Above: Overlooking a seaside neighborhood in Kamakura.
It’s a place of serene temples and beautiful scenery—and it’s just down the tracks from Tokyo
By Charles Foran
The sight is unforgettable: rows of doll-size stone statues, many attired in red bibs, like uniformed schoolchildren at assembly. Thousands of these figures crowd a platform on the grounds of Hasedera temple, in the hills outside the seaside town of Kamakura. They represent the bodhisattva Jizo, guardian deity of children, but to the eye and heart the statues stand in for the children themselves: tiny and vulnerable, needing our care.
Japan generally keeps its emotions private. It can be a society of shuttered windows and lowered blinds, of politeness as a mask for other feelings. The Jizo images are a rare shared intimacy. Some are venerated by expectant mothers, who make offerings in the hope of the safe delivery of their children. Others, particularly at Hasedera, are dedicated in memory of stillborn, miscarried, or aborted fetuses—known here as mizuko, or “water children”—to guide their spirits into paradise. Those statues, often capped with woolen baby bonnets, can be heartbreaking to look at—a personal loss made public.
I first encountered the Jizo of Kamakura a decade ago. Standing before the ranks of serene little faces—a narrow pond separates them from visitors—I felt momentarily welcomed into the country’s interior life. I never forgot the sweet expressions worn by the statues, or the peaceful setting at Hasedera. These things spoke of a place far removed from the neon flash, clamorous arcades, and pachinko parlors of modern Japan.
Back in Kamakura again, and once more pouring a ladle of water over a guardian statue to show my respect, I decide that the town is itself an expression of a different, deeper nation. It may even be a waking dream of that “other” Japan, a realm of temples, gardens, order, serenity, and timelessness. And yet, improbably, it’s just an hour’s train ride southwest of frenetic Tokyo.
From 1192 until 1333, feudal Japan was governed by a shogunate based in Kamakura, a natural fortress protected on three sides by hills and by the sea on the fourth. By way of a legacy, Kamakura boasts 19 Shinto shrines and 65 Buddhist temples, some in town, most nestled on the wooded slopes surrounding it. Zen Buddhism reached Japan at the end of the 12th century, and its appeal among the samurai class of the Kamakura Shogunate ensured that the aesthetic elegance of Zen would leave its own mark. Kita-Kamakura, an especially tranquil and leafy district, is home to the “five great” temples of this most austere expression of faith. Greatest among them is Engaku-ji, founded in 1282.
For Japanese devotees, the modest bridge to Engaku-ji—literally crossing a pond and railway tracks but metaphorically serving as a passage from the real world to the spiritual—must be traversed at least once in one’s lifetime. Likewise, a viewing of the Daibutsu is obligatory. Cast in 1252, this is a 14-meter-tall bronze statue of the Amida Buddha, sitting cross-legged on a base lately provided with shock absorbers to protect it from earthquakes. The Daibutsu is Kamakura’s most popular site. Combined with a visit to nearby Hasedera (home also to a revered eighth-century statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, fashioned from a single piece of camphor wood) it offers spiritual nourishment aplenty for a day-tripper from Tokyo.
But for those willing to further crowd their itinerary, Kamakura has much more to offer. My own visit starts at dawn at Kita-Kamakura Station, one suburban train stop north of Kamakura proper. Too early for the temples—most open at 8 a.m. and close at 4 p.m.—I watch as a phalanx of young monks prepare for visitors, the only sound being their wood sandals clacking on the stone steps. Older men sweep the sidewalks outside with handmade brooms.
The quiet deepens further during a hike through the hills. Following the Great Buddha Hiking Trail, I spend an hour negotiating the vaulting trees and bobtail cats of the few smaller temples spaced along the route. The walk is demanding—the slopes are severe, hiding abrupt gullies—but meditative and pleasant nonetheless. Less serene is the eerie caw-caw! of giant black crows. Though they mostly keep to the high branches overhead, the sharp-beaked birds are notorious for thieving food straight out of one’s hand. Signs at several picnic areas warn of the threat.
