A Guide to Kamakura’s Hydrangeas

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This is an unofficial history, recounted to my husband by his kobudo teacher, who assures us that his memory is correct:

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Once upon a time, some 40 or 50 years ago, the city of Kamakura had a problem: June — the rainy season in the area — saw tourist numbers plummet, and the much-needed tourist yen dry up.

What was the city to do?

Plant seasonal flowers, of course! For wet, rainy June, that meant hydrangeas.

Beginning with Meigetsu-in, and then Hase Dera, the city’s temples and shrines started planting hydrangeas by the dozen. And guess what? Tourist numbers soared! Now June is one of Kamakura’s biggest months for visitors.

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Is it true? Well, memory is a funny thing, so while there may be some truth to it, I’m guessing it’s not a completely accurate account of what happened. Regardless, it’s a fun story about how the city is cashing in on the Japanese love of blossoms. Meigetsu-in even ups its entry fee during hydrangea season, and the wait to enter the hydrangea path at Hase Dera can be hours long.

Meigetsu-in, which sticks to blue and white hydrangeas, and Hase Dera, which has the full assortment of hydrangea colours, are by far the most famous temples in the city when it comes to hydrangea viewing. They’re not the only spots, however, and if you’re looking for a quieter wander through the blossoms, give them a pass and head to the other, less crowded spots.

Saka-no-shita and Gokuraku-ji
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The view from Joju-in

In the Saka-no-shita – Gokuraku-ji area, Joju-in, Gokuraku-ji and Goryo Jinja are all good choices. Gokuraku-ji doesn’t have as many bushes as other spots, but the ones by the temple gate and along the Enoden line track are stunning.

Joju-in was a major player in the hydrangea hustle until four years ago, when construction on the entrance stairs leading up to the temple, which sits on a hilltop, meant that the temple’s gorgeous, and pretty darn big, hydrangeas were cut.

This year — 2018 — marks the temple’s re-entry to the game, and while the flowers are gorgeous, they’re still in their infancy and are on the small side, bar a few large bushes. Not to be missed, however, is the view of Yuigahama Beach from the top of the hill. Try to time your visit to low tide when the beach looks cleaner.


Goryo JinjaGoryo Jinja
is a beautiful little shrine at the foot of the hills that encircle the core of Kamakura. What makes it top-spot for the area is that the Enoden line tracks run right next to it after exiting the tunnel between the Saka-no-shita area of Kamakura and the Gokuraku-ji area. The tracks are lined — you guessed it — with hydrangea bushes. Expect lots of eager camera otaku lining the fence every 12 minutes or so when the trains go by. Things are so busy during the season now that security guards are required to keep people from risking their lives on the tracks in the name of a good photo.

The hill behind the shrine itself is also covered in bushes, though they tend to bloom a little later in the month as they don’t get much sun.

Hase
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The cave where Nichiro and others were imprisoned.

In the Hase area, Kosoku-ji, while not teeming with hydrangeas, does have quite a few brightening the temple grounds. One street over from Hase Dera, the temple is pretty much all garden, and off to the right, down a little path, and then up into the hills is where you’ll find hydrangeas lining the path.

What’s up at the top? A cave that was once the cell of the Buddhist monk Nichiro, a disciple of Nichiren, the founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. Don’t worry about Nichiro’s fate too much, though — his demeanor and teachings won over his jailer, a retainer of the regent (who also owned the manor that later became Kosoku-ji temple), who lobbied for the early release of the imprisoned monks, and all ended well.

Kajiwara

IMG_3043Over in the Kajiwara area of Kamakura, halfway along the Daibutsu-Kuzuharaoka hiking trail, sits Kuzuharaoka Shrine. They’ve done quite a bit of work planting hydrangea bushes, and in addition to the bushes within the shrine itself, there’s a walkway next to the sando through a whole bunch of hydrangea bushes.

