In the middle of the night we formulated a plan to visit the Great Buddha at Kamakura. For Nick and Dee that was not such a problem, they were based south of Tokyo so just had to hop on one train. For me I had to get up early, fight my way through rush hour on the Tozai line, and find the right station and line at Marunouchi Station.
Somehow we did manage to contrive to all be on the same train, Nick and Dee getting on at Yokohama, and myself already on it and having spotted them on the platform, making my way up the carriages for the rendez-vous.
Kamakura is about an hour on the train from Tokyo station (a regular local train, not a bullet train). There is a rapid service which gets there quicker. I was pleased to find an affordable route through Yokohama which I had not yet explored, just passed through on the train.
At Kamakura itself we found a pleasant, paved main shopping street outside the station, and after asking for directions a couple of times, we made our way towards the temple area.
After passing a few interesting shops, including one where you could make your own clockwork music box, we arrived at the first temple, Hase-dera. This is an ancient Buddhist temple and features carp ponds, caves, a carefully raked Japanese garden and the temple itself, which houses an eleven-headed Buddha statue (the Kannon Buddha).
One of the most interesting, and as I discovered later, heartbreaking aspects of the temple are the little stone figures arranged in rows and rows like an army parade, or a football crowd. It turns out these are called Jizu and are memorials to children lost to miscarriages and abortions.
The temple is halfway up Mount Kamakura and has some great views of the nearby town and beach. It also has some fascinating wildlife, from the large spiders sitting on their webs between the trees, to the beautiful chestnut-coloured kites hovering around, and sometimes swooping down from the mountain.
There is a mountain path with little, stone “pagodas” placed nearby, these are also funereal memorials, some of them centuries old.
Dee was particularly keen to find a feature called the “bamboo forest”, which in the end turned out to be little more than a bamboo thicket, but she still got herself some photos in it.
There was also a cave – so low that I had to stoop for the whole way through to avoid banging my head. This is apparently a shrine to the sea-goddess Benzaiten, one of the seven lucky gods of Japanese mythology. Lots of tiny Lego-sized statues of her sat on little platforms.
The last thing we looked at was the Japanese garden.
We then took a stroll up the main street towards the next temple which housed the famous Great Buddha, or Daibatsu. En route Nick and Dee stopped for jokoyaki – not takuyaki, the octopus balls, but something very similar made from anchovies or sardines, a local speciality.
Just before we entered the Kotoku-in temple, we saw a fleet of identical black cars sweep up outside, and a group of middle-eastern looking men in dark suits get out. The cars drove off and the group of men entered the temple just in front of us.
When we got closer we saw that all the men had Turkish flag badges. Could this be President Erdogan? We tried getting close enough to get a good look but couldn’t be certain. Nick took the direct approach and spoke to one of the security people. He said they were here with the Speaker of the Turkish Parliament, Mustapha Sentop. And it was true, they really were!
The distraction aside, the Great Buddha was just as impressive as its pictures. It sat in the centre of the courtyard in meditative contemplation while in front of him an incense burner smoked away, and curiously a bowl of oranges seemed to be the only significant offering.
The Buddha was cast in bronze in 12 sections and connected together around 1252. Originally it was gilded in gold and housed in a building, but both the building and the Buddha were washed away by a tsunami in the 16th century. The Buddha was retrieved and has sat in the open air since then, so the gilding has worn away. In the 1960s his neck was strengthened so that his head wouldn’t fall off, but the rest of him is the original 750-year old statue.
For an extra 20 yen you could go inside the statue, so (after the Turkish Speaker) we did. There was a little description of the building techniques and you could look up through the neck inside the head. Two windows on the back gave some light.
On the wall of the buildings outside were some large straw structures. I had no idea what they were, and only afterwards looking on the internet did I find out they were oversized sandals that the monks used to wear when cleaning the temple.
While we were sitting on the wall by the Buddha deciding what to do next, we were approached by a group of kids. They didn’t speak much English but had memorised some lines. “Can we ask you some questions?” “We are in the 6th grade.” “The 2020 Olympics will be in Tokyo. What sports do you want to watch?”
After we answered their questions (I said tennis!) they gave us an origami frog. Then one by one they asked us to sign the plastic cover of their project books. We gave them some banter – asking their names, the name of their school, giving them high-5s, then we asked for a photo which they were happy to provide. Their teacher then came up and checked we weren’t being harassed and asked if he could get a picture of all of us together!
The same thing happened again with another group of kids 10 minutes later. This time I got some origami chocolate. Nick and Dee got a whole envelope full of different origami! We decided to head off before the next group came.
On the way back to the station we passed three women in the street with small dogs, all the women and one of the dogs were wearing sunglasses! Dee got a photograph. At the station Nick said they would head back, but I decided to go and explore Yokohama. So we parted ways at Yokohama station – after an encounter with another Pepper robot there which intrigued Nick and Dee even though it couldn’t understand anything they said!
I only spent a couple of hours at Yokohama, I explored a movie theatre complex and a department store called Vivre which had some very unique Gothic-style fashions amongst many other stores.
I then headed to Minatomirai which Nick had assured me was the “happening” part of Yokohama. Not much was happening when I got there. There was a giant wheel with a clock, a fairground and a roller-coaster, there was a tall ship and another drained dock with a beautiful light show. It is probably more interesting in the daytime.