Sunday, 21 September 2014

Day Trip at Kamakura (Part 2)-The Hase-dera Temple

Blissful Jizo Bodhisattva Statues at Hase-dera Temple
My second stop at Kamakura after the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine was the beautiful Hase-dera temple. The temple is built on a wooded hill and it's main draw is the 9.18 meter wooden statue of Kannon (Goddess of Mercy). It has eleven heads, each representing the different characteristic of the Goddness.

To reach the temple, we took Kamakura's trademark train via the Enoden (Enoshima Electric Railway Station) from the Kamakura station to the Hase station. The ride was rather unique as it cut through the residential district and the railway track was in touching proximity of the houses. I guessed the residents must have already immune themselves to the rumbling sound every time a train passed by their houses.

The ride took about 10 minutes. We have to walk for another 10 minutess to reach the Hase-dera temple. There were shop houses selling souvenirs and foods along the way but we skipped them, having our fill already at Komachi-dori. One thing I learnt from this trip was how to already differentiate a Shinto shrine from a Buddhist temple at the entrance. A Shinto shrine always has a Torii to mark it's entrance whereas a Japanese Buddhist temple has beautifully decorated gate, often flanked by two Godly or Demonic guardians and trademarked by a red lantern in between the entrance.

Front Gate of Hase-dera Temple
Photo at Hase-dera Temple's front gate
Picture Map of Hase-dera Temple

The front gate of Hase-dera temple was beautifully decorated with fauna and flora. A big lantern hanging in between the gate indicated that it was a temple devoted to Buddhism. We paid the entrance fee via an electronic ticket counter (Adult: 300 Yen, Child: 100 Yen) and went into the temple through the side gate. A beautiful garden greeted us but we did not spend too much time in it. Instead, we went straight for the stairs to climb uphill to the main temple.( Side note: I did not often support the charges for temples' visits. A temple is a religious ground where people from all aspects of background can offer their prayers and respect to the gods. I have experienced temples at Thailand, China, Japan etc charging for temple visits. I hope the money collected are put to good use like helping the poor and maintaining the temple ground but not for business profits) 

Jizo Bodhisattva Statues#1
Jizo Bodhisattva Statues#2
Jizo Bodhisattva Statues#3
Jizo Bodhisattva Statues#4
Jizo Bodhisattva Statues#5

At the middle of the hill, I was drawn to the many small Buddha status that lined the slope and ground of the hill. They were Jizo Bodhisattva statues contributed by devotee to help the souls of dead children to reach paradise. We would see many of these in various versions in the temple ground. My wife took sometime to bath a Buddha statue with a ladle from the crystal clear pool. We spent quite a while here admiring the scene before continued our climb up the stairs.

Kannan-do Hall
Photo at Kannan-do Hall

The uphill climb was not arduous and we soon reached the main temples. There were two main halls-the Kannan-do hall (which housed the famous Goddess of Mercy statue) and the Amida-do hall. No photography was allowed in the Kannan-do hall. The imposing and finely crafted statue towered over the visitors and was very well-preserved.  The Japanese have spent great effort to preserve their treasures and heritage and set a good example for many others to follow. There is another similar statue carved out from the same camphor tree housed in another temple at Nara.

View over Kamakura City

There was an observation deck which overlooked the city and the sweeping view of the nearby ocean. We took the opportunity to take a breather at one of the many benches stationed there. We could see many people buying snacks from a nearby small restaurant while enjoying the wonderful scenery. We resisted the temptation as we had plans for a sushi feast for dinner! We saw many Kites hovering around in the sky and there were Warning Signs to warn people of the aggressive birds. These applied specially for those who did not want the Kites to disturb them with their razor sharp claws while enjoying their snacks.
Photo with beautiful Hydrangeas


View from Top Platform
I was preparing to leave but was told by Alison and Charlotte that they had discovered another path further uphill. We explored further and were glad we did not leave earlier. The pathway was adjourned with colourful and pretty hydrangeas at both sides which led to a top platform. The girls could not resist the lure of the flowers and dashed to pose with the ones they liked. Poor me (with my heavy camera equipments and bags) have to  keep up with them while they complained "how slow I move and why I was not not taking photos of them" :-S The narrow stairs and steeper slope did not deter us from reaching the top. But I was sure I must have lost a couple of fats as I was sweating profusely. From here, we could capture the bird eye view of Kamakura with the sea and their famous flowers. I found out later that one would need to take a Q-number to admire the flowers during the peak period. We were lucky to avoid that situation. Note that hydrangeas are at full bloom during the June period only. Plan your time nicely if you want to witness their beauty and glamour.

Buddha statues near hill bottom

We wished to stay here longer but running a bit out of time for our next destination-The Kotokuin Temple and the Big Daibutsu. I strongly recommend you put this beautiful temple in your list when you visit Kamakura next time.   

