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.

え is for Engaku-ji

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I almost chose “Enoshima”, but that would have been cheating, since Enoshima isn’t actually in Kamakura (though it’s a major destination for visitors to the city). That would also have been selling Kamakura short, since one of its most important temples begins with an え: 円覚寺 (Engaku-ji). Actually, I might have to revisit this kana, as there are plenty more え places and things connected to the city.

Located in Kita-Kamakura, right by the station there, Engaku-ji is a Zen temple, and the second of Kamakura’s five great Zen temples. It’s one of the larger temples in the area, and deserves a nice, slow stroll rather than a dash through.

The temple is notable for its Great Bell (a National Treasure), and for the zazen sessions it holds. It also has a good bon festival in mid-August.

Founded: 1282

Festival: Bon Odori is late August. Other events can be found on the Engaku-ji event calendar (Japanese only).

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).