The day began gloomy and wet, raindrops gently but relentlessly beating the bedroom window from the outside. Once again I enjoyed breakfast under the pleasant warmth of the heated table in the Fukaya's dining room. After the meal, in line with their overwhelming hospitality, Takahiro and Atuko-san offered to give me a lift to the train station so I could reach my next destination: Kamakura (鎌倉) .
I bade them farewell at Imaichi station and got on my train bound for one of the ancient capitals of Japan. As it couldn't have been otherwise, the train arrived and departed with almost excessive punctuality. While I reflected on my last two days in Nikkō the snowy peaks gave way to green fields, the thick clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight bathed the land.
When I got off the train in Kamakura around 13:00h a warm and briny breeze gently caressed my face, its scent all too familiar having grown up by the sea. It announced spring.
I left my luggage at the ever-present station lockers and I met up with my guide for the day: Taka-san.
Taka-san is a 70-year-old retired aircraft engineer who spoke magnificent English, having worked overseas for many years for a Korean airline. He was knowledgeable, charming and gave me one of the best insights into Japanese history of my journey. Not only that, he guided me through a trekking afternoon around the many temples of Kamakura!
We were starting a bit late to fit everything in, so I grabbed some rice balls from a nearby convenience store and we began walking under the sunshine while he gave me an introduction to Kamakura.
Not long after that, though, I felt a sudden slap on my right hand, the one holding the rice ball. It took me a few seconds to process what had happened: I glanced at my thumb and found it bleeding; a thin, accurate, almost surgical gash right under my fingernail. I looked up and caught sight of the culprit: a hawk! Taka-san apologised on behalf of the preying bird as if he had any control over it, saying he had forgotten to warn me about eating on the street. Luckily the wound wasn't too bad and the hawk had failed to steal my lunch, so I quickly laughed about it all.
Kamakura was the capital of Japan for more than a century, from 1,192 to 1,333 AD. The so-called Kamakura period was founded by Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝), first shōgun of Kamakura, his image hence ever-present in the city.
As an ancient capital, Kamakura boasts a great number of temples and shrines. With a population of only 175,000 and an area 20 times smaller than that of Kyoto, it is said to have the greatest density of historical sites in the country. Pretty much all of them are within walking distance, which makes it a mecca for Japanese history geeks.
Our trek started with a lighting visit of Jufuku-ji (寿福寺), a 12th century temple where the founder of the Kamakura shogunate is enshrined.
We spend much more time in Zeniarai Benzaiten-jinja (銭洗弁財天神社), arguably one of the most original and interesting temples I visited in Japan. Unlike most shrines, which comprise of buildings, this one is carved into the rock of a mountain, taking advantage of its natural undulations.
This cave shrine is devoted to Benzaiten, one and the only female of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japanese mythology. Benzaiten is always depicted as a graceful and pretty woman sitting or lying down while playing the biwa (琵琶), a traditional Japanese lute, and she is the patron of anyone remotely related to the arts: geisha, artists, writers, dancers...
Moreover, in this shrine the spirit of Benzaiten is fused with a shintō deity called Ugafukujin (宇賀福神), which makes this hybrid deity not just the patron of arts but also that of prosperity. In fact, it is very popular among tourists because the waters of a spring in its cave are said to be able to multiply the money washed in it.
I was a bit apprehensive about trying my luck washing a paper note, but Taka-san proudly remarked the quality of Japanese paper and assured me nothing would happen to the note if I let it dry, so I built up some courage and I bravely washed a 5,000円 note, the biggest one I had!
Taka-san highlighted the square caves carved into the stone which hosted little graves. He explained that Kamakura, naturally confined between mountains and sea, had a shortage of building space during its brief time as capital. Therefore land that would've been normally devoted to graveyards was used for buildings and instead these carved caves would serve as resting place for the dead. He told me these can be found everywhere around Kamakura.
Another funny feature I noticed, this one on my own, was the amount of Triforce symbols present in this shrine:
Taka-san explained that this was the family crest of those who funded the construction of the shrine, but I told him that Nintendo had blatantly appropriated this symbol for his Zelda games! He laughed at the coincidence, unbeknownst to him until then.
We left this shrine to trek along narrow and ancient mountain paths to find Sasuke Inari-jinja (佐助稲荷神社), another shrine, this one brimming with hundreds of red torii gates and hundreds, if not thousands, of small inari or fox statues.
We didn't spend much time here. We resumed our trekking and we soon arrived at one of the main attractions in the city: Kōtoku-in (高徳院), home to the Great Buddha or Daibutsu (大仏) of Kamakura.
