Friday of that week, June 29, Tomoko Kawahara took me to Kamakura–we had been working so hard during the training that we never had time to spend any social time together. Many people had mentioned that I would like Kamakura, a seaside community that features nearly forty shrines and temples, notably the Great Buddha of Kamakura. We took a number of trains there and finally ended up approximately an hour outside of Tokyo. Once there we paid for a trolley to take us to the local spots. Our first stop was an organic restaurant on Yuigahama Beach for a lunch of tempeh with tomato sauce, and assorted vegetarian dishes.
After walking on the beach we strolled up to the view the Great Buddha at the Kotoku-in Temple. As usual, before entering the grounds you cleanse at a purification fountain and then proceed. There seemed to be hundreds of people on the Temple grounds on this hot, sunny day. The Great Buddha of Kamakura (Daibutsu) is massive (13.35 meters/43.8ft tall and weighs approx. 93 tonnes/270,000 lbs). It is one of the most famous icons of Japan as well as its tallest bronze Buddha and I was very impressed that this icon has existed on this site unharmed since the 1252. The original Buddha was made out of wood in 1243 and later destroyed and the various halls that housed the Buddha over the centuries succumbed to various natural disasters. The current bronze statue was cast to replace it and may have been gilded which would have a magnificent sight to see. The statue is hollow and Tomoko said that it is believed that “going inside the Buddha will let you start a new.” At first I wasn’t sure–I couldn’t imagine walking through the Buddha in the heat with dozens of school children. However, I said, “I am returning to L.A. and could use a new start, let’s go inside.”
From there we strolled along a cheerful, quaint street through town, passing a small temple, Shū Genji, which was built to commemorate Shijokingo a faithful believer of the religion Nichiren who was persecuted in 1271. This temple, a former residence made of wood was modest in size surrounded by a brushy garden.
After a quick snack of matcha gelato we took the trolley to another stop nearby to see the hilltop Jojuin Temple (c. 1219), surrounded by 262 pale blue, lavender, pink & white hydrangea bushes on a slope overlooking the ocean. Jojuin is also referred to as the “Hydrangea Temple” and we were fortunate to be there for peak blooming season. “262” is the number of Chinese characters used in Hannya-shingyo Sutra. 108 steps lead up to the temple–“108” is the number of tolling bells on New Years eve. The temple grounds had various statues commemorating prominent Buddhist priests associated with this compound.
As we walked toward the train station, we stopped by the Gokurakuji Temple which was built-in Fukazawa in 1259 by the Buddhist priest Ryokanbo Ninsho and then moved to Kamakura around 1262. After and crouching down to enter the wooden gate we walked down a shaded path toward a very interesting complex of ornately carved wooden structures.
From there we took the trolley back to the train station and transferred to a bus that would weave its way through Kamakura to the amazing Hokokuji Temple. Founded by Tengan Eko (Buddhist name Butsujo-Zenji) who was a representative of the Zen literary movement known as Gozan Bungak, this sanctuary flourished as the family temple of both the Ashikaga and Uesugi clans. A magical and vast garden of 2,000 Mōsō Bamboo trees dominates the property which is the reason why this complex is commonly referred to as the “Bamboo Temple.” We decided to rest for a while at the tea house (Kyūkōan) and had fresh matcha tea under a canopy of bamboo overlooking a small waterfall. A leisurely tour of the temple grounds revealed surprising highlights: carved stone reliquaries, statues decorated with red hats, deep blue tinged hydrangea, a cave of tombs (Yagura), and a thatched roof bell tower.
Once back at the train station, I saw trees decorated with colorful ribbons of paper and origami. I can’t remember the specific story associated with the decorated trees that Tomoko told me, but they were delightful and whimsical, so I took a picture.
In all, we saw five temples that day and it would take several trips to see them all. I asked Tomoko what the difference was between a “temple” and “shrine” and with a little more investigation I found that one is “Buddhist “and the other “Shinto.” “Shinto” (Kami Nomchi—“the way of the Gods”) is a religion indigenous to Japan that worships nature. Originally people prayed to the great natural phenomena such as mountains, wind,rain, trees, rivers, fertility and powerful deities that inhabit heaven and earth. Distinguishing characteristics of “Shinto Shrines”–are a Tori Gate, such as the grand ones featured at the Meiiji Shrine. In addition, there is a purification fountain near the entrance to cleanse your mouth and hands before prayer.
“Buddhism” (Bukkyō) made its way into Japan in the 6th century via China and Korea. Predominant details of “Budhhist Temples” are: the presence of the color red as evident with the Senso-ji Temple ( or a red gate (Yukuimon) and other items); an image of Buddha; and a large incense burner placed in front of the temple. Smoke created by the burning of incense is said to have healing properties. In addition, a pagoda is on the premises.
My trip to Kamakura was the perfect final sightseeing adventure to summarize my experiences in Japan and I ‘m no expert on the subject, but I could see first hand that influences of Shinto are pervasive in almost every aspect of Japanese life and culture–the naturalness of the structures, food and even clothing; respect for people, animals and towards all living things; traditions and celebrations. Furthermore, there is relatively little crime in Japan and people are generally good spirited and very kind. Nevertheless, these two religions—Shinto and Buddhism–coexist and complement each other which creates a harmonious balanced life.