Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A brief tour of Shōnan, Japan

My two colleagues and I had a free day to explore. They had discussed the idea of going to Kyoto, but the logistics were cost and time prohibitive. We settled on a trip south, to the region of Shōnan. My knowledge of the area was as lacking as my knowledge of the rest of Japan's geography, but I knew there would be plenty of opportunity to learn.

The way to travel around the Tokyo region is by train. According to my calculations, it would take about an hour and half to get to Enoshima island in Sagami Bay. Of course, that would be a ninety minute trip for people who knew where they were going and how to get there. We arrived at the train station and relied on the gracious ticket agents to explain how to get to our destination. The trip required changing trains at a nearby station, then changing railroads at another station. This required another patient ticket agent to assure us we were on the right track, literally and figuratively.

Looking out the windows, we watched as the buildings changed from apartment towers and office blocks to smaller row houses. We were approaching the coast.
The view from the front of the train as we rode toward Enoshima.
Leaving the train station, we crossed a bridge under which dark brown water churned its way to the bay. The river was flowing so quickly, I was half convinced the boats tied to the concrete channel might be swept away. We walked across the causeway leading to the island.

Care for some tasty little fish?
It was clear that Enoshima was a tourist destination. The road at the end of the causeway was lined with shops and restaurants. I learned that the culinary specialty of the area was a sardine. We soon found a restaurant specializing in this dish, but I was intrigued by whatever it was that they were offering free samples. It appeared to be some sort of short, white, noodly substance. Customers were buying bagfuls of the stuff. The restauranteur proffered me a spoonful as I asked him what it was. After a few attempts, I learned that it was the very sardine I had been told about. The little white noodle was actually a very tiny, fully formed, fish. I expected it to taste fishy, but it tasted more like a noodle than anything. I'm not a big fish eater, but I figured this was an opportunity that should not be passed up. My colleagues agreed and we went inside to have lunch.

The restaurant included simple wooden tables but also a closed-in area with mats on the floor. Our hostess wisely didn't bother to ask us if we wanted to sit on the mats. We were fortunately that the menu included pictures so we were able to pick out what we wanted to eat. Out meal consisted of rice or noodle with the sardine and other items. It was tasty, but not particularly memorable. 

Afterward, we headed up along the commercial street on the hill to the shrine. On the way, I engaged a friendly cat. Moments later, a man approached me, holding a calico cat, laughing and saying "Ah, a present for you!" and handed me the cat. His colleagues chortled at this and I went along, accepting the furry gift. The cat purred as I held it and scratched it behind the ears. 

A young woman, who noted the exchanged, came up and told me I had a very beautiful cat. "Oh, a present for you!" I said, and handed her the cat. She accepted it with a smile. The other shop keepers gave laughing approval. 

I spotted a group of girls eating something on skewers. It looked like meat, but it could just as easily have been a sweet of some sort. As I tried to ask them what it was, they looked at my camera and giggled in delight then posed for a photo! I never did find out what they were eating, but I did manage to get them to hold them for the picture.
I don't know what they were eating, but it looked delicious.
The stone stairway and cobbled walk leading up to the shrine was lined in red banners. By ignoring the fact that the banners were nylon and hoisted on plastic poles, I could imagine that I was walking back in time. Near the entrance, worshipers were engaged in a cleansing ritual. They used a dipper to wash their hands and some took a sip and spit it on the ground.
The ritual cleansing fountain.
Shrine attendants sell souviners and items of adoration to worshipers at a sort of kiosk done up in very traditional style. 
A shrine attendant patiently poses for my camera.
There were areas where people tie wishes to a fence or attach wooden charms to a frame.
A frame with wooden charms left by worshipers.
We wandered around the island, looking at the various viewpoints and passing through the tall trees and lush bamboo stands. There was not enough time to enjoy the parks and other diversions, though, as we wanted to see more of Shōnan.

We walked back across the causeway. The wind had picked up and the surf was churning. Some brave and foolhardy surfers were enjoying the chilly water. We returned to the station from which we arrived and discovered that we had to go back across the bridge and walk to an alternate railroad line. That gave us more opportunity to see the town. 

The other train station had a unique feature. There are four metal birds attached to the railing at the station. Someone takes the time to dress them up according to the season.
Birds on the station railing, all dressed up for Christmas.
The train from Enoshima runs along the water, so we had an excellent view of the bay. There was not much to see but windy waves. Our next destination was Kamakura, home to one of Japan's most memorable landmarks.

The enormous statue sits imperturbable.
The great bronze Kamakura Daibutsu stand (sits, really) more than thirteen meters high. Standing on the grounds around the statue, it's difficult to imagine what it was like back in the thirteenth century. Back then, it was inside a temple. That structure was destroyed by a tsunami and it has sat outside for nearly five hundred years.

I stood at the foot of this serene giant and watched the shadows crawl up as the sun descended behind the hills. It's hard to know if he's got his eyes closed or watching the people walking up the stone terraces through slitted eyes. I imagined how he looked when the waters flowed around him so long ago.

Ginkgo leaves carpet the pavement.
As imposing as the statue is, it was the grounds around it that caught my attention. The leaves of the ancient ginkgo trees were turning yellow and dropping to the ground. Old women in bonnets were sweeping the leaves with gigantic brooms made from reeds. Little pools and fountains were scattered among the decorative foliage and walls held doors to secret places forbidden to tourists. 

We decided to stop by another shrine before returning to the train station. This was a forested hill with numerous statuary dispersed throughout the gardens. I would love to see the place in the spring, but the autumn colors were something to behold.
Miniature stone monks stand serenely.
The Cadillac of rickshaws.
Outside the shrine, I discovered which career I would next like to have: rickshaw driver. The gentleman who was pulling this beautiful cart was as fit as any athlete. Just think, create and deliver training for eight months of the year and spend the summers getting in fantastic shape! When he told me that his rickshaw cost as much as a small car, I admit that I reconsidered this career option. Still, it would likely last longer than most gym memberships.

As the sun went down, we made our way back to the train station. After a brief visit to a soba noodle shop, we return to our domiciles and to a well-earned rest.

See more photos from Shōnan here.

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