Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stopping by in Yokohama : Yamashita Park Area

On our trip to Kamakura, we stopped by in Yokohama for a couple of hours. We mainly visited the Yokohama Bay area.

Yokohama was once a sleepy fishing village which turned into one of Japan’s most important ports. Today, Yokohama is Japan’s second biggest city after Tokyo in terms of population. The first railway line in Japan was laid between Tokyo and Yokohama. Its proximity to Tokyo makes it sort of a twin city and a business hub.

Our first stop in Yokohama was the NYK Hikawamaru. 
The NYK Hikawamaru is an old Passenger liner which also served as a Hospital ship during the World War II. During its time as a Passenger liner, the Hikawamaru made 238 voyages across the Pacific to Seattle and Vancouver. Today the NYK Hikawamaru is anchored at the port and has turned into a sort of museum which is popular judging by the number of visitors it attracts. Visitors get to walk inside the ship and get a feel of the voyage. 

A few rooms like the luxury suites are not open for entrance, but one surely gets to look inside. Famous passengers include members of the Imperial family and even Charlie Chaplin.
The Marine tower is just across the road from the promenade overlooking the NYK Hikawamaru.  
It is 106 meters high and has an observatory at 100 meters above ground. It is supposedly the largest inland lighthouse in the world and was recently renovated.

The nearby Yamashita Park is a popular hangout for visitors and locals alike. Hard to believe that this beautiful place was created on top of the rubble from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. This public park is also the venue for performers and has lot of vendors selling snacks and treats. The park also has a few interesting  monuments :  an Indian style building, a girl scout statue, an Indian lady and some fountains.  

The promenade offers a good view of the Harbour and the Minato Mirai skyline.

A walking path leads to the Rinkosen promenade which passes by the Osanbashi pier and leads to Minato Mirai area.

As the name “Minato Mirai 21”, suggests it means a harbour of the future. Not surprising, given the fact that this futuristic project is built on entirely reclaimed land. Japan’s tallest building “Landmark Tower” is situated in Minato Mirai.This skyscraper which was opened in 1993 also has the fastest elevator in the world which has a speed of 750 metres(2500 ft) per minute. The skyscraper has an observatory on the 69th floor which offers a good view of the Yokohama Harbour and the city and also Mt Fuji on clear days. Entrance ticket :1000 yen.

The Yokohama Cosmo World is a small amusement park which houses, the Ferris Wheel “Cosmo Clock 21” was the world’s tallest when it opened in 1989.

Then there is the Convention centre which has an unique design.
Minato Mirai is entirely skyscraper land and makes for a beautiful sight especially at night when the lights come up.

Most people visiting Yokohama make it a point to stop by at the Chinatown.Chinatown is the place to be if you want to experience a bit of China. Lots of shops sell Chinese antiques, crafts and knickknacks. Not to forget, Chinese food too.
 We stopped by at the Children’s Museum near the Marine tower, but it was past closing hour and all we got to see were this kiddy sized cars.

Yokohama is also home to Anpanman Museum, themed around characters from the “Anpanman” anime series, popular among young children.

Hard to miss are the red “Akai Kutsu” buses which are a good option to tour the Minato Mirai, Yamashita Park, Motomachi and Chinatown. A ride costs 100 yen while a day pass costs 300 yen. 

Jinrikisha's are also available for a joyride near the Yamashita Park/China town area. 
Yokohama's sidewalks have some interesting tile work.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Visiting Kamakura

The historic city of Kamakura, was the erstwhile capital of Japan from 1185-1333 AD. The city was at that time, the first of its kind as it was the seat of the feudal government. The city can be called a temple town owing to the fact that there are some 65 Buddhist shrines and about 19 Shinto shrines. Kamakura also is home to the Five Great Zen temples.

