As much as I look forward to summer every year, I’ll admit it can be a little hard getting excited about the early part of the season in Japan. The humidity rises, mosquitos come out in force (although we’ve got a secret trick for dealing with them), and the weather is rainy enough that going almost a week without seeing the sun isn’t that unusual.
Still, there’s at least one nice part about June in Japan, which is the blooming of the hydrangeas. The bundles of blossoms are blooming right now, and if you’re in the Tokyo area, there’s no better place to see them than at Meigetsuin Temple in Kamakura.
Kamakura is located in Kanagawa Prefecture, Tokyo’s neighbor to the south. If you’re coming from the capital, you’ll have to pass through the cities of Kawasaki and Yokohama to get there, but it’s still a pretty quick trip using the JR Yokosuka or Shonan Shinjuku Lines. From Shinagawa Station in downtown Tokyo, the trip takes about 45 minutes, and it’s not much farther if you start out in Shibuya instead.
The closest station to Meigetsuin is Kita Kamakura, one stop north of the city center and Kamakura Station.
The temple is located southeast of Kita Kamakura Station. After getting off the train from Tokyo, keep walking ahead to the end of the platform, and exit through the gate on your left.
As soon as you exit the station, turn right and follow the path that runs parallel to the train tracks. It’s about a 10 minute walk to the temple, with signs along the way showing how much farther you’ve got to go.
Eventually, you’ll come to a dogleg with a map of the area. Turn left here onto Meigetsuin-dori Road, which rises up into the foothills.
Off to the left is a small canal, on the far side of which are scattered a few galleries, cafes, and homes of the neighborhood’s well-to-do residents. You’ll also start seeing clumps of hydrangeas, which are at their most beautiful in mid to late June.
With not much in the way of industry or commerce, Kamakura today is a quiet, if elegant, town. For about 150 years starting in 1185, though, it was the seat of power of Japan’s reigning feudal lords. They chose Kamakura as their capital partly due to the topography, which forms a natural protective barrier to the north.
▼ Entrance to Meigetsuin
Meigetsuin sits snugly up against one of these mountains, and while the approach to the grounds isn’t particularly steep, once inside the main gate the first thing you’ll see is part of the network of stairways that lead up to the main hall.
If you worked up a thirst walking from the stations, off to the left, before ascending the stairs, there’s a tea house serving drinks such as maccha green tea, coffee, and juice. In this area you’ll also find the grave of Hojo Tokiyori, regent to the shogun during the 13th century, and a few small hydrangea bushes.
All of these are secondary to the main attraction, though, which is the flower-lined network of pathways that stretches up the hill.
The central staircase is the most direct route to the top and provides the most sweeping views. There are actually three main paths you can take, though, and the narrower walkways provide their own uniquely beautiful scenes.
The majority of the flowers are known as hime ajisai in Japanese, meaning “princess hydrangeas.” Slightly smaller than other varieties of the flower, hime ajisai petals progress through a number of shades of blue, darkening before they eventually fall as June turns to July.
This motif even extended to the statuary on the day we visited Meigetsuin. Usually, the guardian statues called jizo are clothed in bright red garments, but Meigetsuin’s was sporting a cloak with blue dots.
At the very top of the stairs, you’ll come to the main hall, which is pretty ordinary from an architectural standpoint.
If you’ve come all this way, though, it’s worth stopping to take a look at Meigetsuin’s famous circular window, beyond which you can catch a glimpse of another beautiful summer sight, the field of irises in the temple’s inner garden.
Unfortunately, the inner iris garden isn’t usually open to the general public. No one seems too bothered by this, since the connection between hydrangeas and Meigestuin is so strong that it’s also known as Ajisaidera, or the Hydrangea Temple. Even the ema, boards on which visitors write down wishes, are decorated with illustrated clusters of the flowers.
Near the main hall are a few more sights worth checking out, such as the tombs carved into the cliff face. Known as yagura, these monuments are characteristic of Kamakura temple design.
There’s also the well that’s been providing the temple with clean water for centuries, a small rock garden, and a rabbit hutch with four residents.
As you make your way back down towards the exit, a small detour to the left winds atop a ridge through a bamboo grove.
Eventually, you’ll end up back where you started, at the gate at the bottom of the hill.
Once you’re back at the beginning of Meigetsuin-dori Road, you’ve got two options. You can either head back towards Kita Kamakura Station to catch the train, or you can head in the opposite direction. It’s about a one-hour walk from here to Kamakura Station, and along the way you’ll pass forested mountains, secluded temples, plus, if it’s June, plenty of hydrangeas.
Meigetsuin / 明月院
Address: Kanagawa-ken, Kamakura-shi, Yamanouchi 189
Website (Kamakura Burabura)