Enoshima: Dragons and Goddesses

img_9005This is the “island” of Enoshima, southwest of Yokohama and Tokyo. I say “island” because there is a wide road and bridge that cover the narrow strip of sea between the island and the coast. It feels very connected to the mainland.

I’m writing this as a quick aside, since I have a lot to write and I don’t want to forget about my first real “touristy” jaunt out from Yokohama.

Before I elaborate on the island itself, let me encourage any tourist going to Enoshima to buy the Enopass, or island pass. It’s 1000 yen (about $10), and it lets you on all the island’s “special” attractions, including the sea candle and gardens. It also lets you take the escalators, but more on that in a moment. You can buy it from the tourist office before you go under the overpass and cross the bridge. Facing the island, it is on the right hand side of the road.

Enoshima houses shrines to the sea goddess, Benten (or Benzaiten), and the five-headed dragon that she tamed and/or married, depending on the story. Benten is the goddess of music, wealth, knowledge, and good fortune (small wonder she is still very popular), and to the best of my knowledge she is one of a small handful of deities that is depicted naked – at least one of her forms is (Benzaiten Myoon).

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Ancient history holds that Enoshima itself was formed upon Benten’s arrival to earth, marked by an impressively long earthquake. She came to earth because a monstrous five-headed dragon was terrorizing the Japanese people. Benten is no Artemis, however. She did not destroy the dragon.  Upon her arrival the dragon was so taken with her that he wanted to marry her. Benten refused because the dragon was being a total prick to the Japanese people, and so the dragon ceased terrorizing, and changed his ways. And Benten maybe married him after all. As a story, I like the easiness of it. I preferred this version to the second version I heard, which made it sound like Benten sacrificed herself and married the dragon to save the people.

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And I liked Enoshima. It reminded me of all the ancient shrines I climbed in China, in many ways. Packed streets, vendors lining the walkways, steep stairs – this is an “easy” island to navigate, but in order to see everything, you have to climb up, then down, then up again. There are temples and shrines, though they’re on the modest size. You can watch tourists wash their money before offering it to Benten. The line to pray at her shrine was long, but her sanctum, which houses her sacred statue, was deserted. The Enopass gets you a discount on entering that latter shrine. It smelled of sandalwood, and there were oranges set in front of her statue (photography is strictly prohibited). Though small, it carried a great deal of spiritual weight – perhaps more so than the giant money bag shrine with the line, because it was a more intimate space.

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To get to the different levels of the island, you have to climb. This is where the escalators come in handy. They’re only one way – up – but they get you all the way to the top of the island. From here, you can go through the gardens and climb the Sea Candle (it’s a lighthouse). The line to get to the top of the Sea Candle was modestly long, but the Japanese are very efficient about getting into and out of elevators, and we only waited around twenty minutes to get up. The view is pleasant – not spectacular, but then you need pleasant views or you wouldn’t know the spectacular when you saw it, right? On a good day you can see Mt. Fuji in the distance. It was cloudy on our visit, and there was a powerful, terrific wind blowing. I felt a small rush, standing up in the wind overlooking the Pacific coast. It’s such a vast expanse of inhospitable salt water, but it’s beautiful because it’s remote, despite our best efforts.

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After some climbing down, and down again, we found the two primary caves that house the ancient holy statues. In the back of one of the dimly lit caves is a statue of the formidable dragon who had a change of heart. There is a sign there that says when you toss money and bow, if you see a specific number of “flashes” your wish will or will not come true. I offered my money, made my wish, and bowed, and no matter who disputes it, I definitely saw two flashes – one from a camera, one from a light bulb. It counts, and my wish will hopefully come true now. Rules are rules, otherwise I’d post my wish here.

Food wise, I say skip the “pickles” offered along the way – they’re not real pickles, and they’re not cucumbers. They’re some strange halfway thing that was neither briny nor crisp enough. If you’re into seafood, there are plenty of shops offering fish crackers, in addition to the many squid-on-a-stick vendors. And even in the wind and bluster, I enjoyed some soft-serve ice cream. I heartily endorse buying weird soft-serve. Here, I’ve seen some odd flavor choices (mustard seed comes to mind). I had black vanilla, and it was delicious.

I don’t know how many more shrine trips I’ll be taking. Not only is my workweek shaping up to be busy, but I’m hitting a saturation point on shrines. I know I’ve written about this before, but I think the temples and shrines become a little bit like churches back home. This is not to say that they are not beautiful, or that they all look the same. But when there is a shrine or temple in every town, it takes something a bit more to really make a trip worthwhile. Something like dragons and goddesses, maybe…

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Here is a useful page about getting to and from Enoshima, if you’re so inclined.

Ancient

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