks you won't find easily in the United Kingdom, such as Melon or Grape soda (although I've since heard that it is possible to get these in Chinese speciality shops). There are also vending machines selling hot tea and coffee in cans. MONEY IN KAMAKURA As Kamakura is relatively small, I would suggest taking enough money to cover yourself for the day. JAPANESE PEOPLE Provided you nod (a greeting and sign of respect in Japan) to everyone, the people are infinitely helpful. There is a great urge to understand that can bridge the language gap. Although I would suggest that you take a good phrase book with the phrases written in the Japanese script as well as written phonetically in English, these basic words might be quite useful: Arigato gozaimasu - formal thank you Domo - informal thank you, excuse me Dozo - please Sumimase
n - excuse me Sugoi - great Egoi - English Hai - yes As well as being very forgiving of the English not knowing their language, I found the Japanese to be incredibly helpful and friendly often volunteering help if they think you are having problems - although you should expect to be laughed at a little or questioned about England. The laughter tends to disguise their shyness but is preferable to being scowled at as I think the English are particularly prone to do. It really is incredibly surprising how a little good will and a genuine interest in communicating can really bridge the language gap! _________________________________________________________ This trip was taken in August 2004. At this time of year Japan is very hot with Kamakura being particularly humid. If you have fair skin it is essential that you use suntan lotion even when it is overcast. (That's the one time I got burnt!) The exchange rate was: 197.245 Yen to the pound.