KamakuraStanding amongst the delicately scented flower gardens of Kamakura, and soaking up the deep sense of history which seems to seep from every crevice of the numerous temples and shrines, it is almost impossible to believe that you are only a short hop from the bustling Tokyo metropolitan centre. A sense of peace and tranquillity hangs heavy in the air, even if you visit, as I did, during the middle of a national holiday. Kamakura, surrounded by forested mountains on three sides, and Sagami Bay on the other is one of the former capitals of Japan (1185 - 1333). Some History In 1192 Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, the leader of the house Genji, threatened the Emperor for the sovereignty to rule Japan. The Emperor assigned him Seii-tai-shogun, an emergency post with the power to command the whole military for the purpose of conquering barbarians. Theoretically speaking, the post was under the Emperor. However, in practise, a shogun could move armies without the Emperor's permission, so Minamoto-no-Yoritomo was the strongest in Japan. He established his own military government at Kamakura, independent from the Emperor and its bureaucracy in Kyoto, and named it Bakufu. This government continued to govern the whole country successfully for more than a century. Today, a trip to Kamakura is without doubt one of the few absolute 'must-do' day trips in Tokyo. It is one of the few places which lives up, if not surpasses, the guidebook hyperbole often lavished on it. Avoid the crowds and you are in for something just a little bit special. Within the city of Kamakura, there are twenty-six national, two prefectural, and nine municipal historic sites. The main attractions are close together and best be seen in a day of gentle walking. The main areas of interest are well signposted in both English and Japanese, but the Kamakura Tourist Information Centre (0467-22-3350), which is just outside Kamakura station can provide any number of detailed maps and guides and should be able to help you book accommodation. With about 70 temples and shrines, Kamakura is a challenge for even the die-hard temple-basher. If you, like myself, don't fall into this category, combining a walk past the major sites with a long relaxing lay on Kamakura's pristine beach is an ideal compromise. Engaju-ji Temple The closest railway station to the main attractions in Kamakura is Kita Kamakura. Turning left out of the station takes you to the Engaju-ji temple. This is perhaps one of the nicest temples in Kamakura, if not Japan and even has enough charm to refresh the jaded 'temple bashers' palate. It is one of the five main Rinzai Zen temples in Kamakura. Rinzai is a school of Buddhism which started about 1000 years ago and is still practised in Japan today. Originally built in 1282 as a temple for the souls of the Japanese who had died repelling the Mongol hordes of Kublai Khan, it was given the name Engaju after the sutra of perfect enlightenment which is enshrined in the temple precincts. The temple has been ravaged by fire on several occasions, but each time it has been lovingly reconstructed to retrain the austere atmosphere which is essential to the Zen way of life. Entrance to the temple is through the San-mon gate. This gate, which was rebuilt in 1783 and is adorned with framed calligraphy of the Emperor Fushimi, is a fitting reminder of the former magnificence and antiquity of this peaceful temple. Climbing higher into the temple precincts, past pungent flower gardens and sensually sculptured willow trees leads to the Engaku-ji bell. This bell, which was cast in 1301 is the oldest bell in Kamakura and is symbolic of the style and accomplishment of the Kamakuran period artists. In addition to the tranquil gardens, the temple also offers a number of Zen meetings throughout the year. These range from daily Zen meetings (5.30-6.30am each morning), to weekend Zen society meetings (5pm Saturday) and an intensive course which takes place in July. Further details can be obtained on 0467-22-0478. Tokei-ji Temple Opposite the Engaju-ji temple is the Tokei-ji temple. This is a wonderfully understated temple, quite different in character to the Engaju-ji Temple. The relaxing and well planned grounds previously formed a refuge for abused women. The women, after spending three years here, could then be officially recognised as divorced. Entrance to this serene temple, which is often neglected by the main tourist parties, is ¥100. I spent a quiet and relaxing hour soaking up the ambience here surrounded by a gaggle of Japanese housewifes who decked out in the latest fashions and all clutching their mobile phones seemed a long way away from previous inhabitants. Kencho-ji Temple Continuing my way towards the town centre, I reached the Kencho Ji Temple. This is ranked as the most important of the five great Zen temples in Kamakura, and that alone, makes it worth the visit. Originally, the temple consisted of 7 main buildings and 49 subtemples, but most of these were destroyed in a series of fires during the 14th and 15th centuries. At present the temple complex contains about 10 subtemples, and a handful of buildings which were restored in the Tokugawa period. Entrance to the temple is through an impressively carved gate. Legend has it that a badger, in order to repay the kindness shown to him by the local priests, helped construct the temple by turning himself into a monk. Inscribed close to the temple entrance is the legend 'If you have lost your true self, all phenomena bring you nothing but annoyance. If you discover your essence of mind, you can follow nothing but the true path'. Which is the doctrine taught by the Daikaku Zenji, the founder of the temple, and good advice for today?s stressed out day tripper. Passing through perfumed flower gardens and juniper bushes, whose seeds were brought from China over 700 years ago, leads to the Butsuden (Buddha Hall) and the Karamon (Chinese Gate). Both of these structures, which are classified as culturally important were moved piece by piece to their present location in 1647. The temple also contains an charming garden which features a pond in the shape of the Japanese characters representing 'mind'. The pond is know as the 'Shinji Ike', or mind-character pond. Hachiman-gu Shrine In contrast to the tranquil, almost dreamy atmosphere of the Kenhoji and Tokei-ji temples, the Hachiman-gu Shinto shrine is consumerism in your face and bustling with hawkers, souvenir sellers and fortune tellers. It is Japan inc. at its busiest and most appealing and a million miles away from the Western idea of a place of worship. Close to the entrance of the shrine is a gingko tree beneath which it is said that a famous political assassination was carried out in 1219. Close to this is an arched bridge which was designated as the crossing place for the Shogun and no-one else. Today, it is generally alive with tourists and the click of cameras. The Great Buddha This bronze statue of Amita Buddha, which is worshipped by the followers of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism as a saviour, was cast in 1252 and is Kamakura's most important, and therefore crowded, tourist site. Once housed in a huge hall, the statue today sits in the open, its home having been washed away by a tsunami in 1495. Cast in bronze and weighing close to 850 tonnes, the statue is 13.35 metres tall. The latest repairs to the Buddha were completed in 1960. These strengthened the neck and made it possible for the Buddha's body to move freely on the base to prevent a damaging shock to the statue in case of an earthquake. Equally as impressive as the statue itself are the statue's slippers which can be found on display in the compound. Hase-dera Temple Close to the Great Buddha, but less crowded, is the Hase-dera temple. The patron saint of this temple is Jizo, who is the guardian of the souls of departed children. Near to the entrance, lined up like school children on parade are a number of statues dedicated to Jizo. These are often clothed by local women who have lost children through abortion or miscarriage and come to the statutes to offer prayers for their loved ones. The main point of interest is however, the Kannon statue. Kannon, the goddess of mercy, is the bodhisvatta of infinite compassion and along with Jizo is one of Japan's most enduring and popular Buddhist deities. The nine metre wooden carved, 11 faced Kannon here is believed to be very very old, and dates from about the 8th century. The 11 faces are actually one major face and 10 minor ones which represent the 10 stages of enlightenment. It is commonly believed that the 11 faces allow Kannon to keep a watchful eye on people in peril in all directions.
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Published on 8/26/02