When I first went to Kamakura I was 16 and full of wonder and anger and curiosity; a coiled hope poised at the edge of experience.
I stood then for the first time in the crowded clearing at the foot of the great bronze Buddha, calm washing over me with the incense smoke and a faint scent of the sea.
That was half a lifetime ago. I go back when I can, and in the years since, the place has become a kind of gauge for me. I measure myself against it the way children measure themselves against height markings on a wall. Have I grown? Have I changed?
Sometimes I go there alone to stand under the trees, to make sense of myself, my eyes on the wooded hills that cut Kamakura off from Yokohama and the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, so near to the north yet so far away.
I’ve visited this corner of Kanagawa Prefecture with friends, giggling over ice-cream cones, toes in the sand, looking out over the sparkling waters of Sagami Bay. I’ve taken my sister to unfold paper fortunes at the ancient Kencho-ji Temple, leaving our bad luck tied to tree branches in the grounds.
One hot summer’s day, at a tiny restaurant comfortably cool in the vivid green shade of Japanese maples, one of my host families treated me to the best soba noodles I’ve ever had, while we caught up on the three years since I’d lived at their house
One chilly December, my mother and I explored the rambling hill and the gardens at the Hase-dera Temple.
Then, though I’m not the praying type, in the breathless summer that ran excitedly toward my wedding, I was again in Kamakura — to make a quiet wish of hope at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine with the man who is now my husband.
Back in high school, when I was uniformed in pleated blue from Monday to Friday (and for a half-day on Saturday), I’d most often go by myself on Sundays and holidays. I loved Kamakura as I loved nowhere else in Japan.
Always, it was my refuge from the Yokohama suburb where I was hosted as an exchange student for the year. But it was also the only place I knew where I could wipe the mist off the glass of the present and look back into an older Japan, into the deeper history that fascinated me but which I found elusive elsewhere.
At 16, I loved the place because it had the calm I didn’t have inside myself. Time and history give a place depth, perspective, and Kamakura is old enough for that. At 16 I longed for both.
I didn’t know, then, that Kamakura had once been the capital, the seat of a shogun’s government. I didn’t know it had given its name to a period of Japanese history. I loved it all the same, and weekend after weekend, I found myself standing at the edge of the clearing, looking up into the calm green face of the remarkable Buddha.
Knowledge of a place deepens with time. At university, I studied Japanese history. In a lecture room halfway around the world from Japan, I learned about the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), which I reimagined through the lens of my own teenage years.
In my mind, I played the ambitious Minamoto no Yoritomo, who became Japan’s first shogun in 1192, my parents taking the role of the Emperor. I pushed for a change in power structures, and struck out away from my family and home.
Yoritomo, too, pushed away from Imperial power in Kyoto, and established a new power base at his home in Kamakura. Surrounding himself with retainers and administrators from other powerful families, he made Kamakura an unofficial capital, while the Imperial capital at Kyoto retained official status. He called this a bakufu, which literally means “tent government.” The Emperor gave him the status of Shogun.
My year in Yokohama was my bakufu.
When Minamoto no Yoritomo died, authority drifted back to Kyoto. Emperor Go-Daigo managed, briefly, to re-establish Imperial power during the seven-year Kenmu Restoration. But military might prevailed, and the Ashikaga clan took power — and held on to it for more than 200 years.
After my year in Japan, I, too, returned tentatively to the old system, moving back home, readjusting to the old model of authority. It didn’t last for me, either, and as soon as I graduated I was off like a shot.
I knew nothing of this at 16, only that Kamakura had once been an important city that had dwindled to a seaside resort whose weathered wooden temples were interspersed with souvenir shops selling wood and paper fans and postcards of the green bronze Buddha.
I loved Kamakura simply because it was laid-back. I loved those smells of the sea, of incense, and of those forested hills cutting it off from the sprawl. I loved, too, its sense of a continuity reaching back into a distant past I could only guess at. I loved the green bamboo and the tumbled bushes of hydrangea loaded in the rainy season with their great blue blooms.
Then there was the way the beach culture met ancient temples seemingly without irony. Surfers turned longboards across the curving crests of small waves, and lithe bronzed teenagers sunned themselves on the beach. (Feeling startlingly white, my American friend and I once went to a tanning salon, only to emerge sore and red, and as gangly and awkward as before.)
I momentarily longed for that kind of freedom. I didn’t realize that by being in Japan, or going alone to Kamakura for the day, I had been given an incredible kind of freedom. I pushed the edges of that freedom, testing to see how big it was. But instead of seeing the vast expanses inside, all I noticed were the boundaries, where it stopped.
But Kamakura seemed like a place of possibility, too. Partly this was because of the anonymity. As a foreign exchange student I was used to sticking out. In Yokohama, I knew there were people watching me — not maliciously, but out of simple curiosity because I was different.
In Kamakura there were tourists. I lived in Japan, spoke the language, and understood something of the culture. There, instead of being an outsider, I could feel like an insider.
Returning later, in my older teens and 20s, I began to see myself and my relationship with Japan with more perspective. I began to see Kamakura more clearly too.
History has washed over the town, layering temples upon shrines, and time has built gelato shops next to traditional tea houses. Looking back now, I see that my own history has deepened and broadened me, too. Kamakura itself has become a thread that weaves through my experience, knotting me back to my own past and tying me, however tenuously, into the history of the place.
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