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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

か is for Kamakura-gu

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Kamakura-gu is one of Kamakura’s newer shrines, having been founded in 1869 by Emperor Meiji. The spirit of the shrine goes back much further, however, as it was established in memory of Prince Morinaga, who was imprisoned in a cave on the property for seven or eight months before being beheaded in 1335.

While the main shrine grounds are free to wander, the area behind the main shrine building — where the cavern entrance is — requires a small payment. There’s also a garden area; and a glass-walled building containing paintings, a huge statue of Prince Morinaga on a horse, and other knickknacks and oddities, in the paid area.

Kamakura-gu’s Setsubun ceremony in early February is a great one to visit with kids, as it has a special area where they can join the scramble for beans without worrying about being knocked down by bigger kids and adults. The shrine also has a bon festival in August.

Kids’ Play Between Kamakura and Hakone: Odawara Wanpaku Land

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The oft-visited Kamakura-Hakone stretch isn’t terribly child-friendly outside of the summer beach season. Kids get bored with temples and shrines, and wandering the omiyage streets of hot-spring towns gets pretty old, pretty fast. Luckily, there are a few spots that provide ample opportunity to play, and that will, with any luck, fill kids’ “play tanks” full enough to let the mums and dads enjoy what they came for without too many complaints from pint-sized companions.

Located between Hakone and Kamakura in the castle town (and Shinkansen station) of Odawara, Kodomo no Mori Koen Wanpaku Land is easily accessible by both car and Hakone Tozan bus. This expansive park isn’t too far from downtown Odawara (which is worth a visit for its castle and castle grounds — beautiful cherry blossoms in early spring, hydrangeas during the rainy season, and if memory serves, irises in May), though don’t expect to be able to walk.

Wanpaku Land is on the side of a hill, so be prepared for some steep inclines in the playing area, but for those lacking the ability or inclination to walk from spot to spot, there’s a road train, as well as a proper mini train, that make the rounds (though thanks to the park’s geography, they don’t visit each and every mini-park within the park).

The day we visited — a chilly, windy Sunday in February, a handful of food trucks were parked at various parks-within-the-park, serving a variety of hot and cold food. Vending machines with both snacks and drinks were on hand in rest areas.

The park also has some ponies, goats, sheep and pigs, with several pony-ride times open during the day. A taiken/workshop or two teach kids to make little knickknacks. At the entrance, a collection of kiddie rides offers some electronic fun for wee-er ones.

Our six-year-old had a blast, and judging by the expressions of sheer delight on the faces of the other kids, every other non-adult was also having the time of his or her life.

Please note that though entrance to the park is free, the train, road train, pony rides, kiddie rides and parking all require payment, though prices aren’t steep.

**Closed Mondays (unless Monday is a national holiday, in which case the park is open), the weekday after national holidays, and the end-of-year/new-year period**

**Information is accurate as of February 7, 2018. Please refer to the website (Japanese) for updated information before visiting.**

お is for Onari Shotengai

 

Onari Shotengai, out the west side of Kamakura Station, doesn’t get much press, being overshadowed by Komachi Dori, the shopping street out the east side. But it has a lot going for it.

The past year or so has seen quite a few new shops open along the shopping street, including cafes, jewellery shops (with a taiken/workshop option — there’s even the option to make your engagement and wedding bands as a couple. Squeee!), and fanciest of all, Chocolate Bank (located in an old bank, natch), purveyor of fine chocolates, pastries and other chocolate-related goods. Pricey but yummy — and there’s a giant gorilla on the communal table, which my six-year-old daughter assures me is made of solid chocolate (…), sweetening the deal even further. (Non-communal seating is also available.)

Craft shops, a cat-related goods shop, a basket shop, vintage kimono shops (more than one!), bakeries, cake shops, coffee beans, a crêperie, clothing boutiques, a shoe store, flower shops, a Pinterest-worthy interior decor shop (one of my faves!), a liquor shop, a yaoya (greengrocer), a place to get your nails done, your hair done, your photos printed… the list goes on.

And if you’re dreaming of owning a house in the area, there are two real estate agencies with lovely photos in the windows, too. The one even charts the seasons with the help of Anpan Man.

Anpan Man dressed for Setsubun
It’s Setsubun! 

One of the best parts is that it’s not nearly as crowded as Komachi Dori, which is wonderful, especially on hot summer days.