Vibrant, fast-paced Tokyo is renowned the world over, but visitors in Japan looking for a more laid-back destination can head to the seaside town of Kamakura.
Just a 45-minute train ride from Tokyo via the JR Yokosuka line, Kamakura was recommended by my Japan-based relatives. It was a good way to gain a perspective of Japan’s samurai-steeped history, they said.
Kamakura was the political centre of Japan some 800 years ago, hence the many shrines dedicated to Japanese deities.
As I arrived at Kamakura train station from Tokyo, I saw many young rickshaw runners. Intrigued, I decided to try one out.
Taking a rickshaw run by a young man will set you back ¥7,000 (RM276.76) if the ride is longer than 30 minutes. That aside, it was a good decision to go with the rickshaw. I saw a side of Kamakura that is seldom seen by tourists. Tsubasa, my runner who was a 20-year-old Toyo University student, used routes that ran through the quaint neighbourhood, instead of the touristy walkways.
Almost every house in Kamakura had a style of its own. Everything was custom-designed, be it the roof, the tiling on the walls or the entrance. As my rickshaw went past, it was fun to peer into the houses and catch a glimpses of the residents preparing lunch.
After a 30-minute rickshaw ride, I looked up and saw the Great Buddha or Daibutsu. It is known as the Great Buddha not only for its size — it is 13.35m tall and weighs 100 tonnes — but also because it survived the tsunami of 1498 that washed away the hall it was originally enshrined in. The statue sits in the open now. It is also a symbol of resilience for the Japanese.
Cast in 1252, Daibutsu was reconstructed in 1498. It rests on a flexible base that helps it to withstand the swaying and rocking caused by heavy storms. For about ¥100, you can enter the statue and see how Daibutsu’s internal structure was reinforced after the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923.
Remembering the children
Walk five minutes to the west from Daibutsu and you’ll reach the scenic Hasedera Temple. Hase means west, while Dera means temple.
As you enter the compound, koi ponds framed by magnolias, azaleas and cherry trees greet you after you pay the admission fee of ¥300. The gardens in this temple are famous for their huge hydrangeas. Tsubasa had earlier informed me that the blooms get their pink, purple and blue hues from the acidity in the soil.
Legend has it that if you spot three sets of Jizo (a bodhisattva who has achieved enlightenment but postponed buddhahood until all can be saved) in different parts of the gardens, you would marry your true love. Some Japanese women were looking for them when I was there.
It was also common to see Jizo statues dressed in children’s clothing and bibs, and holding toys and flowers. Jizo are believed to be the protectors of children, and this has led parents to make offerings to the Jizo figures, in the hope that they would comfort and guide the souls of stillborn and aborted babies to paradise.
Once you pass the Jizo terraces and climb the stairs up Mount Kannon, a large temple comes into view. This essential stop for Buddhist devotees houses the 9m, 11-faced Kannon — what Chinese know as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy.
The view by the gardens is perfect for reflecting on the temple experience as you get a bird’s-eye view of Yuigahama Beach and Sugiyama Bay.
As you descend Mount Kannon, you’ll come across Benten-do, a small hall that houses Benzaiten, the goddess of beauty and wealth. But the intriguing sight to explore is the small, dark cave next to it. Despite its unwelcoming appearance, it has a small river and a bridge within.
You’ll want to stop by the winter-melon ice cream shop outside Hasedera. The must-eat dessert is perfect for cooling down, especially if you are visiting Kamakura in spring or summer. From the ice cream shop, the monorail station is a 10-minute walk away, which will bring you back to the Kamakura train station.
Back at the Kamakura train station, I followed the crowd and walked 10 minutes to Kamakura’s main shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu. It is known as one of the more significant Shinto shrines in eastern Japan as this was where the shogun leadership, the basis of Japan’s politics, began.
Before reaching Hachiman-gu, however, the road meandered through Komachi Dori, a narrow pedestrian street lined with souvenir and craft shops, boutiques, food stalls and shops. There, I spotted Tsubasa again, who told me that it was a good idea to visit Hachiman-gu and pray for good things.
My search for Hachiman-gu was over when I saw a huge, red torii gate. There is a stage at the bottom of Hachiman-gu known as The Maiden, which was at that moment, hosting a wedding ceremony. While I couldn’t see the couple clearly, it made my visit to the shrine feel auspicious. At the temple, you can ask for a temple lot for a nominal fee of ¥100.
Kamakura is filled with picturesque scenery and if you like nature or are in search of spiritual solace, it will not disappoint.