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The Tenen Hiking Trail in Kamakura

"I can't do this anymore," my colleague said. The bell for the next lesson had just rung, but he was still sitting in his chair, looking like Marvin the Paranoid Android.

He's an eikaiwa veteran who's had a stint as a school manager, and he's a genuinely good teacher, but he's reached that saturation level that hits any eikaiwa teacher with half a brain and a smidgen of goodwill.

Eikaiwa teaching is a thoroughly unnatural job: you're supposed to make entertaining small talk with strangers you may never see again, and you're supposed to do this for eight hours. If it's an interesting person, great, but sometimes you're stuck with Kenji whose hobby is sleeping or Mariko whose hobby is to go to shopping.

I grimaced in sympathy. Only two things keep me going right now: knowing that university classes will resume shortly, and hiking. As I observed my colleague, I made an instant decision: Kamakura. Friday, my day off, Tenen Hiking Trail.

Tengu at Hansōbō at Kenchō-ji. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Kamakura is a beautiful town. I'm always surprised when Tokyoites admit that they went to Kamakura on a school trip many years ago, but never again. It's 45 minutes from Tokyo, and it's almost as good as Kyoto, so why don't you … just … do it?

When I say Kamakura is beautiful, I'm not referring to any obvious tourist trap. There is so much more to this town. This morning, for instance, I went to Kenchō-ji (建長寺). It's a Rinzai Zen temple that ranks among Kamakura's so-called Five Great Zen Temples (the Kamakura Gozan), and it's the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan.

The entrance of Kenchō-ji

The San-mon or main gate

It is SO difficult (for me) to photograph Zen temples: its impossible to
capture their austere beauty.

However, I walked past it, only stopping to take photos of the magnificent 750-year-old junipers in front of the Butsuden. My goal was a lesser-known shrine, one that's probably missed by 90% of tourists, called Hansōbō (半僧坊). I arrived at Kenchō-ji  just after its main gate opened at 8:30, and I was determined to reach Hansōbō before anyone else did.

Really? Tourists try to drink this? It requires a warning?

750 years old and still going strong

This gate is called Kara-mon. It leads to the temple's main garden.

I galloped up those steps so fast that I was grateful when I spotted autumn's first blush on a Japanese maple: a perfect excuse to stop and gasp lungs full of fresh ocean/mountain air before staggering further up the mountain.

How could you resist following this path?

Here we go: the outher torii of Hansōbō.

It was still early enough to see dew on leaves.

First blush of autumn

I quote from Kenchō-ji's pamphlet: "Hansōbō is the temple's large tutelary Shinto shrine. The enshrined spirit, the Hansōbō Daigongen, was originally the tutelary spirit of Hōkō-ji in Shizuoka, but was brought here in 1890 by Aozora Kandō. "

You reach the shrine via a steep path lined with tengu, a mountain or forest goblin. Mark Schumacher writes: Tengu have "both Shinto and Buddhist attributes. Their supernatural powers include shape-shifting into human or animal forms, the ability to speak to humans without moving their mouth (and) the magic of moving instantly from place to place without using their wings. Tengu are of two physical types: karasu tengu 烏天狗 identified by a bird's head and beak; and konoha tengu 木の葉天狗 distinguished by a human physique but with wings and a long nose (also called yamabushi tengu). This type of tengu often carries a feather fan in one hand." (I wrote about another tengu temple, Saijō-ji, in this post.)

The hill is covered in tengu statues. It's a breathtaking sight.


"And the angel said unto her ... " I couldn't help thinking of that line
in the Bible, but fundamentalists would regard this as heresy.


Kenchō-ji's buildings seen from Hansōbō


When you reach the shrine itself, you see gorgeous views of Kamakura, Yuigahama and Mount Fuji. Well, theoretically you can see Fuji-san, but as I've mentioned before, this damn mountain is acting coy with me. Whenever I'm in its vicinity or in a spot where you're supposed to have a clear view, I can't see anything. Today, again, was too hazy.

