After years of planning and saving for our RTW trip, not to mention all the obstacles we overcame to take it, you would think that Tony and I would have been bursting with uncontainable joy once we hit the ground in Tokyo. Finally, our dreams were reality and we were living the life we had worked so hard to get!
Unfortunately, our first few days in Tokyo weren’t really like that at all. I don’t know if it’s just that we were dealing with jetlag, or if we weren’t prepared for the oppressive weather, if it’s because I had a terrible ear ache and “foggy head” due to my ears not popping after our second and third flights, or if our generally wretched dormmates made it impossible to get a good night’s sleep so we were still sleep deprived, but for whatever reason, things just weren’t clicking for us. Yes, our first three days each had some wonderful moments and we saw some wonderful things, but it was undeniable that the two of us were in a bit of a funk. We’ve always traveled well together before, but in Tokyo, we were almost constantly out of synch with each other: when one of us was enthusiastic and high-energy, the other one was cranky or solemn (and no, it wasn’t always me!). Under normal circumstances, this would be annoying, but to start off our big trip under such a dark cloud? That just added to the pressure. We should have been over the moon to finally be out there in the world, and the truth is that we just weren’t. Even during our happiest moments in Tokyo, we felt a bit like we were putting on a façade simply because to do otherwise would be an utter disgrace. How dare we come to Japan and not be having the time of our lives?
In retrospect, I think all of the personal reasons I mentioned above contributed somewhat to our collective malaise. I expected we would take to our new travel lifestyle like the proverbial duck to water, but that wasn’t really the case. Still, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t think our issues were entirely our doing either. No, the truth is, we just didn’t really care for Tokyo. Of all the places we were visiting in Japan, it was the one that I was the least invested in prior to our arrival – I knew it was a city brimming with activities and attractions, but the thought of them all was either too overwhelming, or they just didn’t seem to appeal to me. After 3 days there, we both agreed that Tokyo is probably a great city to live in, with great amenities and lots of things to make your daily life awesome… but as a tourist destination? It just wasn’t the right fit for us. It was probably one of the easiest places in Japan for us to cut our travel teeth, but it also felt kind of diluted and like we were in a theme park version of Japan. I know at some point every travel blogger questions the authenticity of a place or an activity and I loathe to do the same, but we kept searching for something that would make us feel like we were in Japan and really hammer that reality home for us, but we just couldn’t find that within the confines of Tokyo.
For three days we had tried to connect with Tokyo, tried to find something to kickstart a blaze of unbridled enthusiasm and energy. For three days we had failed. Thankfully, on our fourth morning in Tokyo, we woke up knowing we were taking a daytrip out of the city to Kamakura, a bucolic town known for its abundance of temples as well as its Daibutsu (Giant Buddha). Here was a chance to get out of the city and see whether Tokyo had been contributing to our underwhelming response to Japan or if the problem really rested solely on our shoulders. I admit, I fretted for nearly the entire hour-long train journey that we would disembark at Kita-Kamakura and feel completely unchanged, but no. Upon exiting the train and finding ourselves surrounded by tiny lanes lined with quaint Japanese houses and seeing all the lush, verdant greenery around us, a huge sense of relief suffused me. Finally, three days late, it felt like we had arrived in Japan and not some strange parallel universe’s version of it.
Based on our reading about Kamakura, one of the most popular and best ways to see this city is to get off the train one stop early (at Kita-Kamakura) and then do a gentle 3km hike along a trail, passing various shrines and temples along the way, before reaching la pièce de la resistance, the Daibutsu. We are not really hikers, but we’re still young and pretty spry, and 3km is nothing, so we figured that was what we would do!
Our first stop of the day was Jochi-ji, one of Kamakura’s five great Zen temples, which lies at the foot of the hiking trail we would take. According to the entrance sign, Jochi-ji boasts well water that is sweet like nectar. Given that it was another hot & humid day in Japan (some things that were true in Tokyo were bound to be true elsewhere, I suppose!), that seemed like too good of an offer to pass up. Indeed, the well water was extremely cold (a rarity in Japan – most water from the tap is lukewarm at best and never truly chilly) and refreshing, and while you wouldn’t normally think to call water delicious, it was! Tony loudly proclaimed several times that it was much better than all the other water we had been drinking.
The added bonus is that Jochi-ji, which used to be a large sprawling temple complex, is now small, tranquil, and a very beautiful place to spend a half hour or so just wandering around. Although it was still very muggy on the grounds, lovely breezes would gust through the grounds and caress our damp skin, the overall effect being incredibly soothing.
After having our fill of Jochi-ji, it was time to start our trek to see Daibutsu. Based on the write-up the hike between Kita-Kamkura station and Kamakura proper we read in the Lonely Planet, we were expecting the hike would take us about 2 hours to complete and be fairly innocuous… We were wrong on both counts. Although the hike started off deceptively easy (on paved roads no less), we soon found ourselves wending through rather steep peaks and valleys (and many of the downward slopes looked like cliffs requiring swan dives to reach the bottom at first glance). Although the forest around us was very beautiful, with its towering red cedars, the foliage did little to keep us cool and the breezes that graced us on the trail were far too infrequent. Although we were hardly climbing mountains (just rather large hills), we found the hike quite physically draining especially given the weather.
So you can imagine how triumphant I felt after about 40 minutes of hiking when we reached a clearing with a progress map and it looked like we had cleared about 66% of the trail! And you can also then imagine my disappointment when I realized that I had been looking at the wrong end of the map and we still had more than half the course to go. I tried to waylay my disappointment by taking part in a ritual at the little shrine at this checkpoint where one smashes a small pottery dish on a rock, which is meant to symbolize overcoming obstacles. Given how crummy I had been feeling the last few days, this little ritual felt like it would be a good way of symbolizing a turning point in our trip.