The bronze Daibutsu measures 13.4m including its base and, whilst it's hollow on the inside, it weighs as much as 121 tonnes. It may not appear to be that big but, for a reference, one of its ears is already taller than most of us: 1.90m!
Although it's smaller than the Daibutsu in Nara, it is by far the oldest one still standing: records of the temple prove that the statue was cast in 1,252 AD and it has withstood earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis throughout the centuries. The temples that held it were washed away, but the statue still stands. Taka-san explained that at the time of its construction bronze was really scarce in Japan, so most of the material had been obtained by melting Chinese coinage that had been plundered during the many raids Japan undertook in the mainland.
Taka-san also explained a curiosity about this Great Buddha: Barack Obama, former US president, had visited this temple in his childhood, Japan being quite close and hence a common tourist destination for the people of Hawaii, where he was born and grew up.
Many decades later, in 2009 and already president of the US, Obama visited in Japan and said:
“I looked up at that centuries-old symbol of peace and tranquillity — the great bronze Amida Buddha. And as a child, I was more focused on the ‘matcha’ ice cream. But I have never forgotten the warmth and the hospitality that the Japanese people showed a young American far from home.”
What was his surprise that, in line with this generosity and thoughtfulness that he so much extolled of the Japanese people, he was offered a matcha ice cream in his second visit to the Daibutsu which they had named the Obama Icecream. He enjoyed it with delight!
Of course Taka-san and I also enjoyed an Obama ice cream together, the best break after our sweaty hiking around the sunny hills of Kamakura!
The final stop of the day was Hasedera-ji (長谷寺), a gorgeous complex of temples which is said to be the oldest in Kamakura, dating from the 8th century.
The temple complex is built on the slope of a hill so as we climbed up we got better and better views of the beautiful sea shore from the Kanagawa prefecture.
This temple is famous for its main statue of Kannon, one of the largest wooden statues in Japan, measuring 9.2m in height and gilded in gold. It has 11 heads, each of which represents a different phase in the search for enlightenment.
Legend has it that the statue is one of two images of Kannon carved by a monk in the 8th century. The camphor tree he chose to carve the statue was so large that he decided he would carve two statues with it. One was enshrined in the Hasedera Temple of Nara, while the other was set adrift in the sea to find the place with which it had a karmic connection. The statue washed ashore near Kamakura in the year 736 AD. It was immediately brought to the city where a temple was built to honour it.
What was also remarkable of Hasedera was a shrine devoted to the souls of those lost before they were given a chance to experience life. Small statues of jizō are brought by parents who mourn offspring lost to miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion. These statues remain in place for about a year before being removed to make way for more statues; it is estimated that some 50,000 jizō statues have been placed at Hasedera since World War II.
With this, it was already the evening, and the temple was closing down. Taka-san and I went for a walk around the town. We explored the beach and took some silly pics:
Finally, we sat in a seaside cafe to have a coffee while we spoke about life and made up some time to get the historic train that would take us back to Kamakura's central station.
That was the end of my day in Kamakura with Taka-san. We bade each other farewell at the main station, I picked up my luggage and I headed to nearby Zushi (逗子), where Yoshiko, my CS guest, was awaiting me.
When I arrived there in Zushi it was already dark. The sky was clear and loaded with stars, and a full moon was shining. The scenery was pitch black, but one could see spots of light in the distance from the houses, a reflection of the starry sky on the land. I could hear the distant sound of the waves crashing against the shore. The breeze blew warm and briny, just like earlier that morning, and the sweet rustling it created accompanied me in my nightly walk up and down the quiet and steep streets of Zushi.
A bridge over a stream and a car dealership right after; those were the references Yoshiko had given me for orientation and I found them with ease. I climbed the stairs that separated the business premises from the residential flats and I knocked on her door.
I was greeted by Yoshiko, a young-looking and graceful woman who had what seemed a child hidden behind her, I could only see her little arms tightly holding the mother's right leg. I was welcomed into their tiny apartment, which was messy as if a typhoon had just blown into the house. A cat hid in a cage in the living room-cum-kitchen-cum-dining room, his shiny eyes staring at me, the newcomer.
Yoshiko kindly offered to cook some spring rolls and heat up some soup she had prepared for herself and the little girl, who very shyly told me in Japanese her name: Lily. As I sat, ate and spoke with Yoshiko, Lily stared at me and ran around to make sure she could observe me from every possible angle. By the time I finished my meal Lily was already playing and talking to me as if she had known me forever, and we spent the sweetest of moments playing with her Lego and pretending we understood each other. In the meantime Yoshiko laid down a futon in her piano room so I could have some sleep.
What a beautiful day and what beautiful people I had met today.