The most famous bamboo forest within reach of Tokyo is in the Arashiyama district near Kyoto, but there's another one – less known, but in a way much more charming – in Kamakura. It's more a grove than a forest, but you can find it at Hōkoku-ji (報国寺) in the eastern part of Kamakura. It's on Route 204 that runs from Kamakura to the Yokohama-Yokosuka Expressway.
Although Hōkoku-ji is tiny compared to Arashiyama, it's better in one way: it's more intimate. Arashiyama is a big forest, but the bamboo is fenced off and you walk along an asphalt road that's wide enough for a car. Hōkoku-ji is small, but you walk through it on a narrow path made from stones, and the only barrier between you and the bamboo is very low rope. The disadvantage of Hōkoku-ji's easygoing approach is this:
I don't know who did the actual scratching, but Ron and Noriko, you're both morons.
The grove at Hōkoku-ji has about two thousand moso bamboo trees (Phyllostachys edulis), which can reach a height of 20 m and a thickness of 20 cm. Remember the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? That was filmed in a moso bamboo forest that covers 24 000 acres in Anji in the Zhejiang Province of China.
Hōkoku-ji, which belongs to the school of Rinzai Zen, has a long history. If you're interested, you can read about it here. It costs ¥200 to enter the bamboo grove, and the temple is only 15 minutes by bus from Kamakura Station. Definitely worth it.
When I go to well-known sightseeing spots, I always go as early as possible to avoid the crowds. I arrived at Hōkoku-ji just after they opened at 9 am, and spent an hour in the forest, enjoying the bamboo and some green tea. I fled when the flocks of cackling seniors, scurrying behind flag-carrying tour guides, arrived. Ah, the joys of sightseeing in Japan: go on a weekday and you’re surrounded by garrulous seniors; go on a weekend and you have to cope with the gray brigade as well as screaming toddlers. Foreign tourists, too, are not to be escaped at any time. Clearly they've realized that Kanto is not a nuclear wasteland after all, but let's not complain, for we need their money. Can't they just mail it to us, though?
|The main buildings at Hōkoku-ji|
I left Hōkoku-ji a bit earlier than planned, so I impulsively decided to walk a bit further up the road to see Jomyo-ji, another Rinzai temple, which is ranked fifth on the Kamakura Gozan, in other words, list of five most prominent Zen temples in Kamakura. (The other four are Kenchō-ji, Engaku-ji, Jufuki-ji and Jōchi-ji.) It was a pleasant walk on a crisp morning in early autumn, but the best thing about that temple was the hawk I heard, and eventually saw, in the forest surrounding the temple. Jomyo-ji has a teahouse with a small karesansui (Zen garden), but nothing particularly special.
|The small Zen garden at Jomyo-ji|
|This is a bad photo, but look! A hawk! It's not a pigeon. It's a hawk. Promise.|
Then I decided to walk back to Kamakura Station instead of returning by bus. It's a very nice stroll and I got sidetracked into dozens of small streets – not to see any impressive sights, but to enjoy ordinary scenes in a small town. I had no intention of going to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, the best-known shrine in Kamakura, but when I walked past, I thought, "Oh heck, I'm here, I might as well pop in."
I seldom enjoy the really famous places: their reputation is inevitably exaggerated and the crowds horrify me. I observed the overweight foreign tourists and the well-oiled wedding machine that is Hachiman-gū on a Sunday. The brides were lining up, waiting for their turn in the Maiden. The Maiden is where Shizuka, the mistress of the warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune, performed in the 1180s. Yoshitsune's brother, Yoritomo, captured Shizuka and ordered her to dance for him. She turned it into a defiant portrayal of her love for Yoshitsune. If you want to know more about this family drama, read The Tale of the Heike. Anyway, that's why the Maiden is associated with True Love, and that's why the kimono-clad brides stand in line to get married there.
I made a quick detour to look at the famous ginkgo tree. This huge tree, which was 30 meters tall and more than a thousand years old, was knocked over by a very strong wind in March 2010. Experts say the tree's core was probably rotten. However, both the tree's stump and a section of its trunk that was replanted nearby have started producing leaves again. Then I went to the small Maruyama Inari Shrine, which probably predates the main shrine, just because I love foxes. Then I returned to Tokyo.
|I took this photo of the Maiden at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū in June 2009. You can clearly see the giant ginkgo tree at the foot of the steps leading to the main shrine.|
|The giant ginkgo in June 2009|
|This is what it looks like now. The stump has started sprouting leaves, as has the trunk that has been replanted next to the tree's original spot.|
|Just to compare: this is the bamboo forest in Arashiyama near Kyoto.|
If you want to go to Hōkoku-ji, here's a map: