Kamakura’s temples and Tokyo’s many faces…

(Top: Moss covered steps lead to Kamakura’s Sugimoto-Dera temple; Bottom: Street scene in front of Tokyo’s Sensoji Shrine)

First – an apology. For those readers hoping for an orderly place-by-place blog, that is not happening. I like to take the time to mull over my travels and let them age like a good red wine before attempting to write about them. Today’s mulling has lead me back to Japan.

Kamakura resides on Japan’s Pacific coast, a short train ride south of Tokyo. It is famed for its myriad temples, peaceful walking trails and for the Daibutsu – the Great Buddha (completed in 1252) that smiles benevolently from the courtyard of Kotoko-in Buddhist temple (incidentally this is the Buddha written about by Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim)

(Top:Daibutsu Buddha sitting 13.35 m tall; Middle: Buddha’s hands – together like this signifies meditation; Common room complete with traditional heating coals sliding panels at the lovely Kamakura guesthouse)

Kamakura boasts an excellent bus system that will transport you to any destination – but wear your walking shoes because to reach the temples you must climb endless stairs and navigate stone walkways. (Let me add that yours truly did become lost several times navigating this bus system and required rescuing by Kamakura’s excellent citizens. This lead to lovely conversations about raising teenagers and one elderly lady who told me, her eyes radiating great sympathy, that she has been alone in a strange land before too).

Each temple nurtures a beautiful garden where, for a small fee, you can linger and ponder spiritual questions. The garden most talked about is the serene, towering bamboo forest at Hokoku-ji temple.

(Both photos above: scenes from Hokoku-ji temple bamboo forest)

(Top: Entrance to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu Shrine, Kamakura; Middle: Traditional offerings of saki; Bottom: Entrance to another temple)

The only regret I have about Kamakura is in not spending more time there. It is a lovely city with a lot of character and my stay was made even more special by the Kamakura Guesthouse. This guesthouse affords tourists the chance to experience a Japan that is disappearing – one that includes sliding screens, creaking wooden floors and a traditional heating system of coals burned under a pipe that leads to the upper floors. I had the best night’s sleep sandwiched between the thick mat and heavy duvet – in a room shared with seven other guests. Even Japanese tourists come to experience this place. In the evening, seated on mats around the low wood table, a young french tourist, a Japanese tourist and I held an animated conversation using a combination of butchered French (me), questionable English (French tourist), google translate, and various crazy hand motions in which we may or may not have ascertained that he had just graduated as a French pastry chef, she (Japanese tourist) was a student and I am not a great cook. (He also shared a recipe for pastry which I have forgotten – it’s ok, I was never going to make it anyway 😊).

(Top: Kamakura guesthouse send-off; Bottom: Rickshaw driver training. The teachers appeared to include monks and there was a lot of bowing at each stoplight)

In the morning, with the fanfare of a departing dignitary, the staff and other residents of Kamakura guesthouse crowded around to wish me joy on the rest of my trip and wave me good-bye. I managed to find the correct bus to take me to the direct train to Tokyo station where I discovered that Tokyo employs guides, dressed in bright red shirts and equipped with iPads , to help addled tourists at their main train and subway stations. I could have kissed them but thought it might seem odd so did not.

(Top: Subway guide sign; Middle: Sensoji Shrine at night; Middle: View from Ueno Park toward Tokyo cityscape; Bottom: Wall of humanity waiting to cross on one side of the famed Shibuya crossing)

I thought that Tokyo, due to its sheer size would be more intimidating. However, I found a city that is easily navigable and is really several cities in one. Tokyo has many faces – Akihabara with its anime and gadgets, Shibuya with its youth culture, Ginza with expensive shopping and Kabuki theatre – and many more. I stayed in the Asakusa area, known for its traditional culture, the Sensoji Shrine and the walking streets where you can spot Geishas and where street stalls sell every manner of Japanese cuisine.

Tokyo is a city of extreme contrasts. Strolling in the Imperial Garden it is easy to forget that they open out onto traffic-laden streets lined with skyscrapers. After spending a delightful hour watching Kabuki theatre the mind has to readjust to the high end boutiques that greet you outside. The oasis of Ueno Park with its zoo, museums, temples and tree and blossom lined trails, is framed by high rises.

(Top: Courtyard in front of Sensoji temple with Skytree behind; Middle: Poster for traditional artist exhibit at Ueno Park Museum; Middle: brightly clad Buddhist statuary; Middle: Imperial garden; Bottom: Kabuki Theatre, Ginza district, Tokyo)

I am not a big city person but, against my will, I loved Tokyo. It’s extremes lend personality and it has an energy that lures you in with promises of fresh discoveries at every corner – aided by a 24 hour subway pass which for 600 yen will take you anywhere your heart desires.

Of course, no trip to Tokyo is complete without a visit to the Hedgehog Cafe and more plum blossoms lining yet another temple walkway.

As a Canadian in Japan, I must add that it is interesting travelling in a country that is known for its extreme natural disasters, from tsunamis and earthquakes to typhoons. This proclivity for extreme danger does sit in the back of your mind as you meander around – and is apparently something on the mind of Japanese citizens. While deep underground in the Tokyo subway, an older gentleman engaged me in conversation (a rarity in Tokyo as on the subways most people are quiet). In fluent English he ascertained where I was from and how I liked Tokyo and revealed that he was an engineer nearing retirement. “Have you been up the Tokyo Skytree?” he asked. “No,” I replied. He nodded sagely. “I don’t know why we build these tall buildings here,” he said. “We are due for a big earthquake. It’s coming.” Hmmm…

I’m sure that he is right, but would this stop me travelling to Japan – sincerely and resoundingly, no. Kamakura, Tokyo , plum blossoms, temples, serenity, skyscrapers, peaceful gardens, rickshaw trainee drivers, natural disasters – these are some of the many and varied faces of Japan. Minus the disasters, I am honoured to have experienced them.

(Note: Download the free Safety Tips app before you go. This app is directed toward tourists to Japan and provides alerts and evacuation flowcharts)

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