“And there is a Japanese idol at Kamakura”
Kamakura, after some half-dozen visits, still remains my favourite travel destination in Japan. If fate had swung differently, and I hadn’t put down roots in Saitama, I probably would have made an effort to live there.
Sandwiched between the sea and hills, this coastal city is rich in history and – if you can sneak away from the tourist traps – the opportunity to engage in some good hikes. My most recent trip was not to be so (boss wife, kids and in-laws in tow), and one of the “highlights” of the trip would be eating the city’s famed whitebait.
[I have never really grasped this preoccupation with travel for the express purpose of eating some purportedly famous dish. Nor am I a fan of whitebait – it’s essentially a collection of eyes, scales and backbones and other parts of a fish you probably wouldn’t normally eat anyway. Just let them grow up, OK?]
It was a clear and sunny day (the cool breeze helped keep the clouds away) and the city was fairly crowded. (I knew we should have left home earlier…)
Our first stop, despite protests of being tired and hungry, was Engakuji in Kitakamakura. I had wanted to visit here for a long time, mostly because of its monument to Gichin Funakoshi, the “father of modern karate” – a concept that non-karate people find hard to appreciate. This revelation of the plot brought further protests, but actually the kids enjoyed their little stroll around the temple grounds. One really needs at least an hour to enjoy the place, but stomachs were rumbling and – heaven forbid – the whitebait might all be sold out, so it was back on the train for Kamakura proper and lunch.
After lunch we headed for Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu. I never tire of seeing this place, and this was my first visit since the giant ginkgo tree had been brought down in a typhoon, so I was curious to see what had become of it.
En route, my son fell asleep, so I took my daughter for a short walk to see the grave of warlord Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the Kamakura Shogunate.
On our way back to the Hachiman shrine I pointed out the black kites (Milvus migrans lineatus) to my daughter and encouraged her to listen for their shrill cries. I even spotted a nest.
Known locally as tobi or tonbi (鳶), these birds are particularly associated with the Kamakura-Enoshima area, where they have gained an unfortunate reputation for stealing food from visitors.
For me, however, the relationship with black kites goes back to my days in Hokkaido, and the call of the kites brings back memories of wide open spaces with breath-taking mountain views. If I believed in fortunate omens, the kite would top the list.
Anyway, the kites also play an important role in helping control the Formosan squirrel (Callosciurus erythraeus thaiwanensis) which now runs feral in the Kamakura area. I didn’t notice any of these squirrels, known in Japan as taiwanrisu (台湾栗鼠) on this trip, although I have seen them in the city on previous trips. They are now thought to outnumber native squirrels and are out-competing them.
Having explored the Hachiman area sufficiently and even seen Shinto wedding ceremonies taking place, we woke up my son and took the Enoshima line to Hase to visit the Great Buddha.
This is another sight worth visiting again and again – centuries old, 12 metre tall bronze statues can’t be found just anywhere. The fact that it is not housed in any kind of building (not since the last one was washed away in a tsunami several centuries ago) makes for easy photography. Unfortunately, time was running short, and access to the inside of the statue – yes, you can pay ￥20 to go inside – had finished, much to the disappointment of at least one little boy, as this was what he had been looking forward to the whole trip. The light was failing, and soon the Kotoku-in announced closing time. And time for us to head back home.
In retrospect, any future trips to Kamakura (and there will be!) should start much earlier. I would have liked to have spent more time at Engakuji. A hike to Tsurugaoka via Zeniarai Benten Ugafuku shrine would have been far more interesting than a JR train ride. I would have liked to have visited the Hase Kannon and explored Enoshima.
If you find yourself around Tokyo with a free day or two, Kamakura is a must. My recommendation? Spend two days there and explore the whole area!