There’s a large picnic area with tables and seats, too, and a few other open areas where blankets can be put down. Just watch out for the crows and hawks that stalk eaters-of-food throughout town.

These are just a few alternative places to enjoy June’s hydrangeas, though there are countless more. If you do choose to visit Meigetsu-in or Hase Dera, though, time your visit carefully: early morning will find lines of eager photographers who tend to block the path for that perfect, people-free shot, while waiting too long could see you miss your chance completely.

 

Kannon-sama Pilgrimage: Jochi-ji and Tokei-ji

At the end of the Daibutsu-Kuzuharaoka hiking trail, in Kita-Kamakura, sits Jochi-ji, temple number 31 of the Kamakura Thirty-Three Kannon Pilgrimage. Not far down the road is Tokei-ji, temple number 32.

In Japan, Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimages are fairly common. According to Kamakura City’s webpage on its Kannon-sama pilgrimage, the first Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimage — the Saigoku Sanju-San Sho — was established in the 12th century in the Kansai area, followed by the Bando Sanju-San Sho pilgrimage in the Kanto area in the 13th century. (NB – other sources suggest these pilgrimage routes were established many centuries earlier.) From there, Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimages took off, spreading around the country.

Why 33? Religious texts say that there are 33 manifestations of Kannon, so apparently, that’s why there are usually (but not always!) 33 stops on Japan’s Kannon pilgrimages.

The Kamakura pilgrimage doesn’t include all 33 manifestations, however — it’s just 33 important temples dedicated to Kannon-sama. I’m working my way around Kamakura, collecting stamps for the pilgrimage. This video is the second in what I hope will be a series to introduce the pilgrimage — as well as the city in general — to those outside of Kamakura.

Firefly Festival at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu

Firefly sits on hand with black background

Despite scads of rain, June isn’t all bad. There are hydrangeas, cool nights, and —best of all — tiny flying insects with lit-up bums. I mean, of course, fireflies. There are a few spots in Kamakura to see the bright little bugs, but most are not so easy to get to in the dark.

Luckily, the city’s main shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, holds a firefly festival in early June. The Hotaru Matsuri, which begins on June 10th (Sunday) this year (2018), is part of the shrine’s environmental protection and improvement activities.

On the evening of the 10th, Shinto priests will perform a ceremony, and fireflies raised from larvae in the shrine’s pond will be released. There will also be music, and dances performed by miko (shrine maidens).

For about a week after the firefly release, they’ll flit about the pond area, before disappearing for another year.

Time: Sundown until 8.30pm

Place: Yanagihara-Shinchi pond, by Wakamiya Shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu (A map of the shrine grounds can be found here. Wakamiya Shrine is #15.)

Keep in mind a few requests from the shrine, as per their information page from 2017’s event:

*no lighting devices are permitted, including smartphones, as light will cause the fireflies to stop glowing

*photos are not permitted on the path around the pond

Information from last year’s festival is here.

Kamakura Bungakukan Rose Festival

Spring in Kamakura means flowers of all sorts: cherry, peach, dogwood, irises, hydrangea — something always seems to be in bloom. Roses, too, make an appearance in neighbourhood gardens, and bloom in profusion at the Kamakura Bungakukan (Museum of Literature) during its Bara Matsuri (Rose Festival).

The museum itself is stunning — the building is an old Western-style villa, but suffers from a lack of signage in foreign languages, making it somewhat inaccessible for the average visitor from abroad. The gardens, however, can be enjoyed by all.

From early May until early June (this year, the festival runs until June 11), the garden at the foot of the Bungakukan’s extensive lawn is a riot of colour, and the air is lightly perfumed. It’s the perfect place to take a break from all the temple and shrine visiting that goes on during a visit to Kamakura.

 

 

Hydrangea Train, Kamakura

In Kamakura, June means hydrangeas. Thousands of them. And the tourists just eat it up.

One of the most popular spots to take photos is Goryo Jinja, because the always-photogenic Enoden Line train rattles by as it exits the tunnel between Gokuraku-ji and Saka-no-shita.

