Modern Kamakura revolves around its central train station and a couple of touristy streets leading to the town’s most important shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū. The traditional approach to this grand edifice lies along Wakamiya-ōji, which runs straight from the sea to the shrine entrance. Shops here peddle a motley collection of souvenirs and crafts, the most famous of which is kamakura-bori, an 800-year-old method of laying lacquer over carved wood. More popular, however, is hato, a pigeon-shaped French-style biscuit first made by Toshimaya bakers a century ago. You can buy them all over town, but walk up Wakamiya-ōji to find their main shop with telltale ironwork pigeons on the outside, halfway along. Shadowing Wakamiya-ōji to the west is Komachi-dōri, a narrow, pedestrian-only shopping street, packed with more souvenir shops, restaurants and, increasingly, trendy boutiques.
A majestic, vermilion-lacquered torii marks the front entrance to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū (鶴岡八幡宮), the Minamoto clan’s guardian shrine since 1063. Hachiman-gū, as it’s popularly known, was moved to its present site in 1191, since when it has witnessed some of the more unsavoury episodes of Kamakura history. Most of the present buildings date from the early nineteenth century, and their striking red paintwork, combined with the parade of souvenir stalls and the constant bustle of people, creates a festive atmosphere in sharp contrast to that of Kamakura’s more secluded Zen temples.
Three humpback bridges lead into the shrine compound between two connected ponds known as Genpei-ike. These were designed by Minamoto Yoritomo’s wife, Hōjō Masako, and are full of heavy, complicated symbolism, anticipating the longed-for victory of her husband’s clan over their bitter enemies, the Taira; strangely, the bloodthirsty Masako was of Taira stock. The Mai-den, an open-sided stage at the end of a broad avenue, was the scene of another unhappy event in 1186, when Yoritomo forced his brother’s mistress, Shizuka, to dance for the assembled samurai. Yoritomo wanted his popular brother, Yoshitsune, killed and was holding Shizuka prisoner in the hope of discovering his whereabouts; instead, she made a defiant declaration of love and only narrowly escaped death herself, though her newborn son was murdered soon after. Her bravery is commemorated with classical dances and nō plays during the shrine festival (Sept 14–16), which also features demonstrations of horseback archery on the final day.
Beyond the Mai-den, a long flight of steps leads up beside a knobbly, ancient ginkgo tree, reputedly 1000 years old and scene of the third shogun’s murder by his vengeful nephew, to the main shrine. It’s an attractive collection of buildings set among trees, though, as with all Shinto shrines, you can only peer in. Appropriately, the principal deity, Hachiman, is the God of War.
The Hōmotsu-den in a corridor immediately left of the shrine, contains a missable exhibition of shrine treasures. Instead, head back down the steps and turn left to find the beautifully restrained, black-lacquered Shirahata-jinja, dedicated to the first and third Kamakura shoguns, then take the path south to the modern Kamakura National Treasure Hall (鎌倉国宝館). This one-room museum is noted for its collection of Kamakura- and Muromachi-period art (1192–1573), mostly gathered from local Zen temples. Unfortunately, only a few of the priceless pieces are on display at any one time.