Kamakura is a small, ancient city an hour south of Tokyo. A centre of zen Buddhism and samurai history, it is a deeply appealing little place replete with temples, interesting shops and restaurants, a kind of mini-Kyoto.
Yet while Kyoto remains the ultimate traditional Japanese experience in grandeur, atmosphere and exquisite refinement, the temples atmospheric and impressive, a deeply mysterious place where you can still see geisha disappearing furtively behind doorways, I am still happy that I live in Kamakura. Kyoto is a landlocked city surrounded by strangely oppressive mountains, swelteringly hot in summer, frigid in winter, and while I love going there to visit, it ultimately remains, for me personally, a touch overimposing and eerie.
Besides, Kamakura is by the sea and you can feel it. And as a lover of Tokyo, which I can get to in about eighty minutes from our house, I feel that we live in the perfect location. I can immerse myself energetically in the packed, neon futurism of the teeming metropolis, a place I cannot live without but cannot bear to live in, and then come back home to Kita-kamakura (north Kamakura, our nearest station), wait for the train doors to open and let the beautiful smell of the air, the flowers and trees assail and refresh my senses; the very real darkness (no neon here) that is always such a soothing contrast after a day in the hustle and bustle of the city.
Most Japanese people like to live very close to the nearest station, understandable when they spend so many hours working and convenience and time cutting become an absolute necessity. We however, specifically chose to live where we do because of the hill you have to ascend to get to our neighbourhood, Imaizumidai, a quiet, residential area right at the top. I like a separation between work and home, and also like having the time to think. In fact, call me a sociophobe, but I deliberately take certain trains when I have left school, stand at certain points on the platform to ensure, wherever possible, a lone walk home. It takes about twenty five minutes to walk it, past some of the finest temples in Kamakura, including the famed hydrangea temple, Meigetsuin, and the sublime wooden structures of Engaku-ji and its gentle bamboo groves where in the afternoon you can stop and have cups of powdered, matcha green tea.
It’s just that because of the knee injury I have, this hasn’t been possible for over six weeks, and I have really felt the difference, always taking the bus on a different route to Ofuna, sedentary, no exercise, no flowers. It has been very frustrating. I am not a sports person by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like to walk, and having that removed from my daily pattern, the walk up the hill after an evening of teaching (my solace, my silence) has been deadening.
I was supposed to have had a torn meniscus in my left knee, according to one specialist, but the results of a recent MRI scan have shown, apparently, that in fact that is not the case and I don’t need an operation. Instead, it is a more complicated situation involving damaged cartilage, much more difficult to treat, and something I apparently just have to grin and bear for the time being. You can walk, though, says this new doctor: better to strengthen the leg muscles…
And so yesterday evening, at about 5.45pm, I set off down the hill for the first time in ages, delighted to find myself absolutely inundated with flowers. Small, alpine white ones; strange, blackened calla lilies; the small, delicate irises that grow in abundance in this vicinity. Violets, beautifully scented azaleas, decaying, grand camellias. These purple wild flowers I never know the names of……. it was so gorgeous to be walking there again, knee pain or no.
I was going to be meeting D after work to have some Chinese, our local near the station that does great gyoza dumplings, but it was closed for some reason and we decided to be extravagant instead and have dinner at the expensive Italian place (in a fully Japanese interior, but trust me, it works for some reason) just down the road.
There the flowers continued; white callas and narcissi in the bathroom, and then when we left, even the station car park attendant’s office had a vase of flowers on it: I approached, touching the petals expecting artificial plastic, but no, they were real, blousily fritillated peonies. We then walked back up the hill as well in the dark, the new green leaves gleaming and new…
Everyone loves the sakura, the cherry blossom season best (which has already peaked), a time when the parks are packed out with people having hanami (blossom viewing) parties under the trees, drinking beer and sake, having fun, but for me it simply isn’t warm enough by any means to be sitting outside, and anyway it all feels a bit preordained and set somehow. I myself always prefer the onset of colour that comes after, when the spring winds have blown all that pale pink confetti from the trees: when winter is finally definitively put to rest, and the earth becomes more loamy and pungent (jasmine, frangipani, vetiver in the rainy season), and I can just walk, put my head back, breathe.