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kamakura to kita-kamakura: temples, shrines & peonies {walking tour 23: part 1}   6 comments

Sunday, April 23: It’s a beautiful Sunday in Japan, so I’m off for a walk through the temples and shrines of historic Kamakura. After taking the metro from Fuchinobe to Yokohama, I switch lines to the Yokosuka Line and go six more stops to Kamakura.

On the Yokosuka line, I chat the whole time with a 20-year-old Japanese boy named Yuki (I thought that was a girl’s name; I’m always getting confused by which names are male and female in Japan!); he is on his way to a BBQ on Enoshima beach with his friends. His English is excellent, and he tells me he’s traveled to Spain, Italy and Australia.  I’ve already encountered so many internationally minded Japanese in my short time here.

Although Kamakura proper is today rather small, it is often described in history books as a former de facto capital of Japan; it was the seat of the Shogunate and of the Regency during the Kamakura period (1185-1333).  This period marks the governance by the Kamakura shogunate, officially established in 1192 by the first shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, and it is known for the emergence of the samurai, the warrior caste, and for the establishment of feudalism in Japan. When the shogunate was destroyed in 1333, imperial rule under Emperor Go-Daigo was reestablished for a short time (Wikipedia: Kamakura).

Kamakura was designated as a city on November 3, 1939.

When I walk out of Kamakura Station, I veer south to see one temple before I walk north along Wakamiya Oji, the grand walkway leading to the famous and imposing Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu.  I encounter a small shrine that isn’t on my official “Walking Tour 23: Kamakura and Hase” from Tokyo: 29 Walks in the World’s Most Exciting City. The shrine itself isn’t that photogenic, but the gardens and the ivy-covered buildings around it are striking against the blue sky.

This is the Daigyoji Temple.  Before the end of the Muromachi period (16th century), the chief priest of this temple, Priest Nitto, held a memorial service for the wife of Akiyama Kageyu, who had died in childbirth.  From that time, people come to worship the “Ubusume Deity,” the Goddess of Childbirth, said to protect women from suffering during childbirth.

view from temple

I find my way to Hongaku-ji Temple, built in 1436.  It sits on the site where the priest Nichiren lived after returning from exile in 1274.  He was exiled to the island of Sado in the Japan Sea for being against Zen Buddhism, which angered the pro-Zen Hojo regents, who ruled Japan from Kamakura. Later, they forgave him and allowed Nichiren to return to Kamakura.  Two centuries later, in 1407, a portion of this anti-establishment priest’s ashes were placed here, making the temple an important pilgrimage site for believers in the Nichiren sect of Buddhism.

Hongaku-ji Temple

sakura at Hongaku-ji Temple

The temple grounds also hold the grave of Masamune, a famed medieval swordsmith. Each year, the temple hosts a demonstration of sword making in Masamune’s honor, with the swordsmith decked out in the white robes of a Shinto priest.  Thus this ceremony with Shinto overtones, held on the grounds of a Buddhist temple, is a casual mixing of Japan’s two major faiths, reflecting Japanese flexibility when it comes to religious beliefs.

The ceremonial path of Wakamiya Oji is known as the Young Prince’s Way.  It was created in 1180 by Minamoto Yoritomo, the first Kamakura shogun, as an offering to the gods for the successful pregnancy of his wife, Masako.  Though the walkway starts at Yuigahama Beach, 1.4km south of Kamakura Station, I don’t start at the origin. Kamakura Station, where I get off, is near the first red torii.  From the sea to the first red torii, Wakamiya Oji is a commercial roadway; after the torii, the road narrows and splits, and is laid out on either side of a raised promenade.

The long promenade from the sea and the vermillion shrine of Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu sitting on the green hillside at the end were meant to impress any visitors to the shogun’s government of the 13th and 14th centuries.

At the red torii where the raised promenade begins, two stone koma-inu (Korean lion-dogs) stand fiercely to prevent evil from encroaching on the path.

koma-inu and vermillion torii at Wakamiya Oji

It just so happens that I find a gaggle of Western girls dressed in kimono taking turns posing in front of the first red torii.

white girls in kimono at Wakamiya Oji

vermillion torii at Wakamiya Oji

As I stroll down the promenade, I get a glimpse of Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu at the end.

Wakamiya Oji

As I pass through the second vermillion torii, I come to the extremely steep half-moon Taiko-bashi bridge at Gempei Ponds.  The bridge is closed off, but it is said that success in crossing this bridge assures that a wish will be granted.

the Taiko-bashi bridge at Gempei Ponds

There are two ponds, one on either side of the Taiko-bashi bridge, but I only visit the one to the right (east). There’s a lot of complicated history about the two ponds and their symbolism in history, which you can read about here. As soon as I begin to walk around the right hand pond, the Genji-kie, the pond of the victorious Minamoto clan of Yoritomo, I am stopped and required to pay an admission fee of 500 yen.  I find, much to my surprise, that the peonies are in bloom here, and because of that, a fee must be paid.  This is a pleasant surprise as I’ve always been partial to peonies, and these are particularly charming because of the iconic Japanese umbrellas shading the flowers from the sun.

