Hiking with Kids in Kamakura
Kamakura is beautiful. Despite several trips to Hakone and the surrounds and plenty of time peering out of Tokyo skyscrapers in the right direction, I've never managed to see the elusive Mt. Fuji, but ten minutes into our walk (the way we did it, I think the word "hike" would be overselling it), there it was, framed picturesquely by trees and rising out of clouds like a heavenly vision. And any place where you can hike in the morning, be on the beach in the afternoon and fit in some shopping and light religious culture on the way seems like a fairly failsafe day-trip destination.
The idea of a day trip can slightly fill me with dread. Pre-kids, we could get up at leisure, meander over, arrive after lunch, and still be going at 10, 11, or 12, before moseying home or deciding on a whim to stay the night. Weekends were for life in the nearly-comatose-with-relaxation lane. With two kids in tow, we’re now inevitably if reluctantly in the renegade military lane, with things permanently running late and a lot of yelling from everyone involved, all the time. So a day trip, with the packing and getting up extra early (let’s be honest, everyone’s usually up before it’s light, but up and dressed and ready to leave is a whole different matter) and train changes and lugging around spare clothes and everything else, doesn’t necessarily sound like the most relaxing idea. But if you live in a high-rise building in a concrete jungle, even when it’s a fantastic, exciting concrete jungle like Tokyo, day trips to somewhere green are a necessity, particularly if you live with a man who in his heart of hearts wants to be living in a shepherd’s hut in the middle of the Yorkshire dales. And from wonderful Tokyo, you can reach both mountains and sea in under an hour.
Kamakura is small, and the station is well equipped for tourists, so getting around is a breeze; you can pick up a stack of maps and go. There are several hiking routes to choose from, the most well trodden being the Tenen, which goes through the northern hills, mostly along their ridges. There is also the Daibutsu, which shares a name with the great Buddha statue and connects Kotoku-in temple, home of said Buddha, with Gionyama via the hills around the town. We intended to go for Tenen, and as far as I can tell, somehow ended up doing Tenen followed by Daibutsu.
We dumped our buggies and other bulky items in a locker at the station and made our way to the start of our hike via a handful of Kamakura’s many temples, some tiny, some, like Tsurugaoka Hachimanju, generous complexes with lakes and bridges and gardens, all calming and lovely. The best of them was Hokokuji, with the bamboo garden in the back. The garden was of “Crouching Tiger” impressiveness, with a tea pavilion built into a stone grotto so shaded by bamboo that it had to be lit even in daylight. The atmosphere was appealingly eerie, and you could happily spend a couple of hours there soaking it up.
We weren’t the only people to be walking the trail with a baby backpack; with the level of human traffic on a sunny weekend, there were people of every age. While that means it’s not a perfectly rural zen walking retreat, the trails are extensive enough that you’re not bothered by the other walkers. The tracks are unpaved (not always the case in Japan) and largely wooded, with views from clearings over Kamakura and further afield. The baby in his sling alternately sung to himself and shouted with glee at every single leaf on the path, and as none of the paths were very steep, the three-year-old managed them happily, in between demands that he be carried on somebody’s shoulders. We reached the area near Kencho-ji in time for lunch, at a tarpaulined outdoor mess hut with a great view over the surrounding hills, and had oden (various boiled vegetables and fishcakes in a light soy-flavored broth) and yaki onigiri (grilled rice balls), my extensive planning and packing not actually having stretched to packing food.
We managed to take a series of wrong turns after lunch, thanks to which we visited an isolated grotto (pitch dark, with a statue (a Buddha? A god? A goddess? A boddhisatva? The unanswered Japanese theological questions are endless) sitting serenely on a black pool of water as drips from the cave ceiling echoed like gunshots—the children ran away screaming. We also learned just how easy it is to get onto and off the trails. There are places where the hills rise straight up out of the town, so we climbed a dirt indentation next to a telephone pole and found ourselves back on the nature trail. This gave the hill tracks a slight sense of unreality, like we were just playing at going hiking, but ultimately with the possibility of a toddler toilet emergency or massive temper tantrum always lurking, having a possible out felt like no bad thing. Our trail finished by tracking down through Sasukeinari shrine and its grounds, the rows of apoplectic statues in the foliage and the stone steps flanked by flags stunning in the afternoon light.
Out of the hills, we followed a road to the Daibutsu temple, where a squirrel was being papped with as much enthusiasm as a Korean boy band. The Daibutsu is, obviously, very impressive, even for (or perhaps even more for) people who are only knee high. The surrounding streets have a seaside holiday atmosphere, with inviting little shops and cafes and not a chain store in sight. We stopped at one of many ice cream shops (one of the only ones to sell chocolate and strawberry flavors, as opposed to sweet potato, green tea or squid ink) before making it to the beach in time for sunset to paddle in the water, watching surfers silhouetted against the psychedelic orange and purple backdrop.
The kids were both asleep by the time we walked back to the train station, and never one to miss an opportunity, once we’d rearranged them in buggies my husband suggested that we go check out the black water onsen (hot spring spa), where under-18s aren’t allowed (for zen, rather than x-rated, reasons). It was five stops and a mere eleven minutes on the train from Kamakura to Inamuragasaki. Inamuragasaki Onsen (¥1,400 entrance fee per person) is a two-minute walk back along the seafront and has a very useful family restaurant just next to it, where one of us chilled out with the sleeping children while the other took a half hour dip in the ink-black water. The water is completely opaque, giving the disconcerting optical illusion that your limbs are actually disappearing as you lower yourself into it. We were back in Tokyo in time for a late dinner with the definite feeling we could happily go back and explore all over again without ever retracing our steps. Maybe I like day trips after all.
Getting there: Kamakura can be accessed directly from a number of stations, including Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shimbashi, Shinagawa and Tokyo; the journey takes just under an hour.
Getting around: Kamakura is small enough to walk around, although if you’re in the mood and not ladened by buggies and the like, you can get a nice red rickshaw pulled by a friendly (and very strong) man in teeny weeny shorts.
When to go: Surfing, swimming, hiking, shopping, eating, temple-gazing…Kamakura is a great destination all year round.
More info: For additional details on Kamakura and its hiking trails, check out its official visitors’ guide.