The Tenen Hiking Trail – my favourite of all Kamakura's numerous hiking courses – starts at this shrine. I walked from Kita-Kamakura Station, via Kenchō-ji, along the crest of the mountain, via Zuisen-ji in eastern Kamakura, and then back to Kamakura Station. It took me about five hours, but that includes a stop at the tengu shrine and in the garden of Zuisen-ji.

It's a beautiful trail through a thick forest.

Is it a difficult course? No, I don't think so, but if your only exercise is tottering in your Christian Louboutins down Chūō-dori in Ginza, it might not be a good idea to attempt this walk. It gets fairly steep in places and if you were to misstep, you might take a nasty tumble down some fairly steep slopes. The trail gets very slippery when it's wet.

Halfway mark

There's a restaurant, vending machines and beer garden at the halfway mark.

You can start at either end. One direction isn't easier than the other: you go up at one end and go down at the other end. Kenchō-ji requires an entry fee of ¥300, which you don't have to pay at the other end, but it's a bit tricky to find the start of the hiking course next to Zuisen-ji. When you're standing just outside the temple's ticket gate, you'll see this sign:

Walk towards your right and watch out for this sign:

Incidentally, don't believe blogs that tell you it's easy to get lost, or you have to understand kanji to be able to follow the route. Sigh. I often feel like Japan's QC in a Supreme Court case.

"Your Honour, it if pleases the court, I'd like to submit the following as evidence. Exhibit one, a stone marker. This is not, like, kanji? You know? It's a picture. If you follow these pictures, you won't get lost.

"Exhibit two, an English sign, somewhat weather-worn, but still clearly legible. There are several along the course.

"I therefore submit, M'lud, that my client is not guilty of obfuscation, willful obstruction of justice or deliberately misleading innocent foreigners. We plead not guilty."

After that diversion, let's pop into the temple at the end of my excursion, Kinbyōzan Zuisen-ji (錦屏山瑞泉寺). It's a Rinzai Zen temple that's famous for its garden, which was laid out by the founder of the temple, Musō Soseki (夢窓 疎石).

The rock garden at the back of the temple is the only remaining garden in Kamakura that was actually constructed during the Kamakura period.

The entrance to Zuisen-ji. Both paths lead to the gate below.

The cave at the back of Zuisen-ji

The temple's pamphlet says, "A huge cave is excavated at the rock in the northern corner of the garden. It is the hall used for meditation in appreciating the moon reflected on the surface of the pond. The pond is dug in the rock with its center remained as an islet. Its stream pours out from a natural reservoir … Musō Kokushi (another name for Musō Soseki ) built a pretty teahouse overlooking this grand garden and named it Ichirantei."

The teahouse at Zuisen-ji

As famous as this temple's garden may be, I don't recommend it unless you're a die-hard temple fan or if you're in the vicinity anyway to walk along the Tenen Hiking Trail. It's quite remote, though you can take the Number 20 bus from Bus Stop 4 at Kamakura Station, get off at a bus stop called Kamakura-gū (鎌倉宮) and walk for about ten minutes to Zuisen-ji. (I walked back to the station!) The garden is really gorgeous in autumn.

It was a great hike, and you know what's the best thing about it all? It's safe. Whenever I undertake a solitary walkpedition, I never fail to stop for a few moments in a silent spot, and to give thanks to the gods and the men of Japan for allowing me to walk woman alone with zero fear.

I encountered fewer than ten people along the course itself; most of them were retired men; all of them greeted me with a smile. I could hear cicadas, birds, squirrels and hawks. I saw numerous butterflies, hawks, a beautiful yellow snake and autumn's first higanbana.

I was alone with the trees and the faraway ocean. It was good, and I'm ready for another weekend of eikaiwa.

Twitter maestro Alexander Shiroki says my posts keep getting bigger, so I'm going to stop now, but first: if you're a Japan addict, there's one person you have to follow on Twitter, and that's Alex.

I made a map of my route and tried to embed it, unsuccessfully. You can see it via this link.

OK, that's it, bye!

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