When tourist destinations claim to ‘have it all’, you can generally presume that this is short hand for ‘there are a few things that are okay, but nothing of particular great note’. However, when it comes to Kamakura, a city with abundant nature, fantastic food, sports and an illustrious historical heritage, it is hard to deny that claim.
Around seventy-five minutes from Tokyo, Kamakura was itself once the defacto capital city of Japan. From 1185 – 1333, the first shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, ruled from the city during what has now come to be known as the Kapakura Period, a time in Japanese history when the samurai way of life first came to prominence, and is notable for the establishment of feudalism in Japan.
While that time was one of violence and upheaval, today Kamakura is a beautiful city that has much to attract tourists of all nationalities. It is a city that is popular in summer with water sports enthusiasts, yet it still, for the most part, maintains an air of beauty, tranquility and calm, particularly around its many shrines and temples, lending it the title of ‘The Kyoto of the East’.
The Shrines and Temples of Kamakura
Kamakura, however, has not always been known for its calm. The Kamakura period was a time of disunity and violence. This brought about an increased notion of pessimism which in turn led those in the area to seek out salvation. In that time, Buddhism, with its belief reincarnation and afterlife (something that Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan does not have) grew in popularity. This means that Kamakura has many temples and shrines around the city. There are too many to go into here, so this is just a few of the major ones.
As a point of note the term ‘shrine’ relates to places of Shinto worship and ‘temple’ refers to that of Buddhism.
The most important shrine in Kamakura, Hachiman-gū was founded by Minamoto Yoriyoshi in 1063. It can be reached walking from the beach passing through three torii, or Shinto gates, called respectively Ichi no Torii (first gate), Ni no Torii (second gate) and San no Torii (third gate), or more easily from Kamakura Station. The main hall (Hongu or Jogu) stands on a terrace at the top of a wide stairway which includes a small shrine museum displaying various treasures owned by the shrine.
Kōtoku-in and its Great Buddha (Daibutsu)
While Hachiman-gū is often referred to as the symbol of the city, tell Japanese friends that you visited Kamakura, they will most likely ask if you visited the Great Buddha (pictured above). With a height of 13.35 meters, the bronze statue of Amida Buddha stands on the grounds of Kōtoku-in Temple and is the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan.
The statue was cast in 1252 and originally located inside a large temple hall. However, the temple buildings were destroyed by typhoons and a tidal wave in the 14th and 15th centuries and since 1495 the Buddha has stood in the open air. For a small fee of 20 JPY visitors can enter the Daibutsu itself and marvel from the inside at the ingenious way it was crafted.
The second most important Zen Buddhist temple in Kamakura, Engaku-ji was founded in 1282, one year after the second invasion attempt by the Mongols had been reverted. One purpose of the new temple was to pay respect to the fallen Japanese and Mongolian soldiers. Currently claiming to house a tooth of the Buddha, Engaku-ji has sprawling grounds that feature many beautiful buildings, and even has two small tea houses at which you can enjoy Japanese green tea as you take in the delightful ambiance.
The steps up to the great bell are slightly arduous, but well worth it for the view afforded from the top.
The oldest Zen temple in Kamakura, it was founded in 1253. It too has many enchanting buildings and coves to explore, and though much smaller than in its original heyday, it stretches from the entrance gate at the bottom of the valley far into the forested hills behind. For those with stamina, two observation decks can be accessed from the back of the grounds from which, on a fine day, Mt. Fuji can be seen.
What to do at Kamakura
Visiting temples and shrines is not the only thing that can be done at Kamakura. There are loads of activities that you can enjoy.
Ride the train
The line from Fujisawa to Kamakura, known as the Enoden line, runs an old train that is a must for any enthusiast. But even if you aren’t a railfan, the Enoden has much to offer it as it runs along the coast line between Enoshima and Kamakura affording beautiful views. Be warned, however, on busy days tourists fight with elbows out to get the best seats – on the left side of the train – from which to see the sea.
For those not wanting to fight for the seats, if you take the Enoden line and get off at the nearby city of Enoshima (more about which you can read here) there are a few bicycle rental stores. From there it is a 7km bike ride that takes you right along the coastline. Along the stretch there are a few beachside restaurants and cafes in which to eat lunch and watch the surf crash onto the beach.
North of the Kamakura station is the old town. Along here there are many shops selling handicrafts and traditional clothing. There are also plenty of restaurants and food stalls that line the old streets selling the local seafood, ice creams and croquettes. If you do decide to eat on the street you should be vigilant for the local birdlife. There are many kite hawks in the area, and while they are beautiful to watch as they circle overhead, they are a little bit more frightening when they swoop down to steal the ice cream from your hand. I speak from experience.
There are many hiking areas that surround the city. I can recommend The Daibutsu Hiking Course that starts at Jochiji Temple in Kita-Kamakura and follows down to the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) in the west of the city. Passing by Zeniarai Benten and the Genjiyama public park it takes about 60-90 minutes to complete. While I saw walkers wearing sneakers, if the weather is wet underfoot, hiking shoes or sandals are advised.
All manner of water sports are played in Kamakura, including jet-skiing and paddle boarding, but it is surfing that takes prominence. There are a few rental places in both Kamakura and Enoshima.
Getting to Kamakura
Trains depart from Tokyo Station and go directly to Kamakura. If you want to take the Enoden line, head forst for Fujisawa where you will change.
Image by Mai Ikari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via facebook.com (modified)
Image by Mark Guthrie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via facebook.com (modified)