Thursday, July 29, 2010

Japan Part 4 - Day Trips: Kamakura

Another one of our favorite day trips was to Kamakura, which was temporarily the capital of Japan from 1192-1333. Only an hour from Tokyo, Kamakura has one of the largest densities of temples and shrines in the country, which means lots of tourists, although no one place ever felt especially crowded. While we ran into a good amount of foreign tourists as we wandered around Japan, Kamaura almost exclusively seemed to have Japanese tourists who had just come out escape the city and and enjoy this pretty area for the day. Most of the sights were within walking distance between Kamakura's two train stations, and it was just as much fun to wander along the residential roads of Kamakura as it was to visit the temples and shrines themselves.

The great thing about visiting temples and shrines in Japan is that many of them, with their carefully landscaped gardens, courtyards and buildings, are like being transported to another place. The outside world really does seem to disappear for a time, especially in some of the older structures that have been there seemingly forever, where cities and towns have grown up around them.

Meigetsu-in is known for its many varieties of hydrangea (its nickname is the hydrangea temple), and lucky for us, we were there during the peak season for these beautiful flowers. Many of the varieties were familiar, bet there were definitely a few colors and shapes that I never knew were possible for this flower.

More statues in their fancy dress, this one from the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine. As I've mentioned in already, the Japanese like to dress up their statues, and I recently learned some of the reasons behind this. This fox statue (Kitsune), is the messenger of Oinari, the deity of food, farmers and the rice harvest, and dressing them is one way to show one's devotion and hope for a good harvest. Other statues get similar treatment as well. In the case jizo statues, like the one from last week, these are not only given the requisite red bib, but are often dressed up and offered toys and clothing as well. This is done by mothers whose children have died before their parents, as offerings for helping these children negotiate the underworld. You can read more about this practice here.

Its hard to tell from this picture, but these caves, called yagura, were used during the 13th century or so as tombs. This particular yagura, at Meigetsu-in, is the largest of the group, and you can see sculptures and drawings all along the cave walls.

A sign pointing out the nearby temple bell (Bonsho), in Kencho-ji, is a National Treasure. We saw a ton of National Treasures in Japan. If something was old and important but wasn't a National Treasure, it was probably Important Cultural Property. I'm not exactly sure about what distinguishes these two categories, but there was always a helpful English sign pointing them out. The rest of the text was usually then in Japanese, but at least we knew that whatever we were looking at was a) old, and b) really, really important.

Have you ever seen a tree with this sort of coloring before? Isn't it beautiful? It was in Kencho-ji, the first and grandest of Kamakura's Zen temples. These cypress tress are said to have grown from seeds brought from China 700 years ago by Lah-hsi Tao-lung, the founding priest.

Karesansui, a beautiful garden of raked sand, rocks and moss, at Meigetsu-in.

Meigetsu-in is also known for this sight, in the temple itself, which has something to do with the legend of the Moon Rabbit. From what I could gather, instead of the man-in-the-moon, the Japanese have the rabbit-in-the-moon. We didn't get the full story of how the Moon Rabbit is realted to this particular temple, but it's a beautiful sight, regardless. And for those of you who are curious, here's the story of the Moon Rabbit.

This is the sign that greeted us when we went to take a look at the temple's rabbit hutches. There go those crazy rabbits, up the to moon!

We also managed to run into a wedding ceremony in the courtyard at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu, the most important Shinto shrine in the city, which was established by the Genji family, founders of the Kamakura shogunate.

More to see on flickr!

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