Apr 01: Kamakura

For the moment I’m not going to try to catch up with the end of yesterday’s activities because there’s too much to cover today.

Today our main goal was to see the Great Buddha (called Daibutsu in Japanese), a 11-meter tall bronze statue of Buddha near Kamakura. This excursion involved our first encounter with Tokyo’s famous subway system. We took a taxi from the hotel to Tokyo Station. Tokyo Station is not Tokyo’s largest subway station but it’s a little hard to imagine a larger one. It seemed quite vast and the steady flow of humanity (even on a Sunday) was almost mind-boggling. At first it was all a bit overwhelming and we quickly decided that we really didn’t know where we were supposed to go to find the rail line described in our guidebook, but it didn’t take long to find a helpful young clerk at the ticket office. He pointed us in the right direction even before Tracie finished phrasing the question. After that it took several escalator rides and only a minor amount of puzzlement to find our way onto the right train.

Just about the time I was figuring out that we were indeed in the right place a pleasant man asked whether I needed help. This was the first of several people that stopped to offer assistance to us during the day. It seems that if you look conspicuously foreign (Tracie’s blonde hair is a giveaway, although obviously I don’t look terribly Japanese either) and if you look conspicuously confused, it doesn’t take long for someone to notice you, stop and offer to help you. It happened at least three times today, and in each instance we weren’t standing with perplexed expressions on our faces for more than a couple of minutes.

We were amused for most of the hour-long subway ride (which actually took place above ground more than below it) by watching a gaggle of young children seated next to us. There were about half a dozen kids ranging in age from four to 13 or 14 at a guess, most of whom were poking at handheld Nintendo games or cell phones. I couldn’t resist sneaking a photo of them; hopefully none of their mothers noticed.

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We changed trains in Kamakura, a process that involved learning our way around another station and another set of ticketing procedures. The second train took us to Hase where the Great Buddha resides. We walked for about 20 minutes up a narrow and crowded street and eventually found our way to the statue.

It’s an impressive sight. You first catch a glimpse of his head poking up over a gate as you approach the temple. Then you see him in his entirety when you round a corner defined by some trees after stopping at a purification fountain. (This brings up an interesting point that Tracie made: if the purification fountain is a fixture of Shinto shrines, as stated by our guide, why is there one at a Buddhist temple?) Many people literally stop in their tracks when they first see him. Tracie was feeling rather drained by the heat, the walking, and the plowing through crowds by this time. She sat in the shade admiring the statue while I scurried around and took photos and video.

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Watching the Japanese visit the temples and shrines is as interesting as the temples and shrines themselves. There’s an odd mixture of casualness and reverence–odd to Western eyes, anyway. Nobody has any seeming complaint with people talking, taking photos, kids running around (although Japanese kids, on average, are definitely better behaved than their American counterparts), etc. In general they act like tourists at a tourist attraction. Everyone wants to be photographed in front of the Great Buddha. On the other hand, many people do perform the cleansing ritual and the appropriate method of prayer. It’s a phenomenon that’s somewhat hard to describe but it’s dramatically different than what we’ve observed while visiting churches and cathedrals in Europe. Tamae-san told us that 90% of the Japanese are Shintoist [is that the right word? I hope so] and 80% are Buddhist (so yes, there’s a good deal of overlap, which is an interesting observation in itself), and yet they almost invariably don’t describe themselves as religious. Instead they think of it as observing traditions (if “think” is the right word).

Incidentally, the statue was cast in about 1250. That means it was built 250 years before Columbus set foot on what was to be called North America.

After bidding the Bronze One adieu we intended to visit another shrine, but the heat was getting to both of us a bit and an attendant at the shrine confirmed that a good deal of uphill walking was involved. We decided to skip that shrine and caught the train back to Kamakura. We stopped briefly in the station for beverages and I had a yakitori skewer served to me by a beaming young man whose English was far better than my Japanese.

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Our next destination was the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine. We made our way slowly along a very crowded street lined on both sides with small shops. Here the throngs of people were so dense that it was quite difficult to make headway and at one point (about halfway along, as it turned out) we stopped and debated whether it was worth going further. I did a brief bit of reconnaissance while Tracie rested and we decided to forge ahead, taking a side stree that had both a delicious aroma of curry and a shop selling aizome fabric. The side street led us to a larger street with somewhat sparser crowds and easier footing beneath a beautiful canopy of cherry blossoms.

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Tracie knew in advance that the shrine itself was at the top of a lengthy and steep flight of steps so she again rested in the shade while I took photos. On the way back to the station we bought some stationery and other souvenirs in a shop richly scented with incense. We bought some incense also after one of the proprietors insisted that we take some small boxes of it for free. After that we took the subway back to Tokyo Station and caught a taxi to the hotel.

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Tomorrow we plan only to poke around in the shopping area near the hotel–the same one we passed through yesterday–so we should have more time and energy at the end of the day. If so, I’ll try to post some photos of the first day.

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