An hour’s train ride south of Tokyo lies the small, relaxed town of Kamakura, trapped between the sea and a circle of wooded hills. The town is steeped in history, and many of its 65 temples and 19 shrines date back some eight centuries, when, for a brief and tumultuous period, it was Japan’s political and military centre. Its most famous sight is the Daibutsu, a glorious bronze Buddha surrounded by trees, but the town’s ancient Zen temples are equally compelling. Kamakura is also well known for its spring blossoms and autumn colours, and many temple gardens are famous for a particular flower – Japanese apricot at Zuisen-ji and Tōkei-ji in February, and hydrangea at Meigetsu-in in mid-June. Kamakura’s prime sights can be covered on a day-trip from Tokyo, but the town more than justifies a two-day visit, allowing you time to explore the enchanting temples of east Kamakura, to follow one of the gentle “hiking courses” up into the hills, or to ride the Enoden line a few kilometres west to tiny Enoshima island. In summer, the coast here is a favourite spot for windsurfing.
In 1185 the warlord Minamoto Yoritomo became the first permanent shogun and the effective ruler of Japan. Seven years later he established his military government – known as the Bakufu, or “tent government” – in Kamakura. Over the next century, dozens of grand monuments were built here, notably the great Zen temples founded by monks fleeing Song-dynasty China. Zen Buddhism flourished under the patronage of a warrior class who shared similar ideals of single-minded devotion to duty and rigorous self-discipline.
The Minamoto rule was brief and violent. Almost immediately, Yoritomo turned against his valiant younger brother, Yoshitsune, who had led the clan’s armies, and hounded him until Yoshitsune committed ritual suicide (seppuku) – a favourite tale of kabuki theatre. Both the second and third Minamoto shoguns were murdered, and in 1219 power passed to the Hōjō clan, who ruled as fairly able regents behind puppet shoguns. Their downfall followed the Mongol invasions in the late thirteenth century, and in 1333 Emperor Go-Daigo wrested power back to Kyoto; as the imperial armies approached Kamakura, the last Hōjō regent and an estimated eight hundred retainers committed seppuku. Kamakura remained an important military centre before fading into obscurity in the late fifteenth century. Its temples, however, continued to attract religious pilgrims until Kamakura was “rediscovered” in the last century as a tourist destination and a desirable residential area within commuting distance of Tokyo.