I had the good fortune to have a younger brother visit me in Yokosuka for the holidays. After brainstorming, we decided to spend Christmas in Kamakura.
Christmas in Japan is a unique experience in that the Japanese do not view Christmas as a spiritual event. Instead, Christmas is an openly and unabashedly commercial occasion to get together with friends, exchange gifts, and try new food.
In many ways, Kamakura is an awesome place for Sailors stationed in Yokosuka to celebrate Christmas. For starters, it is less than 20 minutes away by car or local train. Secondly, the former capital of Japan is rich in culture, with gorgeous temples and shrines, and plenty of restaurants and street food stalls. There’s a lot of options to choose from to make the day special.
Our Christmas Day festivities consisted of:
- Visiting the Big Buddha at Kotoku-in Temple
- A 1.8 Kilometer Hike on the Daibutsu Hiking Course
- Money-washing at Zeniarai Benten Shrine
- Italian food (as interpreted by Japanese owners)
- Seeking out the God of Happiness at Jochi-ji Shrine
- A Ritual Purification and the Perfect Strawberry Dessert
- Purchasing a “Premium Christmas” meal at the grocery store
Christmas in Kamakura
We left at 8 a.m. and took a local train from Yokosuka to Kamakura for less than $3. Outside the train station, we debated which site to visit first, and decided on the Big Buddha (Daibutsu).
The streets surrounding Kotokuin Temple normally bustle with commercial activity. The shops lining the streets were just starting to open as we arrived.
As it turns out, Christmas morning is an IDEAL time to visit the Big Buddha! Not only were there no lines to visit this iconic National Treasure — we had unobstructed views of the famous 43 foot tall bronze sculpture. In keeping with tradition, we purchased incense to place before the Buddha and wafted the fragrant smoke on our bodies to purify them.
After visiting the Kotokuin Temple, we decided it was time for breakfast and ate fresh hot octopus crackers for ¥500 ($3.72). If you haven’t tried a freshly compressed octopus cracker before, I highly recommend them. The octopus and batter are compressed under tremendous pressure and heat to form a cracker that is literally wafer thin. The cracker is so delicate and transparent that the striations of the octopus looks like Italian marble.
Christmas morning hike on Daibutsu
Near the Big Buddha is a path known as the Daibutsu hiking course. Since my brother is young and super fit, we decided to take the 1.8 kilometer course to our next destination: Zeniarai Benten Shrine. The hiking path involves a whole lot of mud, plenty of rocks, and a section so steep you navigate it using rope and chains. That being said, the views — ranging from a sapphire-colored ocean to a snow-covered Mt. Fuji — are amazing.
The hikers themselves are also super friendly. When I said “Yoi otoshii wo!” (Happy New Year!) to a group there was a chorus of surprised laughs.
“Happy Merry Christmas!” they replied in English.
As delicious as the hot octopus cracker had been, hiking that trail burns some serious calories. We saw a sign for the Itsuki Garden Terrace cafe and pulled off with the hopes of nabbing a light breakfast. We immediately saw there was a long line of hungry breakfasters.
I could also see why the cafe is so popular – the terrace views of Mt. Fuji were glorious. Alas, we cast longing looks at the food-covered tables and continued hiking.
(Note: since it was such a beautiful area, I hoped to come back again. Sadly, when I looked it up online, it seems like Itsuki Garden cafe is closing permanently at the end of the month.)
Money Washing at Zeniarai Benten Shrine
Zeniarai Benten Shrine is one of the truly hidden gems of Kamakura. The Shinto shrine and spring water is literally tucked away behind jagged rocks, and can only be accessed via a tunnel.
The shrine was built in 1185 after the first shogun of the Kamakura period had a dream in which a god appeared to him and advised him to locate the area. Once there, the shogun was instructed to pray to BOTH Shinto and Buddhist gods so that peace would come to the land.
Zeniarai Benten is special in that it is a fusion of Shinto and Buddhism. As it was Christmas day, I love that idea – that two different religions could peacefully co-exist together in the same place.
One of the reasons this small, tucked-away shrine is so popular is because of another legend associated with it. It is said that those who wash their money in the sacred waters will have their fortunes multiplied. My brother and I purchased a “set” that came with a rental rinsing bowl made from bamboo, a miniature candle, and an incense stick. Looking around, I saw some folks pull out a wad of cash from wallets and place them on the bamboo basket before carefully ladling water on top.
With our money freshly “laundered”, and the hope of a lovely (legal) windfall to come, we set off again.
Italian Food (As Interpreted by the Japanese)
Okay, I got us lost…we veered about 2 miles off course because of my faulty Japanese. Consequently, it was about 1 p.m. when we arrived in the correct area, near Kita Kamakura train station.
After several miles of walking, we were ravenous. Unfortunately, the first three restaurants we tried were either full or closing.
