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Travel: Walking around Kamakura, the ancient seat of the Shogunate

Kamakura, the former political capital of Japan, is an enchanting melange of history, spirituality and culture

The Hase-dera temple is one of Kamakura’s three most important temples. (Anita Rao Kashi)

By Anita Rao Kashi

LAST PUBLISHED 29.02.2024  |  07:00 AM IST

Dense concrete clusters fall away, giving way to wide open spaces with scattered habitations as the train leaves Tokyo. Quite unexpectedly, the snow-capped tip of Mount Fuji comes into view for a few seconds as the train rushes along, heading south to Kamakura, the former seat of the shogunate, Japan's former system of hereditary military dictatorship and rule.

An hour later, the train pulls into Kamakura, a maze of narrow lanes with pretty houses sitting cheek by jowl with some 80 temples and shrines, in the Kanagawa prefecture. For over a century in the medieval period, Kamakura was the reigning city of Japan.

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A short walk from the station takes me to the Hase-dera temple, one of Kamakura’s three most important temples. Along the way, my guide points out several old temples that date to the seventh and eighth centuries and reeling off their history as proof of the city’s ancestry. It is only in the late 12th century that Kamakura became the seat of the shogun ruler. The Kamakura shogunate thrived till the 14th century, when the power centre moved to Kyoto. During the Kamakura period, the city was a bustling centre for not just politics but also culture, arts and religion.

Once dislodged from its position of pre-eminence, Kamakura never regained its former glory, yet the plethora of temples and shrines retain an inexorable attraction. My own visit bears this out as I climb the steps of the Hase-dera temple. The sprawling temple premises are spread over various levels filled with lush green gardens, water bodies with koi fish, little shrines and various devout offerings. It is not crowded but there is a substantial number of tourists and devotees, yet it is peaceful, the quiet broken only by strains of lilting sacred music, chants and bells. What overwhelms me a bit is the profusion of stone and cement statues of various sizes—ranging from a few centimetres to a few feet—dedicated to Jizo, the delightful, baby-faced deity who is the protector of women, children and travellers.

A winding path through all these elements leads upwards and opens into a large space with a beautiful brown and white structure that houses the main deity, Hase-kannon or the Bodhisattva of Compassion. According to legend, the temple dates back to early eighth century, built when the locals found a massive Kannon statue made from wood that had washed up at Nagai beach nearby. The story goes that a monk called Tokudo found a camphor trunk so large that he carved two giant Kannon statues in early eighth century. One was installed in a shrine in Yamato province. The other was set afloat and turned up near Kamakura.

The story seems perfectly plausible as I gaze at the deity rising over 30ft. Gilded in gold, there are many details etched into the façade, including multiple heads representing the various stages of enlightenment. Under the temple is a cave with a low, narrow winding path. It is musty and cold and a bit claustrophobic, but large Buddhist carvings on the wall and hundreds of Jizo replicas scattered throughout work very well as distraction. Once I am out, I wander to the terrace adjoining the main temple to get a fill of stunning sea views of the Sagami Bay in the Pacific Ocean, the wide panorama serving as an antidote to the enclosed space of the cave.

A short walk north of the temple takes me to the nondescript entrance of the Kotoku-in temple. A path leads to a bare sprawling ground, in the middle of which rises a giant Buddha. The sheer size, spectacle and the unexpectedness takes my breath away.The Kotoku-in temple, also known as the Great Buddha statue and Daibutsu, is one of the most recognisable Buddhist temples in Kamakura, and in Japan.

As the initial astonishment abates, I walk up for a closer glimpse of the bronze statue of Amitabha Buddha, the one of infinite light. Rising more than 13m and weighing almost 100 tonnes, it is hollow and people are allowed to wander inside. Created in the mid-13th century, it was originally gold-plated. Now largely greenish owing to the oxidisation of the bronze. My guide tells me the statue is highly regarded since it originally stood inside a temple but the structure was washed away in a tsunami in the late 15th century but the statue has steadfastly stood since in the open air.

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After a morning of treading hallowed ground, I needed a bit of lightness. A short bus ride to the north-east of the town brings me to Komachi Street. A bright red tori or ceremonial gate stands at the entrance to the 350m street. On either side are restaurants, boutique stores, cafés, traditional Japanese sweet shops, kimono and umbrella shops, and an array of establishments. It is completely pedestrianised and buzzing with people. Most seductive are the delicious smells wafting from roadside stalls and I frequently stop to sample sweets, bean paste cakes, fried mushroom croquettes, and savoury snacks on sticks.

At the other end of the street, the noise drops dramatically as it leads towards the entrance of the picturesque Hachiman-gu Shinto shrine, belonging to the Minamoto shogun. Going back to the mid-11th century, it is dedicated to the deity of martial arts. I wander around looking at the little plaques with wishes or prayers hung by the devout on large wooden frames. The plaques swing and sway in the gentle breeze; the faithful believe the wind carries their pleas to the kami, Japanese spirits or deities. It is as endearing as the Jizo.

As I head out of the temple in the fading light, I hear the clacking sounds of the ema (wooden plaques) as they bob in the breeze. It feels like the kami have descended and are browsing through the wishes and making note of the requests. I regret not having left my own, but I come away hoping the powers that be will grant my wish of returning some day.

Anita Rao Kashi is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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