A Day Trip to Japan's Past

History sits in plain sight in the seaside city of Kamakura

If you're longing for a nostalgic glimpse of old Japan--and you have a free day during a visit to Tokyo--Kamakura beckons. A one-hour train ride away, the seaside community is noted for its ancient temples and shrines, as well as the verdant hills that seem untouched by time.

Yoritomo Minamoto, Japan's first shogun, or military leader, established his headquarters in Kamakura in 1180 for good reason. Protected by mountains on one side and Sagami Bay on the Pacific coast on the other, the area was easily defensible against any army attempting to challenge the bakafu, or military government. Over the next 150 years, religion, art, and architecture flourished. Chinese monks were invited to settle in the city, where they set up Zen Buddhist temples and monasteries that are still in operation.

One of the most famous of these Zen centers is the 13th century Engaku-ji. Set in a forested hill of North Kamakura, the temple boasts an impressive sanmon, or main gate, that houses two large statues of Buddhist deities. Depending on the time of day, you may see students practicing kyudo (traditional archery using large bows and arrows), or Zen monks dressed in dark homespun robes heading to and from the meditation center. The temple also has a traditional Zen garden. It may look off-limits, but you're welcome to enter. The contemplative garden, made up of trees and rock arrangements that evoke a landscape, is a masterpiece.

An interesting temple in the same neighborhood is Tokei-ji, also set up in the hills. Better known as the Divorce Temple, it may have been the world's first sanctuary for unhappy wives. If a woman was able to reach the temple gates, her husband could not force her to leave. After three years of residing in the nunnery, she was free of an unhappy marriage.

Several other Kamakura temples are worth visits. The Meigetsu-in, full of hydrangeas in June, is home to Kamakura's largest yagura, or burial cave, complete with 16 carvings of Buddha. Another is the Hachiman Shrine, where most of the city's festivals and other cultural activities are based. This is where the first shogun worshipped and built lasting relics, including the Drum Bridge, a steeply curved stone structure at the main entrance.

A popular tourist destination is the Daibutsu, or Great Buddha, which towers 38 feet above its base. But with its disproportionately large head and hunched shoulders, it's nowhere near as elegant as the one that inspired it, the 53-foot bronze Great Buddha of Nara, near Kyoto. A more important work is located just down the road from the Kamakura Daibutsu: The Hase-dera, another temple, houses a beautiful, 8th century gilded statue of the Goddess of Mercy, which stands 30 feet tall.

For souvenirs, you may want to consider Kamakura-bori, a style of lacquerware developed 700 years ago for the city's temples. For relics, Yashihiro Takishita, who is fluent in English, sells Japanese ceramics, screens, and furniture in his House of Antiques in the hills above city.

Near the train station, you can visit Masamine Kogei, a shop selling the wares of Tsunahiro Yamamura, a 24th generation swordmaker. It's another reminder that Kamakura is a city steeped in history and tradition.

By Irene Kunii

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