With Tokyo being the massive sprawling conurbation that it is, at times the city seems to go on forever. For those visiting Japan for the first time, this can make sightseeing quite an overwhelming prospect. As great a city as Tokyo is, sometimes it can seem difficult to find that traditional culture and architecture that many visitors are looking for. Most people opt for a bullet train to the Kansai area to explore Kyoto or Nara, which is not such a bad idea. However, for those looking to kill a day and explore some of the historical sites of the Tokyo (Kanto) area, a tour of Kamakura and Yokohama is a must.
I was lucky enough to travel along on a training session for guides on the new Sunrise Kamakura and Yokohama Bus Tour. The first thing I must say is that this tour is certainly not for the faint-hearted. This is a busy schedule and participants will have a lot to explore, see, and learn throughout the course of the day. The tour began at Hamamatsucho bus terminal. We all hopped onto the bus and it rolled away right on time. As we chugged our way through Tokyo, I entertained myself by looking out of the window at the deep blue autumn sky and the incendiary yellow leaves of the gingko trees, I knew that the day was going to be a pleasant one. I sipped on a coffee as we crossed the Rainbow Bridge:
“The suspension bridge is 798 meters long and…”
Our guide’s explanation of the bridge was interrupted by a collective wave of gasps coming from the rear of the coach.
“…Oh! Everyone! Take a look to your left… I mean right!”
And there it was, in plain view; Mt. Fuji with a snowy white hat on his head. Our guide continued:
“Actually, today we are really lucky. It’s said that there is usually only a 30% chance of visibility.”
I did feel lucky, and I settled into my seat as we passed Haneda airport and listened to our guide fill us in on local history and trivia as we made our way to Kamakura.
Kamakura is a town with oodles of history. Alongside Nara and Kyoto, it holds the accolade of having once been the seat of the capital. From 1185 until 1333 this was the most important political spot in the country. Now, Kamakura is a relatively small coastal city, replete with temples and shrines. As the bus wound its way through the narrow streets, our guide informed us that we were first stopping off at Kotoku-in Temple; home to one of Japan’s most distinctive sights, the giant Amida Buddha (amitābha in Sanskrit). The statue stands at 13.5 meters tall, was cast from bronze and weighs around 120 tons. It was originally housed in a building with a roof, until a tsunami destroyed the building in 1495, leaving the statue standing defiantly in the open air ever since. The statue is located in the middle of a courtyard surrounded on 3 sides by white walls, and has a somewhat mystifying expression; slightly hypnotizing and difficult to not look at. A stroll around the other side of the rear wall revealed a wonderful garden area, in which I found some maple trees with their leaves just turning vermilion. If you have time, you can go inside the statue and take a look at the insides of the Buddha. Also, in the right-hand corner at the end of the courtyard can be found a giant pair of warazori sandals, originally made in 1956 by a children’s club from Ibaraki. The children donated the sandals to Kotoku-in, in the hope that the Buddha would put them on in order to walk around the country and bring happiness to its people. The club still continue to make giant sandals and presents them to the temple every few years.
After admiring Kotoku-in and the Great Buddha, we took a short stroll down the road to Hase-dera Temple. Walking through the gate we found ourselves in a well-kempt garden at the base of some stairs leading up to the top of a hill. Upon climbing the stairs there was a small space midway up with hundreds of small statues of jizo and other assorted figurines.
At the top of the stairway, there were a number of temple buildings – one of which houses the famous statue of Kannon with 33 faces. Our guide showed us around the temple complex, also taking us to a revolving book case where we received an explanation of its history. One interesting thing I noticed was that at the base of the bookcase were a large number of smooth, round grey pebbles. Further inspection showed that each pebble had a Chinese character written on it. Not for the first time in my life in Japan, I was surprised and impressed at the minute attention to detail; the wonderful sense of taste and artistry. After exploring the temple buildings open to the public, we were taken to a rest area overlooking the sea. From the elevated position, we could see a wonderful sweeping vista of the ocean, with houses dotting the coastline beneath us. The sky was a perfect deep blue, and we all stopped to take pictures of the picture postcard view.
Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine
Upon leaving Hase-dera we boarded the bus again for a short drive to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine. After walking around two Buddhist temples, there was a distinctly different atmosphere to this historic Shinto shrine. We approached the main shrine via Maruyama Inari Shrine and we stopped here for a short explanation and history of the Inari shrine, with its many torii gates. Inari is the Shinto god (kami) of fertility, rice, agriculture, foxes, industry, and worldly success. Moving onto Hachiman-gu, we found that despite being a weekday, the shrine was busy with other visitors streaming through; testament to its fame and popularity. Priests were breezing in and around the area, conducting their daily routines: checking instruments and looking generally busy. A few miko were helping visitors here and there. After a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of Hachiman-gu, we jumped on the coach again, and this time set a course for Yokohama.
Yokohama is a huge city – the 2nd largest in Japan – and often eclipsed by its bigger brother, Tokyo. Yokohama is a port town, and as with other port towns in Japan like Kobe and Nagasaki, has had a long history of serving both as a trading hub and a contact point with the West. Our first port of call was the Chinese restaurant where we were due to have lunch. The food was a set course, and we munched our way through a variety of dishes as we gazed out of the window and admired the wonderful view of the bay. The restaurant, Totenko, was on the 10th floor, so we had the perfect seats. The tour also offers a vegetarian option, and some of the tour guides with me were very interested to try the vegetarian dishes on offer. Meanwhile, I chowed down on my tasty succulent meat dishes (apologies to my vegetarian brothers and sisters out there).
With our bellies full to bursting, we set course for the Chinatown of Yokohama. As mentioned earlier, due to Yokohama’s history as a port city, it has often been home to foreign communities trading and settling in Japan. Since 1859, the Chinese community has grown and prospered in the city and is marked by an area devoted to Chinese shops and restaurants. Our guide nimbly guided us through the bustling streets, lined with colorful eateries leaking out mouth-watering smells. I found myself wanting to eat again – in spite of the large lunch I’d eaten earlier! We walked quickly through the streets, and kindly shop owners smiled at us and offered us samples of food to try. We stopped at a temple called Kanteibyo in Japanese, (Guan Di Mao in Chinese). Local Chinese residents were coming to the temple in dribs and drabs to burn incense sticks and pray to the gods of the temple. A lady working at the temple smiled at me kindly and offered me a pamphlet in English, explaining the history of the temple and its gods (one of which happened to be the same Kannon, whose statue I had seen earlier in the day at Hase-dera). I thanked the lady and smiled back at her before we were whisked off to the coach again to go to our final destination: Sankei-en Garden.
After a thoroughly enjoyable tour of the gardens, we boarded the bus and made our way back to Tokyo as the evening was setting in for good. We drove over the
Yokohama Bay Bridge and admired the twinkling lights of the waterfront, including the Ferris wheel clock which tells the time.
The bus dropped our first load of passengers off in Ginza, and the rest of us travelled on to Shinjuku the final destination. I think we all would agree that
we’d had a most enjoyable and eye-opening day. What was most interesting for me, was, as the only foreigner on the bus, witnessing my fellow Japanese
tourists learning and seeing new things and enjoying themselves just as much as I did.
Interested? Take a look at the tour here.