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Day Trip at Kamakura (Part 1)-The Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine

The Maiden and Gingko Tree at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine
I had a hard time planning the day trip for Kamakura. There were just too many attractions there and it was difficult to make the decisions on the ones to visit. After doing some detailed research, I finally developed the itineraries for Kamakura. You will experience my "pain" when you visit Kamakura next time, having to make decisions from a hundred of temples and shrines. 

We would visit Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine-the most important Shinto shrine at Kamakura, Hase-dera Temple-one of the most beautiful temples in the premise and Kotokuin Temple, where the famous Daibutsu (Great Buddha) is situated. We would also pay a visit to the Inamuragasaki Beach with the hope of capturing the sunset view of Mount Fuji in the distant. 

The train ride from Ikebukuro (where we stayed) to Kamakura took about an hour. From the high rise constructions in Tokyo, we saw the buildings getting lower as we got nearer to our destination. There were also increased greenery. It is little wonder Tokyo citizens love to flock to Kamakura to take a breather during weekends and holidays. Make sure you plan your visit during a normal weekend liked what we did to avoid the Tokyo crowd!
Our first destination was Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine. It was dedicated to Hachiman (God of War),  Emperor Ojin, his mother-Empress Jingu and his wife-Minamoto no Yoritomo. From Kamakura station, we needed to walk through Komachi-dori to the famous Shinto shrine. Countless shop houses lined the street. Just like Nakamise-dori at Asakusa, souvenirs, snacks, clothing, restaurants etc were in abundance here. The star icon was obviously the Daibutsu. Many souvenirs and snacks were modeled after the popular statue at Kotokuin temple.

Daibutsu souvenirs
Kamakura delicacy
Not unexpectedly, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine was crowded with visitors. We saw many students and my immediate thought was that the Japanese government has done a decent job to instilled cultural and historical values into their younger generations. I was slightly disappointed when I saw the main shrine from afar that it was under renovation. A reminder to those visiting Japan during this period of time. There are extensive restoration works performed at multiple attractions. Make sure you do your homework to avoid disappointment during your visit. 

Akabashi leading to the Main Shrine
Photo with Charlotte in front of the Maiden

Ema for your wishes
The Maiden (Dancing Stage)
Fortunately, the rest of the buildings were left intact and the overall setting of the shrine still looked fabulous. As like most Shinto shrines in Japan, a large Torii gate marked the entrance of the shrine. It was followed by three bridges. An arched bridge (Akabashi) was flanked by two flat bridges. The Akabashi was supposedly to be reserved for use by the shogun himself only. Being "commoners", we could only use one of the flat bridges to cross the "Genpei ponds". Another 5 minutes walk from the bridges would bring us to the "Maiden", situated at the base of the stairs which led to the Main Shrine (Hongu).  It was an ornately designed dancing stage where beautiful dancers and musical performers would perform for the royal family. A Purification fountain laid not too far away to to the left of the Maiden for visitors to cleanse themselves before proceeding to the Main Shrine to offer their prayers.

Purification Fountain shade

After 61 steps.........

The 61 steps climb brought us to the Main Shrine. There was once a famous 1000 years old giant gingko tree at the left side of the stairs (from bottom) made famous by an assassin who hid behind the tree before killing his victim. It was now nowhere in sight as it fell victim to a big storm in Year 2010. We heard chants coming out from within the premise. There was a religious ceremonial held in the shrine but we could not see clearly what happened inside. We were only allowed access to the external square of the Main Shrine but it was enough to portray to us the luxurious lifestyle of the past Japanese royalties. The walls were beautifully decorated with lively pictures and the rooftops, doors and windows were delicately designed which could only be crafted by skilful craftsmen. For a small fee, you could take a tour in a small museum inside to witness the treasures of the shrine. I was much impressed by a full suit of Samurai armour displayed inside. It was made of gold and I could only imagine how strong one must be to don the hefty costume.
Guardian of the Main Shrine
Interior of Main Shrine
We left the Main Shrine through the left exit. A set of small red Torii gates led us uphill to the Inari shrine. It was dedicated to Inari-the deity of rice. Foxes (kitsune) which often acted as guardian and messenger of Inari, flanked both sides of the small shrine. There were other sub-shrines like this around the premise at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine but due to time constraint, we did not visit them.
Small Torii Gates
Inari Shrine
Before leaving the shrine for our next destination, we could not resist the temptation to take photos at the Sake Offering Hall. We had already taken photos with the Sake at Meiji Shrine at Tokyo but were not ready to leave till we captured some photos with the Sake at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine. Somehow, we were obsessed by this unique sight at Japan.

