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Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011

Discover samurai tombs hidden in the hills of Kamakura


Special to The Japan Times

No matter how warm and sunny the day, there's always a chill in Mandarado Yagura, a samurai graveyard in Kotsubo, right at the boundary between Kamakura and Zushi in Kanagawa Prefecture just south of Yokohama.

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Spirit markers: Ancient gorinto tombstones still populate caves at Mandarado Yagura.

In this secreted locale little more than an hour by road or rail from the concrete and steel of Tokyo, lush vegetation obscures the many caves housing tombs, though their stone markers stubbornly materialize through the greenery. Here, history, nature and the unknown ripple through the wild flowers, stirring the grass and causing the heart to skip a beat or three.

So, the next time you're planning a trek through well-trod Kamakura, avoid the crowds and plot a course along the mountain path connecting the ancient capital to Miura — but take a sideways excursion to explore this rare attraction.

The path starts in Kotsubo, the tiny inlet between Kamakura and Zushi. Climb the stone flight of steps up from its busy street and already the encroaching forest beckons as you grope toward the top.

There, a signpost in Japanese and Romaji directs you to the Nagoekiri-doshi Pass, one of the famous seven ways into Kamakura in ancient times. Taking a few steps in the indicated direction reveals the sight of a narrow opening cut between two cliffs — all the better for holding off intruders.

This time, though, the route is in the opposite direction, as shown by signs to Mandarado. It's just a few minutes' walk to the entrance to the samurai graveyard — but a bright orange fence blocks the way. Despite being designated as a National Important Historical Site in 1996, the summit area with its tombs has fallen into disrepair and is officially closed.

According to my guide Yoshihiko Satow, director of the Cultural Properties Protection Department of Zushi City, the once-popular tourist attraction closed nine years ago and the city has slowly been restoring the site since. Despite worries about funds, the official reopening is tentatively slated for 2014.

Gaining a peek inside the restricted area, the grandeur of antiquity melded with natural beauty stops me in my tracks like a ghostly hand on my shoulder. Numerous caves pockmark the hillside, and gorinto — ancient tombstones constructed with five layers to represent the elements of earth, water, fire, wind and air — peek from within the shadowed recesses.

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Resting place: Mystery haunts overgrown Mandarado Yagura samurai graveyard in man-made caves at Kotsubo. KRIS KOSAKA PHOTOS

The caves are cut three-tiered and green-draped into the cliff, and the many momiji (Japanese maples) framing them promise fine autumn views. Satow hopes that, come 2014, Mandarado will again become the popular historical site it once was. Don't we all.

For now, though, leaving the entrance to Mandarado, continue down the main path to a fork. There, either veer upwards toward Hossho-ji-Okirigishi/Highland Jutakuchi or continue straight on into Omachi-Kamakura City. The latter trail soon takes you into a residential area just 10 minutes from the station. For more misplaced history, take the well-maintained uphill branch that's an easy walk as it winds around another Buddhist monument, across a small bridge and up steps to another fork.

At this point be sure to notice the back of a well-cared-for, sprawling mansion alongside the path, solitary and incongruous in the forest. Stained-glass windows and ominous barbed wire glare down. Barely visible from the main road below, for more than 30 years this place has inspired numerous ghost stories.

Leaving the house behind at the fork and heading up to the left almost immediately brings you in sight of a small clearing, wherein lies a Kamakura City-designated Site of Educational Importance — but no sign explains why.

A large stone structure, apparently a grave-marker, stands aloof in the clearing. Another, smaller edifice stands guard nearby to the right. Although the mountain curves back into Kamakura territory at this point, my Zushi-based companion was familiar with the landmark.

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Wrong turn: Tomb visitors must take a right when reaching the cliff portals of the Nagoekiri-doshi Pass on their left.

"It is a mystery to the experts," he explains. "We believe it is some kind of gravestone, but no one can really explain exactly when it was erected, nor for whom." Pause to consider the enigma, and then continue up the path and enjoy the views of the mountains.

After walking for a mere six minutes, a small signpost on the left announces in Japanese lettering: "Panorama Dai" ("Big Panorama"). Following the path, you will be rewarded indeed with a 360-degree view of the mountains and ocean. Having soaked in the vista and resumed walking on the path, you'll find it soon ends at a narrow asphalt road which goes both up and, to the left, downwards. Continuing on up with a neglected forest of weeds to the right, you wind around to discover Okirigishi, meaning Grand Cliff.

The view itself is grand: the bay dances in the distance below the green of the mountains, with the small town of Inamuragasaki framing itself in front of Enoshima, and Mount Fuji aloft behind them both. You are standing on top of another famous, but mostly forgotten, historical site.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, builders used stone from this mountain to form the foundations for homes. Cutting the stone out with geometric slashes into the mountainside eventually formed this interesting vertiginous landmark that became a popular sightseeing spot during the Edo Period (1603-1867). The lower paths where you can actually view the cut mountain face are now immersed in weeds, but the bench at the top of the cliff welcomes you to rest and soak in the surrounding beauty.

My companion-guide, Mr. Satow, explained that the land above the Okirigishi was privately owned until recently. However, Zushi City has now purchased it and plans to restore this area as well.

From there, at first retracing your steps down the asphalt path as it heads for the residential area of Zushi Highland, but then bearing left, brings you back to the forest path. Walking along there, keep looking for a small signpost on the left pointing you (in Japanese) to a hiking trail. Follow this as it swings back into the mountains and a 25-minute walk takes you into Kamakura.

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Fine site: Enoshima seen from atop Okirigishi (Grand Cliff), with clouded Mount Fuji behind.

Before resuming your trek, however, you may want to relax in Jomyoji Konarakoen, a sprawling field with picnic benches and shady trees directly ahead — the perfect place to rest before finishing your adventure. En route, though the total hiking time from Kotsubo is under an hour, you will have passed centuries along the way.

This last hike takes you down into Kamakura's Jomyoji district just minutes from the Shakado Tunnel (now closed for repairs). From there, a brisk 10 minutes ever onward takes you to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, at which point you have successfully entered the city via the ancient mountain pass connecting Kamakura to Miura — via a few mysteries and several stunning views.

There are many wonders along this usually deserted hiking trail with its frequent forays into the past, but you'd be advised to go with a friend. Even in the summertime, the chill will bring goosebumps as history shadows you on the path.

Getting there: Your bus stop is Midorigaoka-iriguchi. To get there catch bus 30 or 31 to Zushi via Nagoe from the No. 3 stop at Kamakura Station; or from Zushi's bus stop No. 6 take bus 29 or 30. From the bus stop, if coming from Kamakura, continue walking up the hill until the road comes to a T (from Zushi, retrace the bus' route). Then cross the road and continue right until you see steps going up on your left (opposite is a recycle shop named Kuru Kuru). Climb the steps to reach the start of the hiking course.


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