It’s time to leave the autumn colors of the Hokkaido region behind, and move to more mild temperatures. Kamakura is located a little south of Tokyo, is famous for the big concentration of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
I choose to stay a few days, to have time to enjoy the place, starting early in the morning to avoid the crowds and spend the rest of the day wandering through the commercial streets of Kamakura, enjoying the cozy cafes and delighting with hand-made noodles.
Located by the sea, nearby a wide bay of dark sand where some surfers try their change in the small waves. But the visitors don’t come to Kamakura looking for waves but the focus is directed towards the hills where a dense forest nestles temples and shrines. The Daibutsu, the country’s second-largest bronze Buddha is undoubtedly Kamakura’s most famous site, but it is far from being the most interesting.
In fact, it’s difficult to say which are the “best” temples or shrines to visit, as for the Buddhist followers some of these places have great importance and meaning, but for a “foreigner” maybe a hidden temple in the forest in a less busy place may result in a memorable experience than a huge construction full of stressed visitors.
And from what I saw in Kamakura, the Kotoku-in (with the Daibutsu) and the Hokoku-ji (famous for the bamboo forest) weren’t the most significant temples… but Sugimoto-dera (located a bit far from the Kamakura train station, but reachable by bus) was the temple that caused a stronger impression on me, maybe because of the location, on the top of a small steep slope, surrounded by big cedar trees or maybe because of the quietness due to the almost absence of visitors.
The Sugimoto-dera is one of the oldest temples in Kamakura, and it’s allowed to go inside close to the altar. Being in such a special place, where the senses focus on the smell of cedarwood mixed with the smoke of incense that has been lit by pilgrims for centuries left in me a strong and pleasant memory. As the eyes become accustomed to the dimness, various Buddha statues show up, where the golden tones with which they were once covered give way to the dark tones of the wood. In Sugimoto-dera we can feel the sacred air impregnated with religiosity and devotion of the many pilgrims who come here.
The Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine has the peculiarity of being accessible by a tunnel dug in the rock, which ends in an area surrounded by mountains and forests. There are surrounded by rocky cliffs with small shrines hidden in caves where pilgrims say their prayers and perform the Shinto rituals. The dense smoke of the burning incense creates a thin mist and a mystic atmosphere.
Last but not least… Kencho-ji is a famous temple connected with the Zen meditation, comprising various impressive wood buildings, vast and at the same time graceful and elegant. Despite a large number of visitors, Kencho-ji can still offer a relaxing atmosphere, if you go early in the morning before the arrival of the crowds, especially on the weekends.
The Hasedera Temple was the last temple visited in Kamakura and I was a bit surprised with its hillside gardens, traversed by small streams where artificial ponds with colorful koi swim. In one of the buildings, the Kyozo, there is a gigantic prayer well that I hadn’t found yet in the Buddhist temples of Japan.
But what stands up above all in the Hasedera Temple is the Benten-Kutsu Cave, an artificial cave with Buddha statues carved in the rock. You can breathe the cold and humid air here, but the heavy silence makes this place special. Walking through the cave are several rooms were on the floor and on the walls devotees place small statues of Benten-Kutsu with prayers and wishes left by pilgrims and visitors… anyone can ask for a wish, write on the statue and place it under Benten-Kutsu’s protection!!!
- The Daibutsu Trail and the Ten-en Hiking Course were closed as a result of the last typhoon.
- You need to pay for almost the temples listed above… something between 200¥ and 500¥.
- The temples open at 8 am and it’s the best time to visit them; around 10 o’clock the most popular places are already crowded.
Where to sleep in Kamakura:
The WeBase Kamakura Hostel is located a bit far from the train station, but very close to the beach as also from the Hasedera Temple and Kotoku-in Temple.
The conditions are amazing and it even has a common bath (a kind of hot spring but with normal water tap); it’s a bit pricy and it lacks in atmosphere and character. It´s more like a hotel but with dorms, not at all a backpacker place!