Sake Offering Hall
All set and done, we headed to our next stop-The beautiful Hase-dera temple. 
If you are visiting the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine, this is the official website.

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Tokyo Skytree and Sumida River

Night View of Skytree, Asahi Beer Hall and Sumida River

Our intention was to walk to the Tokyo Skytree from the Senso-ji temple at Asakusa. The Skytree is a 634 meter tall broadcasting station and the latest landmark of Tokyo.  It was estimated to be around 30 minutes at leisure pace. We eventually gave up the idea when my wife backache caught up with her. Before heading to the Sky Tree Line, we decided to take a rest by the Sumida River. It was a good decision as we got to enjoy the river breeze and taking in the view of the river scene. For those who did not not know, the famous Golden Kannon statue at nearby Senso-ji temple was retrieved from this river. At the opposite end, we could see the interesting Asahi Beer Hall (which looked like an overfilled beer cup with a golden beer drop at the top) which for obvious reason, was overshadowed by the newly built Tokyo Skytree. You could see how close we were away from our destination (anyone heard of Daryl Hall and John Oates's song-So Close?) For those interested, you can book a river cruise at Sumida River which can actually bring you to all the way to Odaiba.
Sumida River Scene
Bridge at Sumida River
Close Shot of Skytree
It only took less than 10 minutes to the Skytree Station by train from Asakua. We went straight to the ticket counters at level 4. The queue was surprisingly short.  I asked the counter staff if I could buy the tickets first and went up the tower around evening time (Day Ticket to Tembo Deck at 350m. Adult: 2060 Yen, Child: 930 Yen). She told us that we have to go up the tower straight after purchasing our tickets. We decided to come back later at my planned time. During the break, I grabbed the opportunity to take close up views of the Skytree. Certain shots actually required me to lie on the ground but I was not the only one around performing the feat :-). My wife and daughter did some shopping at the Tokyo Solamachi and found "treasures"at the Skytree Hello Kitty Shop. There is a Sumida Aquarium housed below the Skytree which we did not visit.

Up Up and Away!

Skytree's Hello Kitty
I timed my visit to the top of the tower at around 6 pm. Many past visitors have recommended to visit at this period as they could visit the transit from day to night and most importantly, to capture the beautiful sunset at 350 m above ground level at the Tembo deck. Before boarding the lift, there was a "lift lady" which explained to us the history and operation of the lift. All these were in Japanese and we could not comprehend a hint of what she was saying. But I really admired her dedication in her work knowing that she had to do this at least a few hundred times daily.

At 350 meter above ground

Crowd at Observation Deck
The lift brought us to the Observation Deck (Tembo Deck) within a minute. This is one of the fastest lifts in the world. The Tembo Deck was not unlike the other towers that I have visited. Just like Taipei 101 and Macau Tower, it offers a 360 degree view through full glass panels of Tokyo city. Every landmark, including the distant Mount Fuji could be seen from here. But the weather was foggy on that day and the Japan's most iconic landmark was hidden from our sight. My wife and I bemoaned our "misfortune" as we had only seen the elusive Mount Fuji once at our last trip from the Shinkansen.We cheered ourselves up again knowing the we could try to see it again from our Kamakura trip the next day from the Inamuragasaki beach.
Densely-packed building
From 350 meters above ground, all other buildings in the city were dwarfed by the Skytree. We could clearly see how densely-packed were the buildings of Tokyo. Little wonder it is the world's most populous metropolis. I could almost feel the buildings and its' people fighting for breath with one another. We saw Sumida River splitting the city almost into half and the many bridges that connected the both ends together.  I identified the location that we have taken our photo at noon and made a mental note to return to the river later and captured the night scene of the Skytree.

Sunset at Skytree
The sky was quite kind to us. We failed to witness the sunset but still could see the bright red sun descending into the cloud of mists. The city started to light up as night descended. It offered a completely different perspective of view from the day as the city was bathed in yellowish light. We noticed that for an additional fee, there were lifts which you could take to Tembo Galleria which was 450 meter above ground. We did not take up the offer as we were deterred by an electronic signage showing a warning of poor weather. We left the Skytree after spending 11/2 hours at the Tembo deck. Of course, we did not miss the opportunity to pick up some souvenirs from the Skytree shops (Tembo deck and level 5).

Spot Sumida River

At our return route, we visited Sumida River again. The Skytree and Asahi Beer Hall looked magnificent at night. I took the opportunity to capture a family photo with the two icons and Sumida River as our backdrop. During our trip back to the hotel, all of us were already anticipating our trip to Kamakura the next day. 
Close Up View of Skytree at night
Family Photo at Sumida River

For those preparing to visit the Skytree, this is the official site to visit: The Tokyo Skytree