Epic Kamakura Day Hike

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The pink line is roughly what you’ll hike.

Looking for more nature, less temple-/shrine-hopping? Perhaps you’ve done the Kamakura Big Three (Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu, Kotoku-in and the Daibutsu, Hase Dera) so many times with visiting friends that your repeated entry fees alone would have been enough to pay for the Daibutsu’s recent freshening-up. Or maybe you just need an escape from the concrete jungle in which you live and all that goes with it. Whatever the case, you’ll be pleased to know that Kamakura has three longish hiking trails, which, with a little urban trekking thrown in, can be joined together into an epic day-long hike around the city through the Kamakura Alps (yes, the hills are actually referred to as the Kamakura Alps).

 

Daibutsu-Kuzuharaoka Trail
Daibutsu hike
Stone monument along the trail

The hike begins with the Daibutsu-Kuzuharaoka trail, connects with the Ten-en trail, adds the Asahina Kiridoshi trail (a short trail that can technically be left out, but why, oh why, would you leave it out?) and ends with the Kinubariyama trail. Finally, you’re left with the choice of walking back into the city or walking Zaimokuza and Yuigahama beaches right back to Hase Station where you began.

Technically you can start elsewhere, but I prefer to begin with the Daibutsu trail from the Hase trailhead, whose closest station is Hase Station on the Enoden Line. Follow the crowds down the street towards Kotoku-in and the Daibutsu, but keep walking along Prefectural Road 32 past the temple’s entrance. Just before you reach the tunnel through the hill, look to your right and head up the staircase. The trail has two offshoots (one to the left over the tunnel, and one heading straight up and over the hill — this is the short Daibutsu Kiridoshi hiking trail), but ignore these two options and keep right, following the trail into the forested hill.

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A small bamboo grove near the end of the trail

The first scramble up the hill is the hardest, and from there, it’s mostly smooth sailing, with a few quad-burning staircases and a small scramble or two along the way. There are a few places of note along the trail, the first being a side path to the left heading to Cafe Terrace Itsuki Garden, a terraced cafe (as the name suggests…) that many liken to Laputa, the floating city from the Ghibli movie Castle in the Sky. Expect long waits during hydrangea season, as the cafe has quite a nice collection of the flowers drawing guests in.

 

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Vermillion torii of Sasuke Inari

There’s also a side path heading to Sasuke Inari Shrine, a beautiful hillside spot generously peppered with tiny ceramic foxes and larger fox statues. The sando leading back towards town from the shrine runs under several dozen vermillion torii, and it’s up to you whether you walk down the sando and around to the left and up (very steeply) towards Zeniarai Benten before rejoining the trail by Kuzuharaoka Shrine, or double-back along the trail and continue on towards Kuzuharaoka Shrine on the dirt path. Those who choose to double-back rather than follow the road around will have another chance to visit Zeniarai Benten once the trail opens up by a park. Simply head down the stairs to your right, and go partway down the hill. Zeniarai Benten is accessed through a tunnel in the rock.

 

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Jochi-ji

To continue on to Kita-Kamakura, walk through the park (or head back up to the park if you took the side trip to Zeniarai Benten), following the signs to Kuzuharaoka Shrine. The shrine is a nice place to rest, as it sits beside a picnic area with low tables and chopped logs for chairs. The path continues to the right of the shrine, and in roughly 30 or 40 minutes, you’ll find yourself walking down a paved road beside Jochi-ji, one of Kamakura’s great Zen temples and one of the temples on the Kamakura Seven Gods of Fortune pilgrimage and the Kamakura Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimage.

 

Ten'en Trail
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Ten’en trail

To connect to the next hiking trail, turn right onto the main road (Prefectural Road 21), and follow it until you reach Kencho-ji, the first of the great Zen temples of Kamakura. While there is another entrance to the Ten’en hiking trail from the Meigetsu-in area that won’t set you back a ¥300 temple entrance fee, the easiest entrance is found at the very back of Kencho-ji, up a wicked set of stairs, and at the back right corner of the temple’s hilltop shrine. (If you do want to save ¥300, here’s a video showing how to access the Meigetsu-in area trailhead from in front of Meigetsu-in, plus of the entire hike.)

Ten’en winds through the hills past Kakuon-ji (down a side trail) and then to Zuisen-ji, a temple roughly two kilometres northeast of Kamakura Station. Along the way, a plethora of yagura — burial caves carved into the rock — can be seen, in addition to impressive views.

Asahina Kiridoshi Trail
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Asahina Kiridoshi trail

Tired hikers can cut out at Zuisen-ji and walk city streets back to Kamakura Station. Those who wish to keep going should skip the Zuisen-ji exit and continue ahead along the much-less-travelled path until it ends at a small cluster of houses. Head down the road to your right, continuing in the same general direction (you might have to do a few detours) until you reach Prefectural Road 204 (Kanazawa Kaido), where you should turn left and follow the road until signs point you in the direction of the Asahina Kiridoshi Pass (sometimes spelled “Asaina”). This forested trail will lead you down one of Kamakura’s ancient roads, through one of its seven old entranceways, and all the way to the Yokohama City limits.

 

Kinubariyama Trail
Kinubariyama Mandarado yagura
Mandarado yagura

Double back along the trail, and trek down Prefectural Road 204 towards Kamakura until you come to a Japanese sign for Kinubariyama on the left side of the street (衣張山まで15分 — it’s under a bilingual sign for Hokoku-ji, and next to a motorcycle dealership). Follow the side road up through the houses until it dead-ends into the entrance to the Kinubariyama trail, which will take you up and around the eastern edges of Kamakura (keep an eye out for signs at forks in the road, and when all else fails, stick to the main trail). There are a few points of interest along (or close to) the Kinubariyama trail, including the Mandarado yagura, a group of tiered burial caves (open only occasionally but visible from the trail), and Osarubatake Okirigishi, a roughly 800m stretch of Kamakura rock that until recently was believed to be old fortifications but which turns out was just a spot where Kamakura rock was harvested.

 

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Zaimokuza and Yuigahama beach

The trail ends at Nagoe Kiridoshi Pass, another of the old entrances to Kamakura, and hikers can continue down into the Kotsubo area of Zushi, or double-back and head down a side trail into a different area of Kotsubo. Local buses pass through both neighbourhoods, though there might be a bit of a wait, and head to either Zushi Station or Kamakura Station (both on the Yokosuka Line), depending on the area. If you’re still good to go, though, head down through your chosen subdivision towards the ocean, and make your way to Zaimokuza and Yuigahama beach, where you can cool your feet off in the waves.

 

To truly complete your around-the-city hike, continue all the way to the other side of the beach, and head back into the city to find Hase Station.

Bring Sustenance

This hike takes six or seven hours at a good pace. Make sure to bring lots of liquids and snacks with you, although there are a few vending machines and the odd convenience store along the urban part of the way, including a perfectly placed Mini Stop on Prefectural Road 204 between the Asahina Kiridoshi Pass and the entrance to the Kinubariyama trail, to supplement what you’ve packed.

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.**