Kamakura (Japan)


In Spain almost all of my journal entries started with “OMG, it’s so hot” or “I’m melting!” and when I think back to riding around the country on motorcycles in thick leather, the heat in Japan shouldn’t even phase me but OMG, it was so hot! I now understand why every shop sells tengui – beautiful and highly useful handkerchiefs – and why every woman in Japanese art is holding a fan. What I don’t understand is how people – especially the coiffed women –  manage to hold it together wearing stockings or suits and carefully done hair in weather that made me want to stay in my air-conditioned hotel room all day. But for all the chic people walking around Tokyo without noticing the heat, at least some of them were with me on the train to Kamakura – a beach town about an hour and a half south.

I wasn’t going to visit the beach though – in fact, I didn’t even go to it. I wanted to see the Great Buddha. When I was a kid I was obsessed with Greek culture and desperately wanted to go to Athens but my mom was afraid I would turn it into a beach vacation and just party the entire time (so she sent me on a home exchange to rural France instead). I feel like she would have been satisfied with my Kamakura itinerary though – in the 2 days that I was there, I saw 5 temples and 3 shrines and the only time I even saw the sea was from the top of the Hase-dera temple complex.

Kamakura Buddha

That was too bad but I loved the Great Buddha, beautiful and serene and sitting out in the open after a tsunami destroyed the Kōtoku-in temple in 1498. In Tokyo so much felt new and modern. Even the Asakusa temple complex was mostly rebuilt after the war. Kamakura has been a temple town since about year 700.


Next, I went to the Hase-dera temple, a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon (goddess of mercy). The literature I was given says that according to legend the monk Tokudō found a camphor tree so large he thought he could carve two statues with it. One went to Nara and the other was launched into the sea, letting fate decide where it would end up. It washed ashore close to Kamakura and the temple was built to house it. The statue of Kannon was impressive but what struck me even more were the statues of tiny buddhas lined up everywhere like a little army. They are statues of the Jizo Bodhisattva who helps the souls of dead children to reach paradise, and they are everywhere, covering all the landings as you climb up and up and up, with potato chips and flowers and candles left for offerings.


That night I stayed in a traditional guest house with gorgeous post and beam construction, a traditional sandpit stove and teakettle, and tatami mats. At night we unrolled our soft futons in a communal female room and laid out pillows that are stuffed with adzuki beans. There was no air conditioning and I thought I was in for a sleepless night but it’s amazing what can be done with airflow in a house made of screens, and both the pillow and the bed turned out to be completely comfortable. I was amazed to see so many women travelling by themselves too. Japan is notoriously safe (one of the reasons it won out over several other destinations for me) but the only man in the guesthouse was one that worked there. The rest were solo women travellers, some who had been on the road for months at a time through many countries, others travelling in groups from relatively close by in Japan.

It was wonderful to be in such a welcoming space after the masculine no-nonsense business hotels of Tokyo and I would have loved to stay for a few days to get into the rhythm of it but there were temples to see and I don’t know if I could have lasted that much longer without A/C.


The next day I went to Engaku-ji, Kenchō-ji, Tōkei-ji (the “divorce temple”), Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, and Hōkoku-ji (the “bamboo temple”). Engaku-ji and Kenchō-ji are the darlings around town, huge monastery complexes rated #1 and #2 for Zen temples in the area. I was impressed by the many outbuildings and gardens but without having an opportunity to sit for a meditation session, most of it was lost on me. Instead, I preferred Tōkei-ji which got its start as a refuge for battered women and was instrumental in cementing Japan’s divorce policy because they considered women to be officially divorced after staying there for three years. Hōkoku-ji is called the “bamboo temple” because it is housed in a grove of enormous bamboo. Most of the grounds are closed off but there is a teahouse and sitting drinking a bowl of bitter matcha tea while the green light filtered through the bamboo down was serene. I felt closed off from the world and so calm…which I guess is kind of the point of a temple.


Most of the temples I had been to so far are Buddhist but I loved the Shinto Meiji-Jingu shrine in Tokyo and Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū (also Shinto) was my favourite site in Kamakura. In Japan, Buddhist temples are noted by the -dera or -ji appended to their names, and shrines are jinja. I love the orange Torii gates and flags leading up the path, the shrine maidens in their white robes and the various activity stations. At Tsurugaoka I wrote a prayer for peace and happiness on a horse ema (a wooden plaque that is hung up with the wish on it for the gods), and I bought a fortune by shaking a cylinder with numbered chopsticks in it – the number of the one that falls out corresponds to a drawer with your fortune in it. Fortunately, my was both a good one and included an English translation, so I kept it with me. If you get a good fortune you’re supposed to save it and if not then you tie it to a fence and say a prayer. I also purchansed an amulet to ward off senility. Later I learned that each shrine and temple has its own stamp and calligrapher so I bought a calligraphy book and had it inscribed as well. I was tempted to backtrack to the temples I had already been to that day but instead, I worked on filling it up in Kyoto and Koyasan, and it is one of my most treasured souvenirs from Japan.


There is some crossover in the history of Shinto and Buddhism and there are also many similarities in the way people behave at the sites. Most have a purification area near the entrance where bamboo ladles are laid out on a fountain. To purify yourself, first you pour water onto one hand then onto the other, then rinse your mouth from the water in your hand and pour the remaining water out into the drain (not back into the fountain). Inside a Shinto shrine, you swing a heavy rope pull to ring the gong get the god’s attention, then throw a coin into the (insanely loud) offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds. For someone who was raised to be as quiet as possible in church, this all feels quite noisy and public and jovial and I loved all of them.

I found out later that I had effectively come in the back door, that this shrine is the darling of Kamakura and a wide tree-lined street leads up to it from the train station.


As I came up to the main pavilion I saw a wedding! The groom was wearing a kimono and the bride was in white, wearing the traditional hat that my guidebook says is designed to hide the woman’s horns until after the wedding (!). The musicians sat on the side of the pavilion and were dressed in turquoise robes but everyone else stood outside, many dressed in beautiful kimonos – although there seemed to be as many professional photographers as guests at the wedding. Apparently part of the ceremony includes a shrine maiden dance which I missed but I did get to see the procession down to the main street where their rickshaws were waiting.