Monday, 10 March 2014

Adventures in Tokyo, Day Two


Despite serious snow warnings for the day, the morning dawned bright and clear. Unsure that we’d get another perfect day like this, we decided to take our trip to the old capitol of Japan, Kamakura, while we still could.

Buddha statue at a shrine in Kita-Kamakura

Little Buddhas hiding in the grass and bamboo.
Between a late start, losing our way on our way to the station and the hour-long train journey, we did not reach our destination until midday. Kita-Kamakura is the last stop before Kamakura on the train line and the tutors told us to start our day here because of the particularly beautiful temples in the town.

Before I go on however, I need to quickly say just how wonderful the Japanese Rail trains are. They are clean, they are quiet and they have heated seats! The heated seats in particular were a godsend on evenings when everything ached from walking all day. I will miss those trains dearly!

The first shrine we came to was very small and I don’t even know the name of it. Stairs lead up the hill to the typical shrine ‘gateway’ at the entrance. The shrine was incredibly tranquil with bamboo growing around the edges of gravestones and little Buddha statues hiding in the grass. The shrine afforded a lovely view of the area too; the town sits in a bowl-like valley with the train line running directly through the middle. Among the trees on the slopes are temples, distinguishable from a distance by their traditional roofs and large Buddha statues.

The sanmon (main gate).
The main attraction in Kita-Kamakura was the Engaku-ji Temple, the head temple of the Engakuji sect. The entrance was a short distance down the road from the train station; an arched bridge over a pond before a stairway up into the trees, but the temple grounds extended way up into the hills.

The sanmon (main gate) is the first building you come to upon entering the temple. It sits in a central courtyard, towering over everything else. To the left of the courtyard is a building in which archery lessons were being held. Various men and women were dressed in traditional costume and testing their bows before being led out onto an archery field by their sensei.

Hoken Shaka Nyorai.
Behind the samon is the butsuden (main hall), dedicated to Hoken Shaka Nyorai, the principle object of worship of Engakuji. This was the first place of many where we paid our respects in the traditional fashion as instructed; after throwing a coin into the donation box you slightly bow once, deeply bow twice, clap twice, deeply bow once more and then one last, shallow bow.

Walking the paths up the hill we passed many more buildings. The experience was almost surreal; the snow swept to the edges of the paths gave the place a quiet, muffled feeling; a few early cherry blossom trees were in bloom, orange trees were in fruit and the sound of water could be heard from an unseen source. Stairs were cut into a cliff behind the buildings and from the top there was a lovely view of the temple rooftops. The grass on the cliff made a sound like cicadas in the wind and the melting snow on the roofs fell to the floor in musical drips.

View of the temple rooftops.
At the highest point of the temple grounds stands the national treasure, Ogane (grand bell). It was cast by Hojo Sadatoki in the 3rd year of the Shoan Era (1301), after he confined himself in Enoshima’s Benzaiten, a shrine dedicated to the goddess of wealth and wisdom, to pray for world peace and welfare of all the people. Behind the bell is a graveyard and we agreed that to have your ashes rest at this place would be quite something.

Pulling ourselves away from the temple, we made our way to Kamakura where we enjoyed chocolate and custard-filled fish-shaped pancakes from a stall while we decided on a route to get to the Great Buddha. Somehow, despite planning, we managed to take a very scenic route to the Buddha (getting lost became a little bit of a theme throughout the trip!). Taking the long way around did however allow us to walk through neighbourhoods that we would have otherwise missed and to see a little into the lives and culture of the Japanese, off the beaten tourist-trail.

The Great Buddha, Kamakura.
When we finally reached the Buddha, we were suitably impressed. At roughly 44ft tall and weighing in at 121t, it is certainly striking! The thing that really got me though was the pair of to-scale sandals for the Buddha, hanging on the wall of the building around the statue, apparently waiting for him to stand up and walk. We took this opportunity to rest our tired feet and enjoyed the sight of the sun setting over the hills before we had to leave for closing time.

Feet still sore, we made our tired way back to the station, getting lost again. Getting lost worked to our advantage again however as we saw the wonderful sight of Kamakura lighting up for evening shoppers and restaurant-goers. Needless to say though that we were glad when we finally reached the hotel. Unlike the first night, we managed to stay up a little upon getting back and got to know each other better over hotel sushi.