Who goes to another country in the middle of a semester?
My parents, friends and classmates have bombarded me with that question and other similar concerns when they learned that I was going to Japan for a conference. For my part, I was anxious too as I was studying Genetics that semester. Whereas the timing was wrong, I just could not resist the opportunity to visit Japan.
I would be lying if I say that I’m just going there for the sake of the conference. I do not mean to downplay the conference in any way as it is a respected event. I had learned so much and have met wonderful, smart people who are not just colleagues that will one day, become world changers but also friends who share the same passion as me.
Right after I booked my flight, my mind was filled with thoughts of ramen shops, anime, izakayas, onsen and Shinkansen: all the things that I wanted to experience ever since I was young.
I was not feeling nervous nor too excited before my journey. Could it be because of the double revisions I had to make or the fact that I had several tests the day before my flight? I’m not really sure. The next thing I know, I’m on my way to the airport. Hours later, sitting inside the plane.
After 15 hours, I finally arrived in my destination.
Contrary to my expectation, everything went on smoothly according to my plan. I had little expectation that everything in the plan will be accomplished, I made that just to have a bit of direction but the first day turned out so well!
After immigration, I immediately set out with my plan. This is the start of my Operation Ninja.
A brief run-through of my plan: Immigration -> Post office for my pocket Wi-Fi -> Narita Express (Ofuna)
First destination: Kamakura
The easiest way to get to Kamakura via Narita Airport is to take Narita Express with Ofuna as the final destination. Sometimes, there are Narita Express trains that run up to Kamakura but those are occasional. The one way Narita Express-Ofuna ticket costs around Y1, 500 ($15), a discounted ticket that is only valid if you are coming from Narita (one way only).
The trip from Narita to Ofuna took about two hours. I did not sleep along the way because I was afraid that I would sleep then be groggy when I’m awaken. I did not want to explore as a walking zombie. Upon arrival in Ofuna, I took the train (JR Yokosuka line) and got off in Kamakura. This is where I met my co-delegate and friend Kanako who offered to give me a tour around Kamakura.
So we started our day trip with parfaits in Komachi dori, a quaint shopping street found just in the corner near the Kamakura train station. Despite the summer heat, the street was bustling that day, with tourists and locals alike lining up for mochi and ice cream.
Komachi dori is lined up with a variety of stalls that sell products from wooden souvenirs, traditional Japanese clothing and sweets. There are also lots of restaurants to choose from if one gets hungry along the way. Kamakura is especially known for its sweets so it is a must to try some local mochi! Sweet shops selling confectionaries such as dango, mochi, and wagashi are plentiful along Komachi dori so there are plenty to choose from.
From there, we then on went to visit several temples in Kamakura. Our first stops were the Hasedera Temple and the Kotoku-in Temple.
One of the highlights of the day trip was our visit to the Great Buddha. With a height of 13.35 meters, it is the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan, coming after the statue found in Todaji Temple. The history itself of the structure is quite impressive. It started out as a wooden statue back in 1252. The wooden statue and its surrounding temple halls were later damaged by a storm. It was then decided that another statue will be made, this time with bronze as the main material. For several centuries, natural disasters such as storms and earthquake destroyed the temple hall housing the statue. The last hall was destroyed during Muromachi period on 1495 and ever since then, the Great Buddha has been standing at the open grounds.
Unfortunately, we were not able to walk around Hasedera much, as we were pressed for time. The redemption would probably be the shops outside that sell Japanese weaponry. I was amazed with the hundreds of shurikens and katanas I found displayed at the shop. I wanted to channel my inner ninja and get some shurikens but the Immigration might not agree with that idea, hence a possibility that my weapons may be confiscated at the airport.
Our final stop was the beautiful Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, the most important Shinto shrine in Kamakura. The shrine can be accessed through several torii gates along the way. The Hongu, which is the main hall stands at the top of a wide stairway. A small shrine located within the main hall exhibits artifacts owned by the shrine such as ancient documents, masks and weaponry.
Barrels of sake are displayed near the shrine, these barrels are called kazaridaru, which means “decoration barrels.” The barrels on display are used later for New Year celebrations.
Ema are small wooden plaques on which one can write prayers or wishes. The ema are then left hanging up at the shrine for the kami ( gods) to receive them. The pictures shown in ema are usually the patron gods worship in that shrine.
There are several ways to write your wish: 1. ) On the front where it is fine to overwrite the picture and then your name and address written on the back. 2.) The wish is written on the back without writing on the picture.
O-mikuji and Ema are two of some traditions observed in shrines. O-mikuji is a fortune-telling strip of paper, kind of similar to a fortune cookie. Traditionally,this is done by making a small donation first then shaking a small box until a small bamboo stick fell out. The stick has a number on it and according to the number, you are given an omikuji by the priest. In some shrines, there are labelled drawers where you can get your number.
The o-mikuji contains a general statement which indicates the degree of your luck ( great blessing, small blessing, curse etc. ).It will also contain a longer description which tells you about your chances in career, love, future health, and success. Mine was in Japanese so Kanako translated it for me. Another custom is that you leave the omikuji behind if it’s not a good fortune hence they are usually tied in posts found in the shrine.
Kamakura is a beautiful city that I regret spending only few hours in exploring it. There are more temples yet to be visited and more experience to savor. The people are friendly and generous but we, as tourist must always be respectful of the traditions and etiquette observed in the place. Kamakura is definitely a must-see destination for someone who wants to have quick getaway from the hustle-bustle of Tokyo.
If you plan to spend the whole day in Kamakura, the Kamakura Enoshima Pass ( 700 yen) might just be useful for you as it provides free use of JR trains around Kamakura, the Enoden Line and the Shonan Monorail for one day.
The shrine can be reached from Kamakura station through the busy Komachi-dori street or via Dankazura, a pedestrian near the Wakamiya-Oji street.
GREAT BUDDHA & HASEDERA TEMPLE
The Great Buddha can be accessed from Hase Station, the third station from Kamakura along the Enoden railway line.
The Enoden is a streetcar-like train located near the JR Kamakura station. This train serves as connection to Enoshima and Fujisawa.