Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan during the 12th and 14th centuries, is today a beautiful small town with dozens of temples and shrines. It is also known as the home of the god of samurai and war. Kamakura is located in Kanagawa Prefecture, an hour away from Tokyo.
It is a very popular tourist destination for both Japanese people and foreigners. Top attractions include the Daibutsu, or Great Buddha, in Kotoku-in Temple and the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine.
For our one-day trip, we visited following streets and places:
1. Wakamiya Oji Street
2. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine
3. Komachi Street
4. Kotoku-in Temple (Daibutsu)
5. Sasuke Inari Shrine
WAKAMIYA OJI STREET (若宮大路通り)
We began our day at 11:00 am by walking through Wakamiya Oji Street to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Wakamiya Oji Street is a 300-meter, beautiful worship road (参道) lined up with cherry blossom trees and lanterns that leads to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Wakamiya-Oji Avenue is a 1.8 km long path from Yuigahama Beach to the Shrine, built by the first Kamakura shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, for his wife Masako to travel safely. Between late March and early April, the cherry blossom trees make a beautiful pink tunnel, making this street a must-visit spot.
TSURUGAOKA HACHIMANGU SHRINE (鶴岡八幡宮神社)
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is the most famous shrine in Kamakura, dedicated to the Minamoto clan’s deity, Hachiman, the god of samurai and war. The shrine is also very popular among the locals for Shinto weddings and Hatsumode, the year’s first visit to a shrine.
At the end of Wakamiya Oji Street, you will see the last Torii gate and an arched drum bridge (太鼓橋 Taiko-Bashi) over the lotus ponds. The drum bridge used to be reserved only for the use of the shogun, but now it is closed for everyone. When you arrive at the shrine, you will be greeted by lots of doves. Doves are special to Hachimangu shrines. Legend says that when the diety of Usa Jingu was divided and transferred to Iwashimizu Hachimangu, the diety were guided by the doves. Similarly, the deity enshrined in Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine were also guided by doves. To commemorate the importance of the doves, the name board of the shrine includes two doves in the form of the Japanese character “八” (Hachi).
The Maiden Dance Hall is the venue for the annual Dance of Shizuka (静かの舞 Shizuka no Mai), a famous dance originally performed by Lady Shizuka, one of the most famous women of Kamakura history. According to the myth, Lady Shizuka was invited by the retired emperor Go-Shirakawa to dance for the rain to fall during a time of a nation-wide drought. Although 99 other dancers and 100 chanting Buddhist monks had failed, Lady Shizuka’s dance was finally able to bring about rain. It was the same place where she met Yoshitsune, brother and rival of Yoritomo, and who eventually became her lover. In 1185 when Yoshitsune fled to Kyoto, Lady Shizuka was left behind in Mount Yoshino. She was captured and brought back to Yoritomo, who questioned her about Yoshitsune’s whereabouts and forced to dance for him and his wife’s entertainment. In response, she would sing songs and dances that represented her love for Yoshitsune and their separation.
The two ponds at the entrance of the shrine are the Genji Pond and Heiki Pond. They are each named after rivaling clans, with Genji being another name for the Yoshimoto clan, and Heiki being another name for the Taira clan. The Genji Pond has three islands with white lotuses, and the Heike Pond has four islands with red lotuses. The ponds, like the rivaling clans, represent opposite concepts, as the number 3 is pronounced “san” in Japanese, which is the same as 産 or life, and the number 4 is pronounced “shi,” which is the same as 死 or death. On the left of the stairway used to be the great Ginkgo tree. The 1000-year-old tree was blown down on March 10, 2010. However, there can now be found seedlings sprouting where the roots used to be.
KOMACHI STREET (小町通り)
Komachi Street is a shopping street on the right side of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. It hosts a number of restaurants, cafes, and shops, and is famous for selling an assortment of unique and yet authentic Japanese foods and crafts.
Komachi Street also sells uniquely-flavored ice cream such as hydrangea soft ice cream, due to Kamakura being a famous hydrangea sightseeing spot during the rainy season. Other famous flavors are purple sweet potato and matcha. We tried purple sweet potato ice cream, which tasted very similar to vanilla but little sweeter.
KOTOKU-IN TEMPLE (高徳院)
Kamakura is the home of the Great Buddha. The statue is of Amida (Amitabh) Buddha. Amida Buddha is the principal Buddha in Pure Land Buddhism. Also known as Buddha of Infinite Light and Life.
The original Buddha statue was made of wood but was destroyed by a storm. Later, the statue was recreated with bronze and placed in a large hall. However, the hall was also eventually destroyed by the typhoon and then completely washed away by tsunami waves. Since then, the statue has been displayed outdoors.
The temple is 10 minutes walk away from Hase Station. The admission fee for entering the main temple ground is ¥200. You can also see the inside of the statue only for ¥20.
SASUKE-INARI SHRINE (佐助稲荷神社)
Sasuke Inari Shrine was the last stop of our one-day tour. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of white foxes, fertility, agriculture, prosperity, and worldly success. This shrine has an uphill tunnel of 100 red Torii gates within a dense forest. Since the shrine is somewhat separated from the city, it has a surreal atmosphere which is very calming.
The shrine was built by Minamoto no Yoritomo in gratitude to Inari. Legend says that he was visited by an Inari (white fox) who advised him when to attack his enemies, which lead to his victory.
The shrine is only 20-30 minutes walk away from the Daibutsu. However, a taxi is recommended for convenience.
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