We also got to witness two married rocks, which is certainly not something you see every day (but is also not something I would hike to see!).
Having given our already tired feet a break, we soldiered on, making our way to Zenirai-benten, a Shinto shrine that is famous for the money washing ritual that many Japanese pilgrims take part in there. Legend holds that any money that is washed in a cave here will provide the washer with double or triple its usual gains. While we did not wash any money ourselves, the grounds of the shrine were really beautiful (and cool to enter, walking as you do through a large hole that has been bored through a rock) and we enjoyed watching others engage in the money washing ritual (some people even washed credit cards!).
And then, the bane of our existence on this day: more hiking. I said before that I am not a hiker, and that is putting it lightly. You might even say that I am anti-hiking, so why I thought this wilderness walk would be a good idea, I cannot say. I often have the tendency to push myself to do things on trips that I would not choose to do in my daily life as I want to maximize my experiences, but at times this hike was pretty brutal. The scenery was lovely, but the weather was awful (it’s one of the rare times we saw Japanese people looking uncomfortable from the heat!). We would walk for 15 – 20 minutes only to see signs suggesting we had merely advanced 500 m (or sometimes, no distance at all), so I am calling bullshit on this whole thing only being 3km. Maybe if you measured the distance between the start and endpoint of the trail on flat ground, but when you add in all the up and downward travel we did, I think it easily was double that distance.
There were times when I seriously doubted that this self-inflicted hiking horror would ever end, but eventually we did reach the end of the trail, and hobbled our way to Kotokuin, which is the home of the Great Buddha. We rewarded our hard work with a delightful melon-flavored ice cream cone, and then prepared ourselves to be awed.
Given that I was grumpy from our overlong hike, I was fully expecting the Daibutsu to not be worth the hassle, but I have to say, he really was a sight for sore eyes. Crafted in the 13th century, this statue was originally housed in a large building, but the structure was destroyed in a terrible storm, and the Daibutsu has sat under the canopy of the heavens ever since. I don’t consider myself to be a religious, or even a spiritual person, but despite the large number of tourists who had congregated to marvel in the sheer enormity of this image of the Buddha, I still felt as though the statue emanated this lovely vibe of serenity and peacefulness. I really liked that although much religious iconography can be rather stern or even menacing in its countenance, this Buddha had a slight smile gently curving on his lips.
Our final spiritual stop of the day was Hasedera Temple, located just down the street from Kotokuin. Hasedera houses a huge wooden statue of the 11-headed goddess of mercy, Kannon, which is actually the largest wooden statue in all of Japan. The story goes that this statue (now covered in gold leaf) was carved out of a single piece of wood and then tossed into the ocean. Every place the statue washed up was racked with suffering and ailments, and so it was repeatedly thrown back into the ocean. When it finally reached Kamakura and was fished out of the sea, no suffering ensued which caused the people to decide that the statue had reached its intended destination. They constructed Hasedera up on a large hill overlooking the sea in order to honor the statue.
Another modern draw to Hasedera apart from Kannon (which was very impressive, but alas, no photos are allowed) are the tiny statues that are placed on various landings as you make your way up to the hill to the hall where Kannon is held. These statues are placed by Japanese women in tribute to babies who were still-born, miscarried or aborted. There are so many of these statues placed at Hasa-dera that every year, the statues are removed and burned so that new ones can be placed as an offering for Kannon’s mercy.
And of course, when you make your way to the top of Hasedera, you are granted a rather stunning view of the sea. I may hate climbing things, but the view was pretty spectacular.
The last adventure of the day before making our way back to Tokyo for one last night was to take the Endo train back to Kamakura proper and find some dinner. The train gave us a taste of what crowded Japanese trains can be like (I was worried at one point I’d have to hang out the train!), and thankfully we only had to ride a few stops. Once in Kamakura, we managed to hunt down a restaurant named Kawagoe-ya, recommended in our Lonely Planet guide. There was no English menu here, although there were a few pictures and our hostess tried her best to explain some of the dishes to us… In the end, I still wound up ordering something of a mystery dinner as all I knew is that it would involve something that had been lightly fried. Thankfully, both of our meals were delicious and very filling, and my meal wound up featuring fried onion fritters & cold udon for dipping, while Tony’s featured egg and pork cutlet with a sweet sauce and he opted for hot soba. Both meals came with an assortment of random pickled veggies as well as a pear jelly dessert, and most importantly, both were delicious!
Despite our successful orders, all mystery was not gone as along with the lack of English descriptions on the menu, there hadn’t been any prices that we could read either so we had no idea how much our delicious feast would set us back. Thankfully it only came to 1250Y per person, which is kind of insane when you consider how much food we got! It was a wonderful way to end our day, and helped our Lonely Planet guide slightly redeem itself (though one good restaurant recommendation does not make up for the surplus 2 hours of hiking we did!).
Obviously Kamakura is a wonderful city with many charms and we’re happy that we decided to take a daytrip there. But perhaps best of all was that our day in Kamakura buoyed our spirits and helped renew our optimism regarding the rest of our time in Japan. We had really been starting to worry that we would float through Japan feeling cranky, disconnected, and like we weren’t even in Japan at all. Kamakura gave us hope that by escaping from the haze of Tokyo, the odds were good we’d find the Japan we had traveled so far to see. And that’s something that not even a dubiously measured 3km hike can ruin.