Shainna M. Callaway
Kamakura’s Many Significant Treasures
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
While living in Japan, I made several trips down to Kamakura to visit temples and shrines. Kamakura is a coastal city in Japan that can boast multiple attractions for travelers wishing to see well tended gardens at various times of the year. To add to the experience, there is a wonderful vintage style train on the Enoshima Line that makes a trip to see these gardens even more exciting and is well worth the extra effort.
There is an enormous patina bronze Great Buddha at Kotokuin Temple that sits serenely through every season as one might expect of it. One of the trips to visit this temple was a rainy day with everyone’s colorful umbrellas looking like a field of wildflowers scattered around his seated repose. On another visit during the following winter, the temple still had a light dusting of snow to add to the picturesque allure of the grounds.
The walk to reach this area from Kamakura station wanders through a quiet section of neighborhood with stylized trees and shrubs peaking over the walls of almost every residence. I wondered if the citizens were so skilled to produce these effects themselves or if there were gardeners that came through to prune the entire street into this look of constrained conformity. There was a plant in one yard that I was befuddled by in 2012. I thought, “how on earth did they convince an azalea to clump up its blossoms into a ball?” It was likely the first encounter that a rhododendron caught my attention.
At the mountainside Hasedera Kannon Temple, there is so much to see, and it starts right at the entrance with a couple of visually memorable trees. The beauty of the gardens and all the variety of statues on display make it one of my favorite picture collections from my time in Japan.
One of my trips was when the cherry trees, azaleas, and peonies were all blooming. I remember the little daffodils peeking over the cliffs to the koi pond below as we ascended to higher grounds. It was the first time I had ever seen a weeping cherry tree. Its limbs, graceful as a ballerina, adorned with the delicate pink flowers and tiny green leaves. All the more feminine in its appearance as it posed near a set of shockingly vicious looking statues in frozen battle strikes. An azalea (or so I believe) confused me as it appeared to be a blossoming tree. I still wonder what exactly it was that I saw. Another rhododendron, perhaps?
Of all the many sights to comment on in this temple, by far my favorite were the peonies. There were massive and luxuriant peonies all around us. The heads looked heavily adorned with hundreds of petals. I had such an urge to touch them, squish them against me, and then pluck them all out like a child. Had no one been there to witness it, the ground beneath me would have been littered with “He loves me, He loves me not” petals.
During hydrangea season, Kamakura is brimming with choices for viewing these adored blooms. Narrowing down the choices might have been the hardest part of this adventure. In the end, I chose a temple notorious for its allowance of married women residing as monks to escape living the remainder of their marriages with their husbands. The other temple choice was one known for its princess blue hydrangeas en masse with an iris garden option as well.
The mystery for me of Tokei-ji Temple was how would a garden look if it was cared for by women who found it as their haven in desperate times. The results: astounding. The paths took us by all shades and bloom styles of hydrangeas up a set of stairs, around an iris garden with a statue of buddha, past more flowers of delicate pastels, and eventually into a woodland of maples, moss, and memorial markers. It was easy to see how a lady could make this her home and have no need to leave the grounds.
In between temples, I recall we stopped for a lunch where the cafe had explanations of the ingredients and their effects on the body. My cousin is naturally always cold, and I often run hotter than most. However, we laughed at our choices which appeared it could be our diets keeping us uncomfortable as I chose a ginger dish and she chose a cucumber one.
The Meigetsu-in Temple during hydrangea season is like rebelling against hearing you could almost see too many blue hydrangeas at once and then finding yourself going, “Seriously? There are even more??” It goes on and on from the time you first ascend the flanked steps, over a gorgeous bridge, through all the rolling waves of blue, winding around curves, pathways crushed by the abundance of blooms, past more and more and more and more to the point where it feels like, “Will it ever end?!” And then it does, and suddenly there is an iris garden more beautiful than any I have ever seen before or since. The backdrop of rock formations in the mountains that surround it and the pathways that go around and through the deeply lowered bed is exactly what such a dramatic walk should bring you to as its release from climaxing. The peekaboo window with its perfect circle framing of that iris garden is something I aspire to own one day. All of it leading me to believe I might never have such an absolutely dizzying feeling of being immersed into flowers again.
The last treasure I wish to mention is Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine which came as a surprise to me one trip when we went to see the paper lantern festival at the end of summer. How on earth have we traveled to Kamakura so many times and missed this enormous shrine? The paper lanterns begin being displayed along a cherry tree lined walking path in between the traffic lanes. This pedestrian path goes on for quite a while before the shrine, and I hope to return for the cherry blossoms display one day.
There are two large lotus ponds on the right and left of a wide allée to the approach of the temple steps and forest beyond. With bridges and islands, these ponds were spectacular and appeared to be a well known romantic rendezvous for couples. Selfies abounded and to get a photo on the bridge was a struggle of politeness and respect. I hope to also return for the lotus showing one day.
In Kamakura, the feeling of their appreciation and reverence for plants and preservation is obvious in the many temples and shrines that draw visitors to them every blooming season. I am very grateful to have seen a small fraction of its beauty. I would love to one day return to chase the seasons through all the gardens I missed and visit the ones I know, again.
Much love and kind regards, Shainna 🌼