か is for Kamakura 33 Kannon Pilgrimage

 

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If you’re looking to add a little zest to your temple- and shrine-hopping, including a pilgrimage in your itinerary is a good way to go. Called meguri in Japanese, Japan’s got plenty. Some are short, some long; some consist of various single-temple objects of worship, while others will take you across cities or regions; some are just temples, while others are a mishmash of temples and shrines: basically, there are all sorts of meguri, and you’re bound to find a few as you move from place to place.

Doing  a pilgrimage is also a great way to increase your motivation if you already collect stamps in a goshuincho (honourable stamp book), but are a little blah on filling your book up.

Goshuincho (or nokyocho, which are similar) can be purchased at medium- to large-sized temples and shrines, and at some stationery stores. Just be careful if you go the stationery-store way — I read that there have been cases where these books have not been accepted by temple or shrine staff.

There’s no need to be a devout Buddhist or Shintoist to hop on the meguri-train — anyone and everyone is welcome to purchase a goshuincho, and collect the goshuin (stamps). If you want to really look the part, you can even buy a special hakue — white pilgrim’s coat — to wear, though I’d only recommend that for the more devout pilgrim. Normal clothes, however, are perfectly acceptable on your quest. (Within reason — these are religious sites, after all.)

Kamakura is home to several pilgrimage routes, like the popular (and quick to finish) Seven Gods of Fortune pilgrimage, the Twenty-Four Jizo pilgrimage, and today’s focus, the Thirty-Three Kannon Reijo pilgrimage.

In Japan, Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimages are fairly common. According to Kamakura City’s webpage on its Kannon-sama pilgrimage, the first Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimage — the Saigoku Sanju-San Sho — was established in the 12th century in the Kansai area, followed by the Bando Sanju-San Sho pilgrimage in the Kanto area in the 13th century. (NB – other sources suggest these pilgrimage routes were established many centuries earlier.) From there, Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimages took off, spreading around the country.

Why 33? Religious texts say that there are 33 manifestations of Kannon, so apparently, that’s why there are usually (but not always!) 33 stops on Japan’s Kannon pilgrimages. The Kamakura pilgrimage doesn’t include all 33 manifestations, however — it’s just 33 important temples dedicated to Kannon-sama.

I’ve only just started this pilgrimage, and I’ll update this post as I make my way around the city.

For a complete list of the 33 temples, and their number on the pilgrimage, see the map below. Temples don’t need to be visited in order, but do try to make Sugimoto Dera your first stop for an extra little “first stop” stamp.

 

 

 

 

 

じ is for Jomyo-ji

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At its peak, Jomyo-ji must have been incredible. That’s not to say that it’s not a beautiful spot now — it is, and very peaceful, too. But in 1386, it was comprised of seven buildings and 23 pagoda.

Iso Mutsu writes that “in bygone days Jomyo-ji was one of the five most prominent temples of Kamakura, ranking in importance with the great foundations of Kencho-ji and Engaku-ji.” (Kamakura: Fact and Legend, p. 60.)

Sadly, like so many other Japanese buildings of ages past, Jomyo-ji suffered greatly from fire, having been destroyed twice between its founding in 1188 and the end of the 15th century when, as Mutsu explains, “Jomyo-ji had greatly declined, and even in those early days remained but a shadow of its former splendour.” (p. 61.)

These days, the temple is made up of only a handful of buildings, though it does boast fabulous gardens. It is still considered the fifth of Kamakura’s five great Zen temples.

Turning left from the hondo will take you to Jomyo-ji’s teahouse. For between ¥600 and ¥1100 (early May 2018), visitors can enjoy matcha tea and wagashi (a Japanese sweet). The tearoom is tatami, but tea is served at small tables, so there’s no need to sit in seiza. One side of the teahouse is open, with a ledge for sitting and enjoying the raked gravel garden.