Happily, on our fourth try, we found Cippolino.
The first time I visited Kamakura, I was surprised at how many European restaurants there were. There is an especially high concentration of French and Italian restaurants. I love Italian food. And I love how the Japanese interpret Italian food.
The ¥1380 ($10) lunch set menu came with six appetizers that were beautifully presented on a wood platter, PLUS a hot open-face sausage and cheese sandwich (not pictured, because I ate it so fast). The food was in every way exquisite. Where else can you find olive mousse, prosciutto atop fresh vegetable greens, a tiny herb-packed pastry, insalata caprese AND a hot sandwich…all for $10?!
We thanked the team for the wonderful meal, and full of fresh energy went to Jochi-ji Temple to find the God of Happiness.
God of Happiness at Jochi-ji Temple
I first found Hotei, the God of Happiness, while attempting a “7 Gods of Kamakura” pilgrimage several months earlier. That summer, a weather-beaten sign had hand-painted words reading: “The God of Happiness is Waiting for You Inside the Cave.”
What a welcome invitation that was! I love this statue so very much. Everything about it, from Hotei‘s pose to the kind benevolence and humor on his face, just puts a big smile on mine.
Jochi-ji Temple was established in 1281 and is known as one of Kamakura’s Five Great Zen Temples. One of the things that makes the temple so special is its setting – it is away from the commercial area, nested in cypress woods and bamboo. The area is blissfully, wonderfully quiet.
Because the temple is rich in priceless cultural artifacts, a ¥200 fee is required to enter.
Inside Jochi-ji temple reside three wooden statues: Amida (past), Shaka (present), and Miroku (future). It is said that together, the three Buddhas listen to every prayer.
A Ritual Purification and a Genius Strawberry Dessert
We decided to walk back to Kamakura train station by way of Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū.
Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū was founded by Minamoto Yoriyoshi in 1063 and is considered Kamakura’s most important shrine. It is also one of the most popular shrines in Japan at which to say your prayers for the new year.
I was ecstatic when I saw the circular grass hoop at the base of the stairs – I knew what it was for. Chinowa Kuguri is a ritual purification that takes place at Shinto shrines at the end of June and December. The idea is that by passing through the hoop in a ‘figure 8’ pattern the body and mind are cleansed of evil and sickness.
What a great way to start the New Year!
Perhaps it is psychosomatic, but I really did feel fresh and light-hearted after completing the pattern. Things just kept getting better after that.
The path leading up to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū is covered with food stall vendors. And what should I see but my favorite dessert snack?
There’s a vendor who sells sticks with a single glazed strawberry perched atop what looks like a Ritz cracker. It looks unassuming, and — for ¥200 ($1.49) — over-priced. However, make no mistake, the strawberry-and-cracker idea is sheer culinary genius. I bought a stick for each of us.
“One bite,” the vendor said in English, holding up her index finger.
“Wakarimasu.” (I understand.)
Both cracker and strawberry are meant to be consumed together. The glaze on the strawberry breaks against the salty cracker, and then the sweetness of the strawberry hits. Texture and flavor explode in mini-waves of delight.
A “Premium Christmas” Meal
I apologized to my brother many times about Christmas dinner. The first apology was for being such a bad cook and not preparing a home-cooked meal. A second apology was for not having had the foresight (again!) to purchase a Kentucky Fried Chicken commemorative Christmas bucket in time.
Sometime in the 1970s, the Japanese came to associated Christmas with KFC. The KFC buckets are in such demand that they sell out by mid-November. Just to be certain, however, we found the KFC across the street from the train station. As expected, the sit-down portion of the fast-food restaurant was entirely sealed off: it was pick-up only.
We walked to the nearby grocery store and located the “Premium Christmas” section. There were colorful “Happy Christmas” stickers across a number of prepared dishes, from sushi, to salad samplers, to chicken legs.
We picked up a salad sampler, some chicken legs, and a container of sake and had Christmas dinner back at my apartment.
It was a Premium Christmas, indeed.
If You Go
Kamakura is delightful at any time of the year. While I have been several times, I especially enjoyed seeing it in December. It might sound strange to spend Christmas visiting sites that come from a different faith tradition. However, I’m of the mindset that a merciful God hears all prayers.
It’s delightful for a Westerner to experience a Japanese take on a Western tradition. There’s something very joyful about seeing that similarities in values and dreams exceed superficial differences. As a foreigner in this country, I’m humbled by how special it is to feel safe and accepted.
I still can’t believe how LUCKY we were to experience Christmas in such a way. It was perfect hiking weather, there were no crowds, the food was phenomenal, and everyone we met exuded warmth and kindness. We had lucked out at every turn.
Here’s wishing you and your loved ones a delightful year ahead!
Looking for a hotel in Kamakura? Good for you! There are many safe and affordable places to stay in this gorgeous and historic city.