Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Kamakura - a link to the past


I was told that there are actually two Japans. The first would be Tokyo and other major cities: modern, cosmopolitan, made of steel, glass and concrete. Always bright, always crowded, never asleep. The second would be the small towns, scattered around the countryside. A bit forgotten, old and wooden, closer to the nature and tradition. Of course Japanese manage to combine the two worlds pretty well: there's a lot of tradition in the Capital's centre and some modern stuff in even the tiniest of villages. But I really wanted to experience this other, smaller Japan, especially after a tiring night at Roppongi. The perfect place to visit is Kamakura, a half an hour by train to the south of Yokohama. A picturesque medieval town stretching from the Ocean's shore to the nearby hills. Densely covered with forests, shrines and temples, a popular hiking destination for the Japanese from big cities, mostly during weekends and national holidays. We (myself and seven other Vulcanuses) also visited the place during a holiday: September 20th is Respect for the Aged Day in Japan. So... what's up in the countryside?

First of all, an important fact: Kamakura used to be Japan's capital city in the Kamakura Period (yeah...) sometime between 1185 AD and 1392 AD. It was where shoguns from the Minamoto family resided. They overthrew the fragile reign of Kyoto emperors and established a military government in their faraway home town. The predominant ideology of those times was Zen Buddhism praised by the ruling warrior class of bushi (we call them 'samurai', which is a bit incorrect). Hence so many Buddhist temples in the area, which also was an important stronghold during the XIV century's Mongolian invasions on Japan. The first temple is actually a few meters away from the train station - it's the great Engaku-Ji, the Temple of Spirit or Perfect Enlightenment. It was build by the shogun after his victory against the Mongolians in order to express his gratitude and ease the souls of people who died in the war. The temple itself is a pretty big complex of different purpose buildings. I've never been to a Buddhist temple and I was charmed by the beautiful gates leading to different areas and the sacral places with many Buddha statues and altars. Everything there is wooden, some of the buildings are 700 years old, some were rebuild in latter eras after fires. There are also some graveyards (which is a distinctive feature of Buddhist temples - Shinto shrines don't have them) and small grottoes carved in the surrounding rocky hills. The place has many visitors yet it's very quiet and beautiful. I felt as if I went back in time a few hundred years, to the times of shogun and samurai. A great experience.

Then we went along the Daibutsu Hiking Road to see the famous Great Buddha statue. The narrow path led through a kind of familiar looking forest (apart from some bamboos maybe) situated on some steep hills, which gave as a great view of the beautiful landscape with the seaside and the whole town in the distance. If I hadn't known that it used to be the capital city, I would have never guessed - now it look silly compared to Tokyo. We passed some other temples along the way (some of them are branches of Engaku-Ji, which is a regional Zen centre). We also visited a small Shinto shrine or rather an altar hidden deep in the trees. Of course, before entering the holy ground, we had to wash our hands and mouths with water pouring from a cute blue dragon statue. Back home, I would never agree to do any religious practices, but here... it's Japan and I have to try everything. The nice thing about the humble Shinto shrines is an always present rack with small pieces of wood or paper attached to it, on which people can write down their wishes and intentions. During the walk I got to meet Tetsu-san, a 2009-2010 Vulcanus in Europe (Germany) student, who happened to visit Cracow and liked it a lot. Finally, we got to the Great Buddha. The copper monument was pretty impressive, about 10 m high and surrounded by lots of lots of tourist. After taking some typical Daibutsu photos and even going inside the statue (extremely hot), we went to eat some great ramen and ended up on Kamakura's beach. Everyone was too tired to do anything else, so we went back home. The end. Kamakura was definitely different than Tokyo. Closer to the nature, tradition and religion, it was indeed a very different Japan.

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