Yesterday I hinted as to the best hidden reason to visit the Yakumo Shrine in Kamakura City, and here it is, the “hidden” trail up to Gionyama mountain. If you walk past the shrine on the right of the main building, you find a narrow path up to a tiny shrine altar (the first photo), but take off to the right just before that and you will be on your way up a very narrow (and probably very slippery) trail towards the summit of Gionyama. From the summit you will find a nice view over Kamakura City, and on clear days even Mount Fuji itself will be visible! If not you can console yourself with the views of the Pacific Ocean and the Yuigahama beach in the far distance. The hiking trail goes quite a bit further along the ridge and then down on the other side, not a difficult walk if you are young and in reasonable shoes but it might be more nature than you want to spend your time with, if you are on a hectic schedule to see a lot of Kamakura. Despite the trail being quite hidden it is by no means unknown to locals, and I met maybe three or four couples or families on their way up and down the trail. Living in Tokyo there are few chances to get out in nature like this so when you are here it is a pretty amazing feeling. For those of you who live closer to nature my enthusiasm for this spot might look a little bit silly, but after a few weeks in Tokyo you will get it too!
One of my absolute favorites among the many tiny shrines dotted around the historic Kamakura City southwest of Tokyo is the wonderful little Yakumo Shrine (八雲神社), hidden near the base of the mountains in the Omachi neighborhood. It is actually one of three Yakumo Shrines in Kamakura alone, a testament to the deep popular love for this branch of shinto shrines. The shrine was founded sometime around 1082, when a great Shogun, Minamoto Yoshimitsu, passed through Kamakura on his way to battles in northern Japan. At the time there were many epidemics troubling the people of Kamakura and the Yoshimitsu thought it would be best to establish a shrine branch form the famous Gion shrine in Kyoto (present day Yasaka Shrine) which was famous for its ability to ward of sickness. The epidemics subsided in 1084 and since then the shrine has been immensely popular in Kamakura. It is actually one of the oldest shrines in the city. In 1868 the Gion shrines were all forced to change their names, and the shrine in Kamakura started calling itself Yakumo Shrine, although true locals still call it by its old nickname, Gion-san. There is another great and well hidden reason to visit this shrine, but I will save that for a post later on!
The great Buddhists temple of Hasedera in the city of Kamakura to the south west of Tokyo has one of the greatest prayer wheels (マニ車 in Japanese) that I have ever seen in Japan. Housed in its own protective building, the house is centered on a giant prayer wheel made in wood joinery itself housing tens of thousands of handwritten pray slips, visible when the little door in the walls and the wheel itself are open. On the 18th of every month the wheel may be turned by members of the public, but on other days ordinary people can still use the prayer wheels attached to the walls. Prayer wheels are common in Tibetan Buddhism where the act of spinning a wheel containing a prayer is considered having the same effect as saying the prayer itself. Naturally one spin on this wheel is worth several weeks of actual praying!
When I visited Hasedera temple in Kamakura city the main hall was undergoing renovation so I couldn’t get any good photos of it. Instead I spent the time in the vast temple gardens, full of statues, little shrines, jizo, trees, flowers and plants of all kinds. The temple is famous for the hundreds of peonies grown there, not in bloom when I was visiting though, but the kawazusakura, the plum trees and many others were.
The jizo statues of which you see so many in Japan are meant to placate the soul of children lost to miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion. The smaller ones are placed here by the parents, and they remain for a year before being removed, symbolizing the rebirth of the soul.
An interesting detail is the Manjiike (卍池), a swastika cross shaped pond. In buddhism the symbol represents eternity, and in Japan it has the added meaning of 10 000, which symbolizes “everything, the universe, the alpha and the omega”.