Kamakura: Engaku-ji

This was our last day in Kamakura, and the last full day of our trip. Our main plan was to have lunch at En, a Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant in Kita-Kamakura. We met up with Dan’s brother and our niece at 9, and had coffee and a light breakfast of a waffle split four ways. After this, we took the train to Kita-Kamakura Station so that we’d be near the restaurant for our 11:30 reservation. This also put us right by Engaku-ji, which is next to the station, so we spent some time there looking around. 

Engaku-ji was built in 1282 to honor the spirits of those who were killed in the Mongol invasions in the late 13th century. The entrance to the temple takes you up a flight of stairs and through the very large Sanmon Gate that was built in the late 18th century. I loved climbing up stone staircases with walls lined in ferns, moss, wild irises, and what looked like wild radish. We stopped at the garden of Butsunichi-an, a former hermitage, and shared large cups of matcha on felt-covered benches. After this, we continued up the hillside to see the Shariden hall, which is said to contain one of the Buddha’s teeth. From there, we started making our way back down toward the entrance, stopping to climb many, many stairs up to see the Ogdane bell, which is a national treasure of Japan.

When we left the temple and crossed the railroad tracks, the restaurant was right there. We still had some time to kill, so we stopped for another coffee in a café across the plaza that had an odd old-Europe theme.

En is a very small restaurant situated on the second floor of an old house, with about 12 seats, very plain decor, and a tiny kitchen open to the dining room. The two servers were very friendly, and it was fun to see the chef working while we ate. A kaiseki meal consists of many small courses. and our first course featured two tiny ‘firefly’ squid. I really prefer not to eat cephalopods, so Dan and my brother-in-law discreetly ate mine; the mustard-dressed greens with them were good. The rest of the meal was mixed. Everything was fresh, seasonal, and well-prepared – hallmarks of kaiseki cuisine. Some of the courses were pretty bland, and some were also very simple, which led Dan to wonder if this was “The Emperor’s New Meal.” There were some standouts as well, such as the sesame tofu, mixed tempura that included fiddleheads, some beautiful tuna sashimi, and delicious morsels of pumpkin cake.

After lunch, Dan and I took the train back to the main station, and met our niece at the hotel after she walked back. She joined us on our walk toward Hasedera for a return visit. Along the way, we stopped to get a mixed bag of custard, chocolate, and chestnut mini tayaki at the train station. These had shells that were crispy, not pancakey, and were very delicious. The custard ones were the best. Our niece split off from us to hang out at a cafe, we continued on to the temple.

After going through Hasedera again, we walked back into town, met up with the family at the hotel, and went off in search of some dinner before Dan’s brother’s show later in the evening. We didn’t have a clear plan, and I felt a little bit of hangry creeping in until we found a basement izakaya. This did not look promising to me (see: hangry), but it was an enjoyable and tasty meal, and I was glad to have this classic experience. Unlike most other restaurants you’ll find in Japan that focus on a particular cuisine or type of food, izakayas are a bit like pubs, and serve a wide range of things that are good to snack on while you drink. Sake is the typical beverage, but in our case we stuck with beer to go along with our yakitori, sushi, gyoza and salad. After dinner, we caught another fun show and then a little post-show snack at Café Goatee before heading back to the hotel to get some sleep and prepare for traveling home the next day.