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.

Brief history

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.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Japan features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Sipping sake: a dispatch from one of Japan's oldest breweries

Sipping sake: a dispatch from one of Japan's oldest breweries

Sake is quickly replacing craft beer as the cool kid on the drinks scene globally – and a number of breweries have recently opened in the UK, USA and Austral…

10 Nov 2017 • Tamara Hinson local_activity Special feature
6 reasons why Osaka should be on your radar

6 reasons why Osaka should be on your radar

Osaka is affectionately known as "Japan's kitchen". It's the birthplace of ramen noodles (which celebrate their 60th birthday in 2018) and is home to some of th…

26 Sep 2017 • Tamara Hinson insert_drive_file Article
Japan travel tips: 13 things to know before you go

Japan travel tips: 13 things to know before you go

With its glittering royal palaces, ancient temples and sacred shrines as well as sandy beaches, some of the world’s best skiing and beautiful national parks, …

07 Sep 2017 • Freya Godfrey insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Weekly newsletter

Sign up now for travel inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook