SYNOPSIS:  About buddhas, bakeries and beaches.  About teenagers, trash and tramps.  About a resort town with a history.


Kamakura is not (yet) on the UNESCO list of sites.  It’s desperately trying though, as one big billboard in town indicated.  At least for the “big boy”, the largest Bronze Buddha in the world, it might make it someday and if not, it has itself assured a certain spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for times immortal.

When I planned my Japan trip around the UNESCO sites, a bit in a hurry, I realized at the last moment that I had forgotten to leave room for Kamakura.  I actually had to go back and shave off three days of Kyoto to fit it in.  What an oversight!

I will be here for two full days and I decided to savor “the big one” for the last day.  Today, I ventured north, into the foothills of the mountains which once had been a reason for Kamakura to be chosen as the first capital of feudal Japan between 1185 to 1333.  Just like Nara and Kyoto which followed, Kamakura owes its cultural splendor to its role as capital.  It had and has a lot going for itself.  There are mountains on three sides and the ocean on the other.  That makes for an easily defensible city, which must have been on Minamoto Yoritomo’s mind when he moved here.

By the time Kyoto became the long-term capital in the Edo period, Kamakura dwindled to a mere village.  But in recent times and with fast and convenient transportation from and to Tokyo, this village is thriving again, this time as a sea port/resort town.  The climate is mild, the beaches vast, the ocean fantastic, and the old temples in town give it a great, traditional flair.

This accounts for a curious mix of yachts, beach bars, partying teenagers, skimpily-clad, high heeled girls, red-skirt shinto priestesses, show-off surfers, monks on bicycles, macho motor-cyclists, dread-locked hippies, disheveled tramps, fancy boutiques, eco-conscious architecture, vegan restaurants, and you name it.  And yes, … for the first time in Japan — trash.  When all is quiet at night, there is a considerable amount of trash, empty beer cans, plastic bags — still nothing compared to what it would be in any other beach-party town around the world, but noticeable.

I can’t hold it against the Japanese though.  I was told that a lot of the unruly behavior goes back to vacationing Chinese and other Asian (and European?) visitors.  And as embarrassing as it is, but I can’t tell them apart.  Speaking of Europeans: as anywhere so far, Europeans account for only a minuscule number of tourists.  There is the occasional tour bus, of course, that comes for “the big one”, but those travelers won’t ever stay in Kamakura.  This town, as Nara or Nikko, is typically done as a day trip.

My guest house is the second floor of a small house which was converted by the owner’s son, who still lives with his parents at the main floor.  It is located only three minutes from the beach along the main artery in town.  I got all those motor bikes and drunken teenagers right below my little balcony on which I have spent many hours writing in the last two days.  I still have to catch up with the blog and some images…

For me, this town will be the final stop on my spiritual road through Japan.  It is perfect to walk everywhere, to slow down, to reflect in the evenings, while sitting at an ocean bar sipping a Tequila.  On my first stroll through town I could not believe to walk by a German restaurant, a Baeckerei und Konditorei  (a real German bakery!), a Thai food store, a Chinese restaurant, a French patisserie.  As small as this place is, it is obviously very cosmopolitan in its own little way (not like Tokyo or Osaka, of course).

But there were a few sites to be visited:

The Engakuji, is the most northern of the noteworthy temples.  It has one of the largest bells and gates in town and it was my first stop after a leisure morning at the hostel.  There was a lot going on, including a whole huge group attending a private sermon.  It is quite common at these temples to pay for your private sermons.  I have seen two to four people attending a five minute private session ranging from the full gamut of chants, bell, speech, to blessing involving several monks, or just a simple one-monk blessing ceremony.  Here, there were more people attending than fit into the lecture hall, a sermon perhaps after a funeral, for a family reunion, etc.  It is hard to tell.  Aside the main temple halls, there were wooded living quarters for the monk, a memorial hall and even a lovely tea house.

In one corner, hardly visible and impossible to photograph, an interesting scene unfolded.  A monk practiced some sort of Zen archery.  Every movement was as stylized as in the tea ceremony.  It took him up to a minute between moves and he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that two foreigners had caught up with him and were secretly watching.

Nearby is the Tokeiji, a small temple with an unusual history.  It was founded by Kakuzan Shidoni, the widow of a shogun who then provided an exclusive refuge for women.  Women at the time could not divorce abusive husbands.  After three years in the nunnery however, by the temple authority, wives could force husbands to grant a divorce.  For hundreds of years, this temple was famous and notorious as it empowered women and stripped men of their absolute power and pride.  As divorce law become civil law around 1870, the temple lost its function and today is a mere sub-temple of the Engakuji.    A lovely flower garden and a mossy graveyard are the most attractive features of this small temple and I wonder how much of that goes back to the women living there.

The main temple in town is the Kenchoji.  It is the oldest Zen monastery in Japan and active to this day, with dozens of monks living here, giving instructions in Zen meditation and performing other functions.  The buildings are impressive with a large gate and some of the most gnarly, 700 year old  juniper trees I have seen anywhere and a beautiful, green, viewing garden where I had a lovely chat with an American couple who have been living in Japan for over four years.  “What’s there not to like about this country?” was the sum of their assessment of Japan.

Across from it an even smaller temple than the Tokeiji, the Ennoji houses a most unusual set of sculptures:  the ten judges of hell.  With grim faces they surround the most grim of them all, Emma (or Yama in Sanskrit), the lord of the inferno.  This is another example of cultural mixture as the concept of the judges is one adopted from Taoism, whereas Yama is a Hindu deity.  And now they are all found in a Buddhist temple…  But they are worth the stop especially if you are in need of a good nightmare.

No temple day is complete without a visit to at least one shrine.  That’s where the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu comes in handy.  Steep stairs lead up from an impressive stage to a set of inner shrine buildings, some of which house shrine artifacts and some of the temple floats used in the local matsuri.  The entire temple has gotten a recent paint makeover and is shining in bright colors, making a lot of small animal and plant details explicit.

After four shrines and one temple it looks almost like I was on a grueling Kyoto schedule again, but then, here is the difference — in Kyoto I would have had to take the bus from one temple to the next and a round like this would have taken between 8-10 hours.  Here, I walked it all, enjoyed the day, had ice cream along the way, a late start (10 AM) and an early finish (3 PM).  There was energy left even for a little shopping trip, and time to spare to head for that tequila at the beach bar before going home and writing about the day.  My kind of a town!

Good night.