Kamakura: Hachiman-gu

06Feb07

The Zen temples of Kamakura had seemed surprisingly uncrowded to us, so we were hopeful about the rest of our tour of Kamakura. Our plan was to visit Hachiman-gu first, and then walk over to see the Daibutsu before sunset. It was when we noticed that all side entrances to Hachiman-gu were closed off and policemen were guiding large crowds of tourists toward the main entrance that we began to suspect that perhaps we wouldn’t be able to avoid the crowds at all. It turns out that Hachiman-gu is a very popular site for hatsumode visits, and indeed, the line to get in to the main shrine area turned out to be at least an hour long. We didn’t get up to the main shrine itself, but we did get a chance to wander past the orange entry torii and into the lower grounds, close enough to be able to see the main shrine perched up on the hill, and enormous video screens broadcasting the shrine dances for the benefit of those who were stuck in line.

Hachiman is the god of war, and Hachiman-gu is dedicated both to Hachiman and to the Minamoto (or Genji) clan. According to the ever-handy Eyewitness Guide to Japan, the shrine was built in 1603 by the sea, and then moved to its present site in 1191. The approach to the main shrine runs through two large ponds. Apparently “the Genji Pond has three islands (in Japanese ‘san’ means both three and life) while the Heike Pond, named for a rival clan, has four (‘shi’ means both four and death).”

Take that Heike clan!

Although we didn’t get a chance to visit the main shrine area, we did get to visit the equally important food stalls, which were abundant. Here you can see Dennis, Mart, and Courtney deeply involved in their yakisoba. I think I was busy eating a sausage and drinking a One Cup. The most magnificent find of all, however, were some sugar-glazed strawberries stuck onto Ritz crackers. Fresh from the glazer, a little warm, soft inside with a crunchy sugar shell, sweet with a hint of savory and salt from the cracker. What a wonder!

Of course, we did wander around the islands in the Genji Pond. My favorite has a small shrine, as well as booth where you can buy luck charms and get goshuin stamps. A Shinto priest was conducting ritual prayers at the shrine while bands of banners flapped in the wind. During the spring, when the trees around the pond are in blossom, this area is a photographer’s paradise and I remember one particularly prime spot near the bridge that leads to the island that had a line of photographers waiting patiently to take the same perfect photograph. (I too waited my turn, but unfortunately the negative for that shot is currently sitting in a box in a storage space in Oakland, so you’re not going to be able to see it.)

For the first shrine visit of the year, many people dress in kimono, including this group of women standing in front of Hachiman-gu’s entrance torii. This gate leads directly out onto the main street of the town itself, which is lined with cherry trees.



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