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