Summer in Kamakura

There’s no denying it: Rainy season is over (something like 22 days earlier than average!), which means summer is here and it is hot. And humid. And it’s going to last at least two months. Of course, we wouldn’t have it any other way in a beach town — who wants cool, drizzly summers when there’s an ocean to enjoy? But it is a tough go some days, and even the most dedicated sun worshippers need something to help get them through the dog days of the season.

What helps get me to the cool(er) days of September without losing my mind is summer festivals, or matsuri.

Tanabata

Once a year, two celestial lovers banished to separate sides of the night sky by an angry father reunite. The stars Vega and Altair play the roles of Orihime, a weaver, and Hikoboshi, a cow herder, two newlyweds who neglected their duties in a post-wedding haze of happiness (one assumes). Tentei, Orihime’s father, emperor of the heavens and clearly a strict disciplinarian, sent them packing in opposite directions, and allows them to meet but once a year — and only if they work hard the rest of the year.

IMG_6743Those in the earthly realm celebrate the day by making wishes. At stations and schools, shops, shrines and in some homes, you’ll see bamboo branches covered with bright strips of paper. Written on the strips are wishes, from simple “I wish I would become better at drawing” (my daughter’s wish for the year) to far more serious wishes concerning love, school entrance exams, jobs and health.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, the main shrine in Kamakura, holds a Tanabata festival every year. The streamers are already up, and a few different events take place on July 7.

For more information on Tanabata, see Nippon.com‘s article on the festival.

For more information on Tanabata at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, click here.

Bon Festivals

Bon Odori KoganeiObon is the spookiest time of year in Japan. It’s when the division between the spirit world and our world is at its thinnest, and it’s at this time of year that Japanese families invite their ancestors into their homes. Of course, not all Japanese families do this anymore, but it isn’t terribly uncommon, particularly in more rural areas, to find signs of invitation — a lantern, perhaps, or little animals outside houses made of cucumbers and eggplants to help carry ancestors to our world and back to their own. Plenty goes on during Obon (find more information here), but by far my favourite activity is the bon festival.

There are three fairly large bon festivals in Kamakura, in addition to smaller neighbourhood events. The big ones are at Engaku-ji, Kamakura-gu and at the beach.

Engaku-ji: TBA (usually mid-August)

Kamakura-gu: August 20, 21 (This is according to the person we spoke with at Kamakura-gu — but the city website says 19, 20… Will be looking into this again later in the month.)

Kamakura Hama no Bon Odori: July 28 (Hosted by Asia beach house. Not quite sure where the beach house is this year, but once you hit the beach, it should soon become obvious.)

Fireworks

Summer just wouldn’t be summer without seeing some fireworks. Fingers crossed for a light breeze to carry the smoke offshore!

70th Kamakura Hanabi Taikai, Yuigahama Beach: July 24 (7:20-8:10pm) *Rain date: July 25

Enoshima Noryo Hanabi Taikai, Katase Nishihama: August 21 (7-7:20pm) *Cancelled if weather is poor; no rain date

Of course, there are plenty of other little festivals here and there at various temples and shrines, and in small neighbourhoods, so always keep an eye out for lanterns and an ear cocked for taiko pounding. Sometimes the best festivals are the unexpected kind.

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
IMG_2282
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
IMG_5274
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.

 

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.

Bon Odori Summer Festivals

 

tsukiji Hongwan-ji bon festival
Bon odori at Tsukiji Hongwan-ji, near Tsukiji Station, Tokyo

Japanese summers are pretty spectacular. They buzz (cicadas) and DON DON DON (taiko drums). They whistle and gong and chant (festivals). They’re burning hot and impossibly humid. But if you let the music drifting from the festival grounds carry you along, not only will you make it to fall without melting into a puddle (maybe), you’ll have a damn good time, too.

Awa odori drummer
Taiko drummer at Awa Odori in Musashi-Koganei, Koganei City, Tokyo

There are a huge number of matsuri (festivals) that take place over the summer months. The big ones are definitely worth a visit if you’ve got the time and the means (the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture, and the Awa Odori in Tokushima, Shikoku, are my favourites), but there’s absolutely no need to go far afield to find a fun summer matsuri.

Bon odori, dance festivals that take place during the period of Obon when the Japanese honour their ancestors, are held in small neighbourhoods as well as in large city centres. The dances are easy—and usually repeated several times at each dance—and there’s no costume requirement (though a yukata or jimbei adds a bit of authenticity to the experience). Some have live music, while others rely on tinny recordings played on ancient tape recorders. You might get lucky and get a fireworks show tacked onto the end, or other entertainment, like cheerleaders demonstrating routines, a taiko performance, a hula dance recital, or, if you’re really lucky, traditional Japanese clowns demonstrating their art.

Bon Odori Koganei
Bon odori stage and lanterns, Higashi-Koganei, Koganei City, Tokyo

Depending on the area, Obon is observed around mid-July or mid-August, meaning that bon odori are held in various areas throughout the summer.

Favourites in the Tokyo area include the Hanazono Jinja bon odori (August 1 and 2, located roughly 10min from Shinjuku Station), the Tsukiji Hongwan-ji bon odori (August 3-6, located near Tsukiji Station), and the Hibiya Park bon odori (August 26, 27, located near Hibiya Station).

Kamakura, of course, has a few of its own bon odori. In our little neighbourhood, there are two very small odori, one at Gokuraku-ji and one at Goryo Jinja. These are mostly for neighbourhood kids, so not surprisingly, the song selection is limited to two or three easy songs. Kamakura does host two rather large bon odori, however, that could cap off a day-trip to the city in fine fashion.

engaku-jiEngaku-ji, one of the area’s larger temples (and temple number two of Kamakura’s five major Zen temples) hosts its bon odori on August 24 and 25 this year. The temple is located right at Kita-Kamakura Station, very likely allowing it to claim the title of most convenient bon odori in the city. The expansive temple grounds deserve a good look before dusk falls, so be sure to make time for some wandering. Have a look here, here and here for an idea of what the grounds are like.

Kamakura-guKamakura-gu (Kamakura Shrine) is host to the other large bon odori in Kamakura. The dance is held on August 19 and 20. The shrine is a bit of a hike from Kamakura Station (around 20min), but there is a bus that leaves from the east exit of Kamakura Station that heads out towards Kamakura-gu. For bus information, please visit Kamakura Visitor’s Guide. (Note the Kamakura Free Kankyo Tegata bus pass that, for around ¥600, will give riders unlimited rides within the pass’s boundaries on participating bus and train lines).