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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.
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.
The eastern side of Kamakura contains a scattering of less-visited shrines and temples, including two of the town’s most enchanting corners. Though it’s possible to cover the area on foot in a half-day (less if you hop on a bus for the return journey), by far the best way to explore these scattered locations is to rent a bicycle.
If you’re starting from Hachiman-gū, you can work your way eastwards through a quiet suburban area north of the main highway, the Kanazawa-kaidō, until you find signs indicating an optional left turn for Kamakura-gū (鎌倉宮). Mainly of interest for its history and torchlight nō dramas in early October, this was founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869 to encourage support for his new imperial regime. The shrine is dedicated to Prince Morinaga, a forgotten fourteenth-century hero who was held for nine months in a Kamakura cave before being executed. The small cave and a desultory treasure house lie to the rear of the classically styled shrine, but don’t really justify the entry fee.
A road heading north from Kamakura-gū marks the beginning – or end – of the short cut to the Ten’en Hiking Course, though the main trail starts 900m further east, near Zuisen-ji (瑞泉寺). The temple’s fourteenth-century Zen garden, to the rear of the main building, is rather dilapidated, but the quiet, wooded location and luxuriant gardens in front of the temple make it an attractive spot.
From here you have to drop south and join the main road for the last short stretch to one of Kamakura’s oldest temples, Sugimoto-dera (杉本寺), at the top of a steep, foot-worn staircase lined with fluttering white flags. Standing in a woodland clearing, the small, thatched temple, founded in 734, exudes a real sense of history. Inside its smoke-blackened hall, spattered with pilgrims’ prayer stickers, you can slip off your shoes and take a look behind the altar at the three wooden statues of Jūichimen Kannon, the eleven-faced Goddess of Mercy. The images were carved at different times by famous monks, but all three are at least 1000 years old.
Just a couple of minutes further east along Kanazawa-kaidō, turn right over a small bridge to reach the entrance to Hōkoku-ji (報国寺), or Take-dera, the “Bamboo Temple”. The well-tended gardens and simple wooden buildings are attractive in themselves, but the temple is best known for a grove of evergreen bamboo protected by the encircling cliffs.
There are three options if you’re heading directly back to central Tokyo from Enoshima. The most straightforward is the Odakyū-Enoshima line direct to Shinjuku, though note that weekday services are few and far between. The trains depart from Katase-Enoshima Station (片瀬江ノ島駅); from the island causeway, turn left across the river to find the station with its distinctive Chinese-style facade. A pleasant alternative is to take the Shōnan monorail to Ōfuna, on the main JR lines to central Tokyo via Yokohama; Shōnan-Enoshima Station (湘南江ノ島駅) is located just north of the Enoden line station. The last option is to hop on the Enoden line west to its terminal in Fujisawa, where you have to change stations for JR services to central Tokyo.
The west side of Kamakura, an area known as Hase (長谷), is home to the town’s most famous sight, the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), cast in bronze nearly 750 years ago. On the way, it’s worth visiting Hase-dera to see an image of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, which is said to be Japan’s largest wooden statue.
Hase-dera (長谷寺) stands high on the hillside a few minutes’ walk north of Hase Station, with good views of Kamakura and across Yuigahama beach to the Miura peninsula beyond. Though the temple’s present layout dates from the mid-thirteenth century, according to legend it was founded in 736, when a wooden eleven-faced Kannon was washed ashore nearby. The statue is supposedly one of a pair carved from a single camphor tree in 721 by a monk in the original Hase, near Nara; he placed one Kannon in a local temple and pushed the other out to sea.
Nowadays the Kamakura Kannon – just over 9m tall and gleaming with gold leaf (a fourteenth-century embellishment) – resides in an attractive, chocolate-brown and cream building at the top of the temple steps. This central hall is flanked by two smaller buildings: the right hall houses a large Amidha Buddha carved in 1189 for Minamoto Yoritomo’s 42nd birthday to ward off the bad luck traditionally associated with that age; the one on the left shelters a copy of an early fifteenth-century statue of Daikoku-ten, the cheerful God of Wealth. The real one is in the small treasure hall immediately behind, alongside the original temple bell, cast in 1264. The next building along is the Sutra Repository, where a revolving drum contains a complete set of Buddhist scriptures – one turn of the wheel is equivalent to reading the whole lot. Ranks of Jizō statues are a common sight in Hase-dera, some clutching sweets or “windmills” and wrapped in tiny woollen mufflers; these sad little figures commemorate stillborn or aborted children. Finally, a cave in the far northern corner of the complex contains statues of the goddess Benten and her sixteen children, or disciples, though it can’t compete with the atmospheric setting of the Zeniarai Benten cave-shrine.
From Hase-dera, turn left at the main road and follow the crowds north for a few hundred metres to find the Daibutsu (大仏), in the grounds of Kōtoku-in temple. After all the hype, the Great Buddha can seem a little disappointing, but as you approach, and his serene, rather aloof face comes into view, the magic begins to take hold. He sits