In addition to the Japanese teahouse, at the back of the temple grounds and up a hill is a large, old Western-style house that’s been converted into a cafe called Ishigama Garden Terrace. It serves afternoon tea in addition to fresh bread and other goodies, and overlooks a gorgeous, flower-filled garden.

Founded: 1188

Pilgrimages: Kamakura Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimage (Those needing a stamp in their goshuincho should hand over their stamp book and make their request at the ticket gate.)

 

 

す is for Sugimoto Dera

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Dating to 734 CE, Sugimoto Dera is considered Kamakura’s oldest temple — and it looks the part. The stairway going from the niomon to the hondo is uneven and moss-covered, and the grounds have an earthy, ancient feel to them.

The primary object of worship at Sugimoto Dera is Kannon-sama. The temple is home to three large statues of the Eleven-Faced (or Eleven-Headed) Kannon, which, legend has it, have escaped a fiery destruction on two occasions — once by their own power. As they sought refuge beneath a grove of cedar trees,  the temple came to be known as Sugimoto Dera — sugi meaning cedar.

Unusually for temples, it’s possible to enter the hondo and have a close-up look at many of the temple’s treasures. Hats and shoes must be removed, and photography is not allowed, but even if you have laced shoes, it’s worth taking them off to have a look around.

In a corner of the shrine grounds, next to red-bibbed Jizo-sama, visitors will find a collection of stone gorinto, or five-tiered stupas. These are to memorialize samurai who died in a battle between imperial forces and what was left of the Hojo clan — regents of the Kamakura Shogunate, which fell in 1333 — in 1337. Behind the temple was a fortress, from which the battle spread onto temple grounds. Over 300 samurai were killed in the battle.

The temple is the first stop on two separate Kannon pilgrimages, the Bando Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimage and the Kamakura Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimage. As a result, a number of pilgrim items are on sale in the hondo, including the white hakue coat that pilgrims often wear. More evidence of pilgrims is visible in the form of votive slips pasted like stickers all over the niomon and hondo. These are senjafuda, and they bear the names of pilgrims, as well as their place of origin and other information, as a record of their visit.

くis for Kuzuharaoka Jinja

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Kuzuharaoka Jinja (sometimes referred to as Kuzuharagaoka Shrine) owes its existence to the execution of Hino Toshimoto, a scholar famed for his poetry.

Hino, a court official loyal to Emperor Go-Daigo, was twice caught plotting to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate. Though released the first time, he was found guilty and sentenced to death the second time. In June 1332 (the exact day varies depending on the source — in fact, the year does, too), Hino was executed where the shrine now stands.

Roughly 555 years later, Kuzuharaoka Shrine was established, with the spirit of Hino Toshimoto the object of worship.

The shrine sits mid-way along the Daibutsu-Kuzuharaoka hiking path that runs from Jochi-ji (Jochiji Temple) in Kita-Kamakura to the Hase area of Kamakura, near the Great Buddha of Kotoku-in (Kotoku Temple). It has a small water garden with fish, turtles and water irises, a spot to smash some little clay plates against a large stone (¥100 per plate), and a picnic area under tall trees. (Beware the crows!)

Though the shrine is not one of the main hydrangea-viewing shrines, it should be. The grounds are covered in hydrangea bushes, and during the rainy season (late May/early June to late June/early July), the shrine is covered in blossoms. The grounds also have quite a few cherry trees and bushes from the rhododendron family (whether azaleas or rhododendrons, I’m not sure — I never get it right).

The big draw at Kuzuharaoka Shrine is the enmusubi ishi, or marriage-/love-knot stone. The enshrined deity is Daikoku-sama, who in addition to being one of the Shichi Fukujin (Seven Gods of Fortune) is also known as a god of matchmaking. Not surprisingly, the ema or votive plaque at Kuzuharaoka is in the shape of a heart.

