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The heart of Kamakura: Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

Walking on the Wakamiya-oji path to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

Walking on the Wakamiya-oji path to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

There are two ways to approach Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine; one is to walk down the street called Komachi-dori, lined with many restaurants and shops, and the other is to walk on the pathway called Wakamiya-oji, which runs north and south down the center of Kamakura's main street. Wakamiya-oji is comparable to Suzaku-oji, a similar pathway that once existed in Heian era Kyoto. Down its center is a raised pathway called the dankazura. It is the official, sacred approach of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. As you walk up Wakamiya-oji, you'll be able to see the grounds of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine spreading out beyond San-no-Tori (The Third Gate). Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is the key site of Kamakura tourism where many people stop by when they visit Kamakura. Also, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is one of the most popular shrines in Japan. Every year it ranks in the top 10 shrines and temples visited on the first 3 days of the New Year.

The winter peonies in the Shin-en Peony Garden

The winter peonies in the Shin-en Peony Garden

As soon as you enter the grounds of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, you'll be greeted by Taiko-bashi Bridge. The pond on the right side of the bridge is called Genji-ike (ike means pond). The pond on the left side is called Heike-ike. The two ponds together are called Genpei-ike, a name which takes one Chinese character from each of the names of the individual ponds Genji and Heike. There are three islets in Genji-ike, and there are four in Heike-ike. There is a very purposeful meaning behind this. In Japanese, the Chinese character for "three" can have the same pronunciation as the character for "birth", whereas the character for "four" has the same sound as the reading for the character for "death". When Yoritomo Minamoto, the leader of the Genji clan and sworn enemy of the Heike clan, built Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, he prayed for the prosperity of his clan by placing three islets in the Genji Pond. Likewise, he prayed for the demise of his enemies, the Heike clan, by placing four islets in the Heike Pond. You can enjoy beautiful cherry blossoms around the ponds in spring and lotus flowers blooming in the ponds in summer. Beginning around the New Year and lasting until early February, you can also enjoy beautiful, rare large-flowered peonies sheltered under small huts of woven grass in the Shin-en Peony Garden by the water.

Yabusame, the splendid performance of Kamakura Samurai, the warrior

Yabusame, the splendid performance of Kamakura Samurai, the warrior

Past the Genpei Ponds there is a path that runs east to west across the grounds of the shrine. This path is used for yabusame, the horseback archery ritual. It is performed during Kamakura Matsuri (Festival) in spring, and Reitaisai (Main Annual Rite) in fall. (Picture: Kamakura City Tourist Association)

Shizuka-no-Mai, one of the main attractions of Kamakura Festival

Shizuka-no-Mai, one of the main attractions of Kamakura Festival

The structure resembling a sheltered stage that you see past the riding ground of yabusame is called Maiden. It is a ritual dance stage, and many rituals, dedicatory dances, musical performances, and weddings are held there.  It is said that this stage is named after Princess Shizuka Gozen, a master dancer and mistress of Minamoto Yoshitsune, who performed her dedicatory dances at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. However during her time in the Kamakura era, there was no stage, so it is believed that Princess Shizuka performed inside the corridor of the main building. You can enjoy Shizuka-no-Mai (The Dance of Shizuka), performed by professional classical Japanese dancers, every April at the Kamakura Festival. (Picture: Kamakura City Tourist Association)

Doves are the sacred messengers of kami-sama, Shinto deities

Doves are the sacred messengers of kami-sama, Shinto deities

Continuing past the Maiden, stone steps lead up to the main shrine. If you pay close attention to the letter “八” on the large black lacquered plaque bearing the name of shrine, Hachimangu (八幡宮), you’ll find the shapes of two doves facing each other. Doves are believed to be the sacred messengers of the Hachiman deity, and they are treasured. You’ll see many of them in the shrine grounds.

The Hiding Ginkgo

The Hiding Ginkgo

There was once a great ginkgo tree called “The Hiding Ginkgo” next to the stone steps, which lead up to the main shrine. It gets its name from a legend that tells that this was the place where the 3rd Minamoto shogun, Sanetomo, was assassinated by his nephew, Kugyo, who had hidden himself behind the tree. Sadly, this great ginkgo tree was blown down in March 2010.  Presently, the shrine is putting in a great effort to regrow the tree, and many sprouts also grow from the roots that still remain from the old tree.

Hato-suzu-mamori (Dove-shaped bell amulets)

Hato-suzu-mamori (Dove-shaped bell amulets)

There are many kinds of omamori, or amulets, available at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, but the most popular one is the hato-suzu-mamori. According to the shrine's official website, this amulet brings better fortune and happiness when its bell jingles.  It comes in 3 colors: white, gold, and silver.

Tusrugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is famous for cherry blossoms

Tusrugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is famous for cherry blossoms

There are many cherry blossom trees along the Genpei-ike Ponds, but the best sight is on Genji-ike pond side.  The blossoms extend to just above the surface of the water, mirrored in the pond. It is truly a gorgeous sight to behold.

Hata-age Benzaiten Shrine

Hata-age Benzaiten Shrine

Hata-age Benzaiten Shrine(sub-shrine of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine) found on an isle in the Genji-ike pond, is identified as the home for one of the seven gods of prosperity. Many people visit here on the New Year when making a tour of the seven gods.

Information

Address: 2-1-31 Yukinoshita, Kamakura City
Phone: 0467-22-0315
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Kamakura station, East Exit
Map:Access
Official Website: Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Website

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