Features

Temple of bloom

30 Jun 2006 by intern11

You don’t have to go far from Tokyo to find centuries-old temples and rich mythology. Felicity Cousins travels into ancient Japan

 The feel of the sun on the carriage and the rocking rhythm of the train tempted me to close my eyes but I fought it, wanting to see the countryside after spending time in Tokyo’s tall addictive embrace. I was travelling to Kamakura, catapulting myself an hour away from Tokyo’s modern buzz into a peaceful bubble of Japan’s past.

Kamakura lies on the coast, southwest of Tokyo. It was the feudal capital of Japan from 1185 to 1333 and is home to some of Japan’s finest Buddhist temple complexes and shrines in the surrounding hills. The opening of the Yokosuka Line railway in 1889, linking Tokyo to Kamakura, means that city visitors have long been a regular presence. I wondered if we would ever leave the city – after 45 minutes we were still travelling through what seemed like Tokyo’s suburbs, with blocks of flats lining the tracks. Then suddenly we passed a Buddha statue protruding from a cliff face and moments later I was standing on the tiny platform of Kita Kamakura station, a thick cedar forest rising up beside me and the train heading onwards towards shaded mountains and the sea.

The old capital has around 70 temples and shrines but I headed for the nearby Kencho-ji temple complex, which was founded in 1252 and is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan (Zen is a Japanese form of Buddhism, introduced from China in the 13th century). Although the monastery itself is closed to the public, the 10 surrounding buildings are open to all. I arrived early to avoid the crowds, and entered the complex under the general gateway (Somon) and then along a cherry tree-lined path to the main gate (Sanmon) – this particular gate was built in 1754. The grounds around the buildings are immaculate, with raked gravel and pruned gardens, and wintry cherry blossom trees waiting patiently for spring among the resilient bamboo. Elderly Japanese couples painted stylistic views from benches dappled with sunlight, and smoke wafted across the temple doors as the groundsmen burn piles of fallen winter leaves.

After exploring the main complex, and taking off my boots to pad around the wooden Hojo temple in my socks, I climbed up the steep stone steps to the Bonsho (Temple Bell) to sip green tea and look over the forest on the other side of the valley. I was not high enough to glimpse Mount Fuji but, looking at my leaflet map, I noticed another temple on Shojoken hill, separated from the rest of the buildings. This is Hansobo, the protecting shrine of Kensho-ji, keeping out all evil spirits. Enjoying the climb, I decided to break away from the few enthusiastic grandparents and reluctant grandchildren.

I followed a dirt road which twisted up into the hills, until I came across a long path lined with Japanese cedars and red and blue flags hanging still on their poles in the quiet air. At the end of the path were some stone steps rising steeply up the hill into the surrounding forest. Goblin statues guarded the top of the stairs, one sitting on each side. These are Tengu – goblins who lived in the ancient mountains – but the ones here are called Karasu (crow) Tengu because they have wings. The idea is that they ward off evil spirits, hence protecting the temples and shrines. This is celebrated on the 17th day of each month (so perhaps best avoided if you want to enjoy the temples in peace).

A monk appeared at the top of the steps and started his descent. He averted his eyes as we passed. When I reached the top, standing between two Karasu Tengu I looked back; he was far in the distance, a small robed figure, fading fast.

Ahead lay bundles of smoking leaves. The main temple of Hansobo is a climb of around 250 steps from the Tengu, reaching 245m above sea level. I did not stop but followed a well-trodden hiking path which leads to other temples in the hills. I slipped on tree roots and loose stones, up around another 400 steps and eventually saw a platform ahead. Standing alone in the clear air Kamakura lay beneath me, the sea beyond. And across the trees and temple roofs, far into the distance poked the cloudy peak of Mount Fuji. Swept up in the mystical landscape I felt light-headed. Was it a rush of wellbeing? Calm? Perhaps, but it could have been a more prosaic reason; I had not eaten since morning and had climbed several hundred metres.

I headed into Kamakura town centre to find food. I carefully studied the plastic food displays outside one of the station restaurants – you point at the dish you want – which is very handy for the linguistically challenged. A bowl of rice and chicken with miso soup and green tea set me up to return to the modern world. n

For more information visit www.jnto.go.jp

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