This seaside city, is today a popular destination amongst tourists, because of the variety of attractions it offers – Heritage sites, Temples and shrines, Beaches and wooded hills. Its proximity to the Tokyo-Yokohama area and the good rail and road connectivity are added advantages.
Kamakura’s most famous attraction is the Daibutsu, or the Great Buddha.
The Great Buddha of Kamakura has been designated a National treasure of Japan.
The Buddha is situated on the grounds of the Kotoku-in temple. This monumental outdoor bronze statue of Amida Buddha is 44 meters (13.5 metres) tall and weighs about 95 tonnes. It has survived earthquakes, fires and typhoons. The statue dates back to 1252 when it was supposedly gilded, but hardly any traces of gold can now be found on the statue.
 The statue also had a pedestal made of 33 bronze lotus petals, out of which only 4 remain and are on display near the rear of the statue. The statue was preceded by a wooden statue which was destroyed in a storm. The statue was once housed inside a wooden hall which was destroyed due to a tsunami in 1498. The hall was never rebuilt after that. The statue has survived the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and the current statue has earthquake protection measures in place.
 For a mere 20 yen, visitors can enter the hollow interior of the Buddha.
 More recently the Buddha was in the news when US President Barack Obama visited it during his state visit to Japan.  

Entrance fees: 200 yen for adults (20 yen for entering the Buddha statue)

Opening hours: 7:00-18:00 hrs (closes 17:30  between October-March)

The Hasedera temple, is located just few metres away from the Great Buddha/Kotokuin temple. 
Also known as “Hase-kannon”, this temple houses the 11 faced Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The treasure house has 33 incarnations of the Kannon and an image of Daikokuten, the god of wealth on display.
The walking path  leading through a small garden and along a pond and waterfall lead to the temple. 

The temple is famous for the flowers blooming in its garden during the various season.
 A hall dedicated to “Jizo”, the guardian of children and the sick is located midway on the way to the hilltop main hall. A small army of Jizo saints stands decorated with flowers.
 A nice view of the sea and the surrounding areas can be enjoyed from near the hilltop temple.

A small cave with a walking path inside has many small statues and caverns.  
 Entrance fees: 300 yen

Opening hours: 8:00-17:30 ( closes 17:00 between October – February)

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine has for long been regarded as a symbol of Kamakura. It is probably the most important of the 19 Shinto shrines in Kamakura and is considered amongs some of the important Shinto Shrines in Japan. The shrine has been designated an Important Cultural Property.
 The shrine is located right in the centre of the city and the area all around is busy and crowded. The shrine was originally built in 1063 at a different location, but moved to its current location in 1191. The current shrine was rebuilt in 1828.  At one time the shrine was also a Buddhist temple, till the Shinto and Buddhism Separation order was passed in 1868.  
 “Mai-den” -A small hall in the centre of the shrine grounds is the stage for dances and music. It is also the venue of Shinto ceremonies, especially weddings. During our visit, a traditional wedding ceremony was underway.

 A fleet of stairs leads to the main hall.
Important temple treasures are on display at the Kamakura National Treasure House Museum, right next to the main hall. Museum entrance is charged.

 Old wooden portable shrines “Mikoshi” are on display next to the museum.

Some more pictures from the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

Entrance: Free

Opening Hours: 07:00- 21:00 hrs.

Kamakura is one of the few cities in Japan, where the hand pulled rickshaw, known as “Jinrikisha” still exists, offering joyrides to visitors. 
Most often the rickshaw puller also acts as a guide to the local attractions and not surprisingly they sometimes speak fluent English.

Wakamiya-oji dori, Kamakura’s main street is a good place for a walk and have a feel of the city. It is marked with three big Toriis and leads from the centre of the city to the sea. This walk is said to be exceptionally beautiful during the cherry blossom season.

Kamakura’s beaches- especially Yuigahama, Inamuragasaki and Shichirigahama are popular and can be crowded in summer. Enoshima island which is about 10 kms from Kamakura is popular with surfers.

Kamakura is popular for the Hydrangea blooms which add to the beauty of the city, in early June. 

Many people from all over Japan visit Kamakura during this time and it could be crowded on weekends. 
Avoid visiting in peak summer when the scorching heat can be a turnoff. We visited Kamakura in July 2010 and it was hot and humid. We spent almost 6-7 hours in Kamakura and visited some of the important sites.

A tour of Kamakura needs a leisurely day, a short visit of a few hours is not enough to cover this beautiful town.  The best way to cover the town is to explore it on your own. It is practically impossible to cover all the places in Kamakura city unless you stay here for a few days. Best way would be to identify the spots that you would like to visit and chalk out a itinerary that best suits your schedule. It is possible to walk around from Kamakura station to the various attractions, but could be tedious since it could take about 20-30 mins to walk between the various attractions. Rental bicycles are also available at various spots. Car parking can be expensive, especially at parking areas close to the main attractions.