Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Kamakura: Another Mystical Ancient Capital outside Tokyo

Looking back, there was something very strange about the way I planned our itinerary the two times we visited Tokyo. Within Tokyo itself, there are a gazillion things to see and do, but somehow, the Samurai and I were never overly excited by the "bright lights, big city" attractions. Probably because we have lived all our lives in a city state, although Singapore does not even have a fraction of Tokyo's metropolitan buzz, but you get my drift. Yes, we had to go to Ginza/Harajuku, visit Tsukiji Market, shop at Shinjuku and pay our respects at Meiji Shrine (NO DISNEYLAND!), but I was always more keen to explore places outside Tokyo and exhausted much of my time deciding where to make our day trips out of the city. Over both trips which totalled a miserable span of 8 days, we spent 3 days out of town - visiting Hakone, Nikko and Kamakura.

The Kamakura expedition was the MOST painless to plan. First, it was the closest to Tokyo in terms of location. From our base in Shinagawa, we took a direct train along the JR Yokosuka Line (which also goes to Yokohama) to Kamakura Station in under 50 minutes and costing us about 800+ Yen per person. Second, as it was an easy-to-navigate town, we did not have to buy any special passes or packages (like for Hakone or Nikko), and we could basically explore as we wished once we arrived. It was our cheapest day trip!

A short blurb about Kamakura for those not in the know: Kamakura was the capital of Japan when Minamoto Yoritomo became the shogun in 1192, and remained the seat of government for over a century. Sometimes known as "Kyoto of Eastern Japan", Kamakura has a lot of historical monuments, temples and shrines, and awesome views of the Pacific Ocean since it is located along the coast.

We visited Kamakura on 31 December 2008, New Year's Eve, and it was an amazing experience. The New Year is the most important holiday for the Japanese, and the locals would be rushing home to be with their families and the city becomes a ghost town. Like an apocalyptic scene from a movie, Samurai T and I were the ONLY people in the train carriage (this is Tokyo, mind you!!) that morning which led to a lot of clowning around. Kamakura, as the base of some important Shinto shrines and temples, would be receiving massive crowds come that evening, as the Japanese ushered in the New Year, and over the next few days when devotees come to pray for a good year. However, it was peaceful and quiet that particular morning.

There are many sights and attractions in Kamakura, but as usual, due to time constraints we selected a few places which we most wanted to see. Upon arrival at the Kamakura station on a cripsy and bright winter morning, we made our way on foot for about 20 minutes past the Kamakura shopping street to our first destination, the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shinto shrine, built by the Minamoto regime and is one of the most important Shinto shrines in the country. When we got there we could see staff and volunteers busily preparing for the upcoming New Year celebrations, and the shrine all decked out in New Year decor.

At the start of the Kamakura Shopping Street

Not too sure what this is - collecting donations for the New Year?

To the main Tsurugaoka shrine

After Tsurugaoka, we made our way again on foot for another 15 minutes to the most important and oldest ZEN shrine in Kamakura, the Kenchoji Temple, built in 1253. Unlike Tsurugaoka which was bustling with activity, Kenchoji was remarkably silent and peaceful. I found the grounds very beautiful and for want of a better word, Zen-like, with lots of balding trees and rock gardens. The interior of the shrines were also surprisingly colourful and lavish.

Inside the quiet grounds of Kenchoji

The lavish and colourful temple halls of Kenchoji

After Kenchoji we finally strolled back to the Kamakura town centre for a bit of shopping, where I think we bought sweet potato soft serve which was yummy to the max and had a quick lunch before proceeding by Enoden (streetcar-like train) to The Great Buddha (Daibutsu), which is the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in all of Japan dating back to 1252. The statue was originally housed within a temple building but as a result of typhoons and earthquakes over the years, the statue is now left standing in the open, which is quite an awesome sight.

The Great Daibutsu

Our final stop of the day was the Hasedera Temple (located within walking distance of the Daibutsu) which is famous for its Kannon (Goddess of Mercy) statue and situated on top of a hill offering spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. The temple grounds were lovely with many religious statues (some of them very cute!), koi ponds and lush foilage (even in winter). The Pacific Ocean views were also marvellous!!

I lurvvvve these cute figurines!!!

Best wishes for the New Year at Hasedera

The glorious views of the Pacific Ocean and Kamakura Town

It was a very pleasant and enjoyable day trip for the both of us, and not too tiring or stressful too. All attractions were fairly close to one another, and easy to find. I like!!!! There are still many other attractions at Kamakura like the beaches and hiking trails, which we did not have the time to see. Given the opportunity, I would like to revisit Kamakura again in the future.

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