Enoshima: Heart of Shonan
About an hour south of Shinjuku, on the Shonan Coast, sits Enoshima Island. It is a chunk of rock rising out of the waters of Sagami Bay, sitting less than a kilometer offshore from the volcanic sand beaches of the mainland.
Immortalized in one of Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, the island has lured Japanese and foreign visitors for more than 1500 years by offering a look at the past while staying relevant as a great modern travel destination.
The Shonan Coast is famous for its laid back, surf culture influenced, endless summer vibe. Surfers can be found waiting for a wave in any season but the summer is when the scene really heats up. Beach houses open in July and they line the coast attracting patrons from across the Kanto. The sea breezes make the oppressive summer heat a bit more bearable as well.
While the beaches and summer fun are usually the first images that the mention of the Shonan Coast conjures, Enoshima Island perhaps represents the spiritual core of that spirit.
Access to the island is available from Katase-Enoshima station. If you are travelling from Shinjuku it is on the Odakyu line and may be reached without changing trains (be sure to check your destination in Sagami-Ono where the Odakyu line splits into the Odawara line and Enoshima line). If you arrive from Tokyo or Yokohama station take the Tokaido line to Fujisawa and change to the Odakyu line there.
After you exit the stylistic Katase-Enoshima station, a short scenic walk along the connecting bridge will take you to Enoshima Island. You are met with a street of restaurants and souvenir shops. The restaurants always offer a local favorite, shirasu, dried baby anchovies, as well as a wide range of other fresh, delicious seafood. If fish isn’t your thing there is Shonan Burger as well but the island likes to keep meal choices focused on the sea so consider yourself warned. Sadly, the souvenir shops that line the main street offer out of place kitsch for the most part.
There is a small ferry near the start of the causeway which runs to the back of the island as well which you can take for about 400 yen.
One notable item for sale on the narrow main street that leads up to the Enoshima shrine tori is ‘tako sembei’. A whole octopus is pressed between two hot, heavy metal plates and turned into a crispy cracker. It is a grisly, but popular, snack on the island.
The steep climb up to the shrine and the top of the island can be taxing for the unfit but the island is furnished with a series of escalators for those who are interested in paying a bit for a more comfortable experience. Prices vary, with a 1000 yen ticket covering all of the escalators and allowing entry to the botanical garden and tower at the top of the island.
Arriving at the end of the shopping street you are met with the huge bright orange gate of the shine beckoning you to pass underneath it and climb the stone steps beyond to enlightenment or at least a good leg workout.
Though there are three separate shrine sites that make up Enoshima shrine. The Enoshima main shrine is famous as a resting place for the Goddess Benzaiten. The famous nude statue of the Goddess is enshrined here and her favour is often sought by entertainers who visit the island. The main shrine can be found about halfway up the stairs which lead to the top of the island.
The original site, a cave next to the ocean is still accessible and is open to the public until late afternoon with a 500 yen entrance fee.
There are many island myths, legends and facts associated with notable Japanese figures from history like Minamoto Yoritomo, Tokugawa Ieyasu and many notable but less famous monks and priests. If you are familiar with Japanese history you may find these interesting and sometimes even humbling, but the island is enjoyable regardless of your level of interest in the past or the mythology of Japan.
Continuing past the main shrine you will soon arrive at the ‘top’ of the island. There are spectacular views of Sagami Bay, Mt Fuji and Oshima Island to be had here. Several observation decks are laid out to offer great vantages of each and if you are feeling a bit worn out from the climb you can charge yourself up with something from a wall of vending machines next to the decks.
If the vending machines don’t appeal to you there is also ‘Il Chianti Café’, a smaller, second location of the popular ‘Il Chianti Beache’ that sits next to Enoshima aquarium on the beach opposite the island. A small, but nice selection of Italian dishes are on offer inside and the atmosphere is much more relaxed than the busy main location.
If you are travelling alone you need not worry about ‘Lovers’ Bell’. This is found slightly off to the side of the main thoroughfare and is popular with lovers who ring the bell and leave a lock on the fence next to it. It is a twist on the practice of leaving wishes at a temple. The image of the lock may have some unsure lovers sweating however.
The ‘Samuel Cocking Garden’, named after a Meiji era English merchant who lived on the island, waits after you have properly seen the views, photographed them and promptly put them on your Instagram.
The garden offers rolling lawns and well maintained groups of plants and trees. There is a hint of a feeling that you are walking through a 19th Century English storybook but it never intrudes too much into the equally enjoyable feeling of being in a rather unique version of the Japanese story.
In the garden is the ‘Enoshima Sea Candle’. This observation tower/lighthouse is easily seen from the mainland and is illuminated at night to protect boaters and inspire beachgoers. The base of the tower offers some light shopping opportunities and a chance to buy a snack as well if you weren’t tempted by the vending machines before.
There are occasionally events held here, notably the Freedom Sunset festival which is held 3-4 times a year and showcases various types of music in a family friendly but decidedly party atmosphere.
You can experience the beauty of the island in the beautiful glow of lights strung from the trees and in gardens from several ‘illumination’ events in the winter. The events run from November until February and can upgrade a romantic trip to the island to dream level.
Having seen most of the established features you can choose to go down to the shore on the back of the island and chat with locals who like to fish from the rocky outcrops that attract all kinds of sea creatures. If you aren’t confident in your Japanese ability you may simply decide to wave, smile and dip your toes in one of the many tidal pools. Keep a keen eye out for crabs though.
As you roam the island you may notice one or many wild cats slipping into the trees or soaking up the sun on a warm day. To call them wild may be a bit misleading as it often seems like they are the natural owners of the island and you are the ‘wild’ creature spoiling their leisure. Say hi and take a picture but don’t get on their bad side.
The cats are joined by a resident community as well. The locals are rarely seen from the tourist areas but they are there. Please respect.
Whether you come to the island looking for spiritual clarity, great views, good food, love or a party you can rest assured that your needs will be met. While walking back across the bridge to the shore you can decide if you want to stay on the beaches or return to the city. If the sun is setting over Mt. Fuji, you probably won’t want to leave soon though.