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jugatsu 14 (oct)
It was raining lightly as we stepped off the train at Kamakura, just south of Yokohama, and my Australian friend and I followed the umbrellas to the first of many shrines and temples dotting the city. Engaku-ji, one of the largest and most well known of the Zen temples, was shrouded in mist and crowded for the holiday weekend. Monday was National Sports Day. In the center was a demonstration of young children striking various gymnastic poses circled by their family spectators in a loud, uncharacteristic display for a quiet place of contemplation or prayer. There were many little paths leading out and up, however, with small buildings and interesting things to see, all the more mysterious and spiritual in the mist.

One path led up a high trail to a cemetery overlooking the complex. A welcoming man noticed my interested in a bush with multicolored flowers and explained that the lovely blooms were white but when they were spent, they turned a deep pink. Another path led to two buildings nestled in the rocky hillside. In one, bowls were laid out with padded strikers. I played the singing bowls reverently. The two on a small altar resonated deeply, vibrating for a long time. In the next open structure, women sat around low round tables folding paper to make origami envelopes for some prayer related items. We were invited to watch and sit for a while.

We followed the Daibutsu hiking course through muddy forest for over an hour seeking the Great Buddha, the stone statue created in 1252. It felt like a pilgrimage of sorts. I expected to find him in a natural setting, but we ended up in downtown Kamakura, where he sits in the Kotoku-in temple: colossal, appearing to be lost in meditation, and well attended by Japanese and a smattering of foreign tourists.

Kamakura's beaches were calling. The sun had broken through the clouds in the afternoon and, finding a place to slip into our swimsuits, we celebrated the last few hours of sunlight with a dip in the warm Pacific waters. No one else was swimming - perhaps the locals considered it too cold compared to the summer temperatures - but the inlet was full of surfers and windsurfers.

While walking the city streets, every few blocks revealed a small temple tucked away behind a traditional wooden gate. We sat for a while at the Komyoji temple, colorfully decorated from the day's activities, and watched the clean up crew gather fallen leaves. The trees have not burst into color yet, but leaves are falling everywhere to be quickly removed in the clean streets of Japan.

Walking up the steep slope in a crowd of families, I was surprised to find pavement leading all the way up Mt Takao, the almost 2,000 ft. (600m) mountain in the hills west of Tokyo, a popular day hike. The main trail forged through food and souvenir booths, and several shrines. Blue hills echoed into the distance at the top. On the return route we found a rocky, dirt trail through cedar forests, sometimes with rough-hewn stairs, but definitely a more satisfying hiking trail.

On the way home, I stayed on the train to the town of Chofu, where a bus leaves the station every half hour for an onsen, or natural hot springs spa. Divided into women and men, visitors stashed their clothes in lockers and receive towels and a short robe with pants, the latter best left in the locker for a visit to the tea room later. In the buff, the women washed themselves thoroughly with provided toiletries, then soaked in a variety of small pools. The pool waters were black, treated with luxurious oils. One pool was surrounded by rocks and round stones covered the bottom; a cool waterfall splashed down a wall in contrast to the soothing hot water bath. A wooden tub filled with water, and when you lowered yourself into it, it splashed out all around you. Another pool was up a flight of stairs in the open air, protected by trees and serenaded by crickets.


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