hiking in Kamakura, Kencho Temple, and a book I cannot read

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March 21st 2012
Published: March 22nd 2012
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Kencho Temple Kencho Temple Kencho Temple

from the entrance
Today I ventured out for a hike in Kamakura, an area rich in history, temples, and shrines. I followed instructions from hike #21 in the book 'More Day Walks Near Tokyo' by Gary Walters. This is my first time using this book as a guide and am slightly nervous considering it was published 20 years ago, hopefully things have remained mostly the same. After departing the Kita-Kamakura train station I began walking along a paved path with signage in both Japanese and English. I passed by Engaku Temple almost immediately and continued on to Kencho Temple, where I paid 300 yen to enter. Kencho Temple is the leading of the five great Zen temples in Kamakura and is the oldest training monastery for that discipline in Japan. I was overtaken by the intricate woodwork of which the temple structures were built. Among the many subtemples on the grounds are other interesting items such as the huge temple bell cast in the year 1255, a stand of juniper trees that were planted 750 years ago, and a zen garden in the shape of the Chinese character 'mind'.

This was my first visit to a Buddhist temple of any sort. Though I tend not to relate to religion, Buddhism's focus on nature is a tenant I can get along with. Kencho Temple was more impressive than I had expected. It's hard to wrap your head around it's age and the incredible condition it's in. I entered the building containing the meditation room and zen garden shoeless, and proceeded to have a seat on a squeaky bench to reflect. To my surprise, a few visiting Japanese women were sitting next to me just chatting away. Disappointed in the lack of silence, I jotted down a few things and continued on my way to the trail. Between conversation though, I could understand how this could be a place to gather thoughts amongst the sounds of trickling streams, forest birds, and rustling breezes as well as the scent of burning incense and a few, faint whifs of what must be the monks preparing their meal.

Next, I climbed a series of staircases towards Hansobo Temple, where guardian statues of interesting bronze hobgoblins dot the hillside. When I turned at the summit of the stairs I was completely floored by the sudden appearance of Mount Fuji (highest mountain in Japan) on the landscape. This was my first time viewing this iconic volcano since arriving in the country and immediately understood the draw of its unflawed, snowy, conical shape that appears to stick out of the horizon all by itself. Out of sight, in the wooded area below me I could hear chanting of monks in training. Also coming into view was Sagami Bay, which would stay along my right shoulder for the duration of the hike.

The first half of the trail was well marked with signage in Romaji (English alphabet characters). I noticed that the trail, though relatively easy, would become rather difficult when wet due to a lot of it being carved out of rock that would become slick. Other potential hazards were rather steep cliff drop offs on the right shoulder of the trail and many tree roots crossing the path just waiting to trip you up. I could tell the trail was meticulously groomed by the locals. At one point I accidentally startled an 70 year old Japanese man who was hiking the opposite direction up a bouldery section with his ipod headphones in and one walking stick for support. It was very impressive. Further along the trail I would come across a few other Japanese men and women hikers where we would exchange head nods and konnichiwas in passing. I also happened upon some young Japanese mountain bikers carrying their ride up the trail stairs, one had a sticker on his helmet that said in block letters "I heart SEX" in English, it was pretty amusing.

Though you could still hear the sounds of the surrounding city below, the trail was pleasantly wooded, dappled with sunlight, and peaceful. I could've laid right down and taken a nap. It felt incredible to be hiking in such a foreign land and I was feeling confident in my ability to follow the guide so far, considering my generally poor sense of direction, until I came to an intersection that I couldn't quite figure out. I decided on a route, which was apparently incorrect because I ended up in a neighborhood eventually. The great thing about hiking in this area though, is that all you have to do is follow the sound of traffic and you will soon find a bus stop to take you to the nearest train station, which is what I ended up doing. As I was waiting for the bus, an old woman approached me and started speaking Japanese. Though I thought I made it pretty clear by the pained look of confusion on my face, she continued to place a book in my hand that said Peace, World, Love on the cover, which is nice except that those were the only English words in or on the entire book. She babbled on a bit more while I tried to hand it back to her, but then walked away, leaving the book in my hands. Uh, thanks? So I now have a book that I cannot read.

All in all, the hike was a great experience and took about 2 hours. For dinner, we enjoyed some delicious miso-marinated mackerel and okonomiyaki, which really hit the spot after a long day of walking.

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