After visiting the Daibutsu and Hasedera, I wander down to the ocean through narrow streets of shops and traditional houses. These laneways put to mind the settings for the films of the great director Yasujiro Ozu, who lived in Kamakura until his death in 1963. Ozu’s movies explored simple, eternal themes: the cycle of life and the passing of the seasons; generational conflict and the stresses of modern society. Along Yuigahama Beach is a sight I imagine the filmmaker would have appreciated: surfers, mostly young men in wetsuits, riding their boards atop the lethargic waves rolling in across Sagami Bay from the Pacific.
Downtown Kamakura offers similarly gentle contrasts. Its main thoroughfare, Wakamiya-oji, runs on either side of a pedestrian pathway embowered by trees that attract their own kind of worshipper during cherry-blossom season. While the boulevard’s sidewalks are lined with brand-name shops, at the top of the street is the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu, a shrine dating from 1063. Popular especially for its lotus ponds, the structure features a covered podium in its central square where traditional wedding ceremonies are performed. I stand off to one side watching a couple enact Shinto nuptials—the groom in a black kimono, the bride covered head to toe in a white uchikake kimono. Strange, arresting music on flute and drums fills the air.
The whole day is like this in Kamakura: a mix of the ancient and the spiritual, the modern and the secular, all in close proximity a microcosm of Japan itself. Two moments in different temples stand out. At the area’s oldest shrine, the Sugimoto-dera, founded in 734, a steep climb up from a busy street is rewarded with a half hour of solitude among faded Kannon statues. In contrast, elegant Hokoku-ji is crowded with visitors who pay to sip green tea and gaze out at the temple’s famous bamboo grove. Rather than sit, I wander the grove, listening to the squeak of the bamboo trunks rubbing against each other and admiring the deep sway of the upper reaches of the trees as they bend in a high wind.
The next morning, I arrive back at Engaku-ji just as the ticket seller is opening for business. Studded with simple, beautiful buildings designed, like all Zen structures, to empty the mind of distractions, the temple grounds narrow as they climb a slope, penetrating deep into the hillside. The outside world quickly recedes the farther in one walks, with only the distant whistle of the train, shrill and clear as the cawing of those crows, as a reminder. Of those climbing the path with me, most are monks. But a few are elderly Japanese tourists on a literary pilgrimage. They have come to view a thatched sub-temple called Butsunichian, which set the scene for Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari’s beloved 1949 novel Thousand Cranes.
My ultimate destination is harder to find. The cemetery is located deep inside Engaku-ji, near the largest temple bell in all Kamakura. Nestled among the simple steles and headstones is a dark granite block notable for the bottles of sake (and on the day of my visit, a can of beer) placed before it.
The grave is unmarked, save for an ideogram etched deep into the stone. In lieu of his name, or the dates of his lifetime, that “most Japanese” of filmmakers, Yasujiro Ozu—an admirer, apparently, of good sake—insisted that the character mu (?) be his only epitaph. Often translated as “nothingness,” the elusive Zen concept of mu embodies what a practitioner hopes to attain: a sense of the perpetual flux of things, and how nothing goes unchanged. It describes the underlying emotion of Ozu’s films, and it describes how Kamakura, a waking dream of Japan past and present, can affect someone, even if just for one day. Absorbed in the moment, I repeat the gesture I made 24 hours earlier in another temple across the valley, filling a wooden ladle with water. This I pour over Ozu’s grave, and then watch as it trickles off the granite and onto the pebbled ground, to be quickly absorbed by the earth.
Kamakura is just an hour from Tokyo by train. Take the Japan Railways (JR) Yokosuka Line from the Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station; trains leave every 10 to 15 minutes, with one-way tickets to Kita-Kamakura starting from ¥780 yen (about US$9).
Alight at Kita-Kamakura Station for a walking tour of Kamakura’s finest temples, including Engaku-ji; then reboard the train for the 10-minute ride into downtown Kamakura. From there, a century-old electric train called the Enoden offers a charming way to see the city; get off at Hase Station for a tour of the nearby temples of Hasedera and Kotoku-in (home to the great Amida Buddha statue).
Where to Stay
Kamakura makes for a pleasant day trip, but for those wishing to linger, book a suite at Scapes (81-46/877-5730; scapes.jp; doubles from US$523), a beautifully designed seaside roost in the nearby town of Hayama.
Originally appeared in the February/March 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Coming to Kamakura”)