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get outta town

Kamakura, February 1999

Recently, Tod & I have been vegetating our weekends away--trying to unwind from the stresses of the week with books, laundry and trips to the grocery store. But domesticity only goes so far. This weekend, I dragged Tod out of bed at 10:30 on Saturday morning, ran some errands with him and then we headed out on a trek to Kamakura.

Kamakura is a town about two hours south of Tokyo. It's crammed full of shrines and temples and was once the seat of power in Japan. Now it's the centre of a tourist area which is jammed with visitors in the summer who take in the sights and then head to the nearby beaches. But in February, it was just right for us. Busy, but room to move on the sidewalks.

Because we'd run errands into the early afternoon, we didn't get to Kamakura until 4:30 or so--just before sunset at the closing of the temple gates at 5:00. We cruised around town and tried to find a hotel. There are four hotels in town. Two were completely booked. One was hidden away somewhere. But we found a vacancy at the New Kamakura Inn.

The New Kamakura Inn is not new. It's old and run down. The hotel's office doubles as a "pay-as-you-enter" parking lot ticket window. In the lobby of the hotel, a row of bright blue vinyl slippers greeted us, so we clumsily unlaced our walking shoes and slipped into the blue scuffs before going to our room. The room was crowded with two cozy twin beds, a sofa slipcovered with a white sheet, a small table, a tv and mini fridge painted kelly green. The walls were patinaed a golden yellow from years of nicotine.

But it was a fine place to spend the night and we didn't spend too much time there, anyway. We wandered out after a short rest and found a jazz club where we sat through two sets. The trio was good and the bass player was a master of his instrument. The piano player looked like a middle school music teacher, but she had vicious attack on the keys and smiled while she played. The vocalist was good, but I could tell she'd learned song lyrics by listening to records. She was an excellent mimic. I suspect she doesn't speak a word of English, but she sings it pretty well.

In between sets, we played a few rounds of hangman in Japanese. Japanese hangman requires a lot more guesses than in English--with 104 possible "letters" instead of 26, you've got to add fingers, toes, ears and any other body parts you can invent to your hangman body!

But all this was merely the prelude to Sunday when we really got out and toured the area. We decided to hike from Kamakura to the Kita-Kamakura temples and then south to the Great Buddha. We visited two beautiful temples with 700 year old junipers and structures that have withstood the ravages of water, wind and time.

The 3 km hiking course from Kita-Kamakura to the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) at Hase led us over hills and through forest. The edge of the trail bloomed with spring wildflowers. We ambled through a mountain park and past several more temples on our way. It was exhilarating to be outside walking on earth and breathing air scented with leaves instead of car fumes.

The Daibutsu is a giant bronze buddha cast in 1275. If you pay 20 yen (about 16 cents), you can go inside him and look at the casting from inside. It was dark and rough inside except for a few edges worn smooth and shiny from myriad fingers rubbing them over the years.

After coming out of the belly of the beast and back into the sun, we decided to take the the Enoden train line the along the coast to a nearby island, Enoshima. Enoshima is a cave island with a big hill in the middle and has been built up as a summer tourist attraction. There's a shrine on the mountain and rather than making the difficult pilgrimage to the top by stairs, you can pay 330 yen and ride four escalators up. Which we did.

Enoshima is tatty and run down like the New Kamakura Inn, but charming, too. The street leading to the escalators is lined with shops selling omiyage (souvenir gifts) and overpriced food. At the top of the hill there is an amusement arcade populated with friendly cats and a botanical garden with wintered-over ornamental cabbages and newly planted pansies spelling out "Enoshima". There's a tower at the very top and of course, we went up. We met three middle aged Japanese ladies there who took our picture and giggled with us as we all attempted to communicate.

Overall, it was a great trip. We got out of Tokyo, had some exercise, saw new sights and relaxed. Made work on Monday seem like a chain gang in comparison!

Copyright 2003. Kristen McQuillin,