Genji-ike, or Genji Pond

Genji-ike, or Genji Pond

It’s truly peony heaven on the shores of this Kamakura pond.

Peony heaven


white peony

umbrellas for the peonies

charming umbrellas

umbrellas and pergolas

pink peony

The island on the right holds a shrine to the Shinto deity Benten.  It’s pretty because of all the white banners and the wisteria on the pergola near the shrine.

wishes at the shrine to the Shinto deity Benten

wisteria and shrine to the Shinto deity Benten

ema at the shrine

shrine to the Shinto deity Benten

white flags

white wisteria

After walking the perimeter of the pond, I am ready to visit the famous Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu, but before reaching the 61-steps leading to it, I stop to admire the wall-less, roofed Shimo Haiden, the Lower Shrine Prayer Hall, which looks much like a stage. Here, Minamoto Yoritomo, who violently hated his younger and more popular brother, Yoshitsune, forced his brother’s pregnant mistress to dance in hopes she would have a miscarriage. Shizuka Gozen, the brother’s mistress, sang of her love for Yoshitsune in defiance of Yoritomo; he was enraged and would have killed Shizuka if his wife, Masako, hadn’t prevented him from doing so. When Shizuka eventually gave birth to a son, he was immediately put to death at Yoritomo’s order.

Shimo Haiden

Shimo Haiden

Shimo Haiden

small shrine

By happenstance, I cross paths with a bride and groom walking south from the staircase.

wedding procession

wedding in progress

scholarly type

Common at every Shinto shrine are wooden sake barrels, known as sakedaru, wrapped in straw blankets and stacked and bounded together by rope on a wooden frame.  Such barrels, which are actually empty, are called kazaridaru, which means “decoration barrels.”  Shinto shrines and sake manufacturers maintain a symbiotic relationship in which the shrines conduct rites to ask the gods for the prosperity of the brewers, and the brewers donate the sake that shrines need for ceremonies and festivals.

The Japanese believe that sake acts as a symbolic unification of Gods and people, according to The Japan Times: Sake barrels at shrines.

sake barrels, or kazaridaru  (decoration barrels)

sake barrels

Finally, I reach the staircase, but before climbing, I admire the huge ginkgo tree that was supposedly planted 1,000 years ago; it blew down in 2010.  There is an intriguing story about the tree and the blood vengeance so common during that period: here the 3rd Minamoto shogun, Sanetomo, was assassinated by his nephew, Kugyo, who had hidden himself behind the tree. Thus, it is also called Hiding Ginkgo.

61 steps to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu

Ema at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu

the ginkgo tree that was

Finally, I climb the steps to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu, the Hachiman shrine to the deity of the city of Kamakura.  When founded in 1063, it sat beside the sea, and honored the Shinto god of war.  The shrine to Hachiman also celebrates both the Emperor Ojin, who is said to have reigned from 270-319, and his mother, the Empress Jingu.  A long and complicated history is attached to this shrine, which you can read about here.

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu

At the top of the steps I take a picture of the shrine from the center point, but I’m admonished by the guard that I’m only allowed to take pictures from the side.

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu

I always love to inspect the ema I find at each shrine.  Each has its own colorful character.

Ema at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu

After leaving Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu, I climb steps up a small hill through a tunnel of torii gates to the Maruyama Inari Shrine, dedicated to the Shinto deity of commerce; it attracts worshipers desiring success in business affairs.

Maruyama Inari Shrine

Maruyama Inari Shrine

torii at Maruyama Inari Shrine

Maruyama Inari Shrine

Walking back past the staircase, I head east to visit several shrines a little more off the beaten track.  Before I do, I pass this shrine, but I don’t know what it is.

Shrine near Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu

Near the shrine is a chōzuya or temizuya, a Shinto water ablution pavilion for a ceremonial purification rite known as temizu.  These are used by worshippers for washing their left hands, right hands, mouth and finally the handle of the water ladle to purify themselves before approaching the main Shinto shrine. This symbolic purification is normal before worship and all manned shrines have this facility, as well as many Buddhist temples and some new religious houses of worship. The temizuya is usually an open area where clear water fills one or various stone basins. Wooden dippers are usually available to worshippers. (Wikipedia: Chōzuya)

a purification fountain

leaving the shrine area for Yabusame-baba

I leave the shrine complex to follow the path down Yabusame-baba, through cozy Japanese neighborhoods, toward the grave of Yoritomo.

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