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
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.
Egara Tenjinsha is in eastern Kamakura, just a few minutes from the larger and better-known Kamakura-gu. I had never been until January 2018, and had always thought it to be a rather small, minor shrine. You can imagine my surprise when I reached the top of the stairway to discover shrine grounds fairly overflowing with New Year’s visitors. The lineup to reach the main hall wrapped around the small plateau, and the lineup to receive… whatever it was everyone was filling out applications for, was equally as long.
Though the sando is pretty average now, once upon a time, it was quite extraordinary. In her book, Kamakura: Fact and Legend, Iso Mutsu writes that “a long and imposing avenue of ancient pines forms the approach, spanned by a large stone torii.”
Egara Tenjinsha’s main shrine building is a beautiful orange, reminiscent of the buildings of Heian Jingu in Kyoto. According to Guide to Kamakura, by Akemi Ohno, the main sanctuary — a National Important Cultural Property — was originally part of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. Ohno writes that it is the only wooden building from the Kamakura period still in Kamakura.
Inari, or O-Inari-san, is the Shinto god of rice. He’s often depicted with a few foxes — his messengers — so it’s not surprising that shrines dedicated to O-Inari-san overflow with fox statues and trinkets. Sasuke Inari Shrine, Kamakura’s shrine dedicated to O-Inari-san, is no different, with foxes here, there and everywhere; in every nook and cranny of the forested hillside shrine.
One of Kyoto’s best-known shrines — Fushimi Inari Taisha — is the head Inari shrine, famous for its many (many, many, many) vermillion torii leading to the main shrine grounds. While Sasuke Inari Shrine’s torii aren’t as numerous (according to An English Guide to Kamakura’s Temples and Shrines, there are “as many as 40”), they’re still quite something to behold.
As for its origins, Iso Mutsu wrote in Kamakura: Fact and Legend, “Legend relates that during the early days of the first shogun, while he was still in seclusion at Hirugashima (Izu) the fox messenger of Inari appeared to Yoritomo, predicting that the scene of his future glory lay at Kamakura; hence the erection of this shrine.”
Festivals: Hatsu Uma Matsuri ・ 初午祭 (First Horse Zodiac Festival), to pray for a good harvest in the coming year, celebrated on the first horse day of February (2018 will be Feb 7)
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.
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.
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-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-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).
We dropped by Goryojinja the other day to get a Fukurokuju stamp for our Shichifukujin (Seven Gods of Luck) stamp collection, and took a minute to enjoy the charm of the Enoden train skirting the shrine grounds.