け is for Kencho-ji

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Temples in Kamakura always seem small and compact to me. Even if the grounds are large, there are hillsides and towering trees to make them seem not so. Not that I’m complaining, of course — I love Kamakura’s earthy little temples.

Kencho-ji, however, about 1km from Kita-Kamakura Station and 1.5km from Kamakura Station, is anything but small and compact. It’s open and sprawling — the largest in Kamakura, in fact. Its wide sando and grounds are airy and open, and it’s easy to see why it’s the first of Kamakura’s Five Great Zen Temples.

Founded in the mid-13th century, Kencho-ji is not a terribly old temple (for comparison, Kamakura’s oldest, Sugimoto Dera, was founded in 734 CE), though it does sit on the site of an older temple, Shinpei-ji. In ancient times, the valley in which Shinpei-ji (and now Kencho-ji) sits was known as Jigokugayatsu (or Jigokudani, depending on the source) — the Valley of Hell.*

With a name like that, it’s not terribly surprising that the valley was known for something a bit sinister. The beautiful cherry tree-filled grounds upon which you walk were once execution grounds.

To help the souls of the unfortunate, Shinpei-ji had as its primary object of worship the bodhisattva known in Japan as Jizo-sama. Jizo-sama protects those in danger and those who are lost, as well as those who fall down to hell. Nowadays, though, he’s perhaps best known as patron saint of travellers; expectant mothers; children; and babies, including those who die before or during birth. (Hasedera, in the Hase region of Kamakura, has an area dedicated to fetuses, babies and children, and the area is full of Jizo-sama.)

Kencho-ji continues the tradition of having Jizo-sama as its primary object of worship, and a large statue of Jizo-sama sits in the butsuden. In Kamakura: Fact and Legend, Iso Mutsu writes that Jizo-sama is

enthroned upon a mighty lotus; it is carved in wood, lacquered, and originally gilded, but the latter has almost entirely disappeared leaving the dark lacquer, which invests the great figure with a somber and forbidding appearance. (p. 110)

Jizo-sama sits under an impressive ceiling, so make sure to look up when you’re there.

Behind the butsuden is the hatto, where you’ll find Senju Kannon, or One-Thousand-Armed Kannon. The ceiling above Kannon-sama is also pretty amazing.

Beyond the hatto is the hojo, where zazen practice takes place. (A glowing review of a zazen session — yes, there are special sessions in English — can be found here.) Kencho-ji is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan, so anyone with an interest in zazen should definitely try to fit in a session. Behind the hall is a garden — a National Scenic Spot, and benches upon which to relax and enjoy the view.

The road to the left of the hojo leads towards Hansobo Shrine and Shojoken Observation Deck, located at the top of the hills behind Kencho-ji. The walk up involves a lot of stairs, but the view will distract you from your burning quadriceps: after the first set of steps, the remaining hill is studded with tengu, a supernatural creature often depicted with a very long nose. Most of the tengu at Kencho-ji, though, are a bit different — they’re beaked. These raven or crow tengu (Jisho.org calls them “crow-billed goblins”) are an older tengu, more animal than the more common red-faced, long-nosed tengu. They stand guard on the hill, wings on backs, weapons (kendo shinai swords?) in hands. (For more info on tengu, check out Tofugu.com‘s post on the demon/spirits.)

At the top of the hill is Shojoken Observation Deck, where on a clear day, Mt. Fuji is visible. If you hope to see the mountain, it’s best to visit in late fall or winter, as once the temperature rises in spring, Mt. Fuji disappears into a haze that lasts until late fall, bar a few clear early mornings.

The Ten-en hiking course runs past Kencho-ji, with a path leading to it to the right of Hansobo Shrine. It’s a fantastic course — about two or three hours, not too challenging but also not too easy, and runs to Kakuon-ji (shorter hike) or Zuisen-ji (longer hike), both much smaller but still fantastic temples.

*You’ll also find Jigokugayatsu/Jigokudani translated as Hell’s Valley and Hell’s Hollow.