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Text and photos by Peter Weld.
Tokyo does many things well, but if you want to find something serene and steeped in tradition, you’re better off escaping the capital and heading to the former capital: Kamakura.
For more than two centuries, even while the emperor had his palace in Kyoto, Kamakura was the de facto capital – the place where the real movers and shakers lived. About 45 kilometres south of present-day Tokyo, it was home to the head of the military, known as the shogun, who had so many servants, followers, and hangers-on that Kamakura is reckoned to have been the fourth-largest city in the world at that time.
But “that time” was over eight centuries ago, and these days Kamakura is positively cosy compared to Tokyo, Yokohama, and other metropolises to the north. Perched on the edge of Sagami Bay (and as popular with surfers as with history buffs), the city is worth a day-trip from Tokyo at any time of the year but all the more so in April.
In the last week of March and the first week of April, the cherry blossoms reach their peak. Through the centre of Kamakura runs Dankazura, a raised stone lane leading northward to the area’s most important shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. Flanked along its 500-metre length by cherry blossom trees, Dankazura is the premier spot for strolling under a canopy of pale pink flowers, both by day and by night, when they’re lavishly illuminated.
As the cherry blossoms pass their prime and start to rain down, Kamakura gears up for a series of special events. One of them is yabusame: men on horseback, dressed as they would have been in the shogun’s time, ride at high speed past three targets – and fire arrows at them. In terms of difficulty, this is like trying to board a rush hour train at Tokyo Station wearing skis, but amazingly some of these riders manage to hit one, two, or even all three of the targets.
There’s also Shizuka no Mai, or the Dance of Shizuka. Said to date back to the twelfth century, it’s performed once a year on an outdoor stage: a single, elaborately-costumed dancer accompanied by flutes and shamisen. The event is named after Shizuka Gozen, who was a professional dancer and the mistress of the shogun’s chief rival, his younger brother. When the shogun’s soldiers captured her and brought her to Kamakura to perform for him, she danced to a song whose lyrics expressed her longing for his brother. The shogun was not amused.
Both yabusame and Shizuka no Mai take place at the foot of the stone stairs leading up to the shrine of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. Established nearly a thousand years back, it functioned both as a Shinto shrine and as a Buddhist temple in those days and grew to be one of the most important religious sites in this region of Japan.
Today’s Hachimangu, all Shinto and no Buddhism, is much smaller and simpler, but it’s still worth a careful inspection. Watch the locals as they write their wishes on a wooden tablet called an ema and hang it along with untold hundreds of others.
Watch them pull an omikuji, a slip of paper telling them their fortune, and then fold it and tie it to a tree branch. Watch how they pray: two bows, then two hand claps, then one more bow. If you’re lucky, you might catch a Shinto priest blessing a newly-purchased car or a newborn baby; if you’re really lucky, you might witness a marriage procession.
The other must-see in Kamakura is Daibutsu, the Big Buddha. It’s three quick stops from Kamakura Station on the cute little one-track Enoden line. Alighting at Hase Station, you can reach the Big Buddha in less than ten minutes’ walk, but Hase Kannon Temple, up a side street to the left, offers a worthwhile detour, both for its Japanese-style gardens and for the hundreds of little statues of Jizo, the protective guardian of children.
The Big Buddha, cast in bronze pieces and assembled in the mid-thirteenth century, is one of Japan’s three great seated Buddha statues (the others are in Nara and Gifu), but it’s the only one outdoors. This is because the building which once housed it was swept away by a tsunami in 1498, even though the shoreline is nearly a kilometre away. (All over Kamakura, visitors will see signs on utility poles that say “Be careful of tsunamis” and give the elevation above sea level.)
Kamakura has enough to see, do, eat, and buy to keep you busy for several days; the only problem is that there’s nowhere interesting to stay. Kamakura does many things well, but “lodgings with character” isn’t one of them. For that, most visitors wind up hopping on the train at the end of the day to return to fast-paced, modern Tokyo.
Kamakura in a nutshell
- You can get to Kamakura in about an hour from Tokyo or Shinjuku stations entirely on Japan Railways trains (sometimes requiring a change at Ofuna) or in one-and-a-half hours by taking JR to Fujisawa and switching to the narrow-gauge Enoden line.
- Yabusame is held on the third Sunday in April; Shizuka no Mai is on the second Sunday.
- Shirasu – tiny fish no longer than your fingernail – are a local specialty. Try them on a bed of rice at Bowls, a hip eatery on the east side of Dankazura.
- Parallel to Dankazura but a bit farther west, the busy shopping street known as Komachi-dori offers snacks of all descriptions.
- Kamakura’s best-known traditional craft is the carved, lacquered wooden items known as Kamakura-bori. Hakkodo, near the north end of Dankazura, offers a fine selection, and if you ask nicely, they might take you in back to watch their master craftsmen at work.
- On Komachi-dori, the store called Shato sells an excellent assortment of hand-made paper, and at several shops you can buy tenugui: hand-dyed handkerchiefs which make great gifts.
This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.