One of the reasons why I’m so infatuated with Tokyo is that you can experience a lot of what Japan has to offer within close proximity of the city. Thus, a quick one-hour jaunt to Kamakura. Once Japan’s feudal capital, this touristy hub boasts temples and sites that seemingly rival distant Kyoto. These sites include the giant Daibutsu, an 11.4 meter high bronze Buddha statue, the “bamboo temple,” as well as brilliant Hase-dera, a temple popular for its 11-headed goddess of mercy. (And the Daibutsu trail, soon to be discussed). Oh my.
Fine, fine, I’ll admit it. Kamakura pales in comparison when it comes to the sheer size and number of attractions that are found in Kyoto. I’ve been spun in circles trying to juggle the latter. Yet, while Kamakura is indeed more manageable, the two share a similar annoyance: crowds. Tourists flock to both locales, desperate to absorb ancient atmosphere with their modern technology. The lack of personal space is evident, especially in the heat of the summer and on weekends. Sweaty bodies crammed on trains, inside bamboo gardens, and within Buddha himself can be nauseating. And oh so unspecial. (We all love our selfies with a side of tour group, don’t we?).
Daibutsu trail (Big Buddha trail)
But just like dear Kyoto, there’s an answer to Kamakura’s suffocation. And I’m perplexed as to why it remains such a guarded secret (“Lies,” says Google). All you need to do is travel off the beaten path in Kamakura. Literally off the paved path and right onto a wooded one. I’m talking about Kamakura’s Daibutsu trail. A path that winds you through backwood temples and serene forest, and which eventually spits you out at that damn Daibutsu anyway. Duh, that’s the name of the trail after all.
The Daibutsu trail is approximately 3 kilometers (can be up to 6 depending on your wanders) of gently sloping trail, most of which is pest— I mean tourist—free. While it’s entirely possible to start from the butt end of Buddha, I like to end in the fray rather than begin in it. Therefore, I go from the southwest exit of Kita-Kamakura station. The trail is well-marked but knowing the sites you’re supposed to hit on the way (see below) helps supplement your Google Map.
Foxes and money and celebrities
Officially, you start at Jōchi-ji temple (one of Kamakura’s five great zen temples) with its picturesque entrance stairs and moderately creepy surprises that await inside. Step right this way to the God of Luck— named Hotei—pervy signs and all. If it wasn’t for daylight and Buddha’s presence, all indications of this god would’ve told me to flee. Instead, we rubbed his tummy (as you’re supposed to) and then explored Jōchi-ji’s many caves and pockets, several of which were littered with jishou or infested with their own manifestations of hell. Japan isn’t Australia but it has its share of mutated insects that camp out in the forest.
After the most pronounced forested area, another temple to aim for is Kuzuharagaoka. It marks about the halfway point on the trail and is situated in Genji-yama, a park picture perfect for a picnic. Kuzuharagaoka’s star attraction is their carnival-esque plate game. Pay a few hundred yen for a clay plate. Throw it at the rock in an attempt to smash it. Watch yourself fail miserably. If you’re anyone else— or simply merely just look at a plate— it will break and you will dash away your bad luck.
If not, quickly stop by Zeniarai Benten shrine. It’s a little off the proper Daibutsu trail but worth the walk for the oddity. It is here where you can literally wash your money. When washed in the spring, it is said that your money will double. We somehow missed this particular shrine because our group ran into a famous Japanese comedian who decided to engage me in an impromptu interview of sorts. Good times.
At the very end of the trail, make sure to make a short stop at Sasuke Inari Shrine. A beautiful row of red torii gates greet you, followed about about 5 million little fox statues. In Japanese culture, foxes are considered guardians, so you’ll often see them at the entrance of shrines all over Japan. However, this place has gone off the deep end and displays some fanatic’s collection. In reality, the shrine was built in honor of the first Shogun of Kamakura, who dreamed of a white fox.
They are all watching you…
Kama Kama Kama Kamakura
Not everything about Kamakura’s touristy facade is bad. Great cafes exist and the big draw tickets are fascinating in their own regard. Check out this blog on coffee in the area (I really loved The Goods Goodies). For general guides, go to Matcha or read up on recommendations from Earth Trekkers or Travel with Nano B. Or just figure out yourself with this handy Kamakura tour map.
Need ideas for visiting Tokyo during the summer? Try a summer booze cruise or tackle an obstacle course, Most Extreme Elimination style. Hungry or thirsty? Read up on Tokyo’s best local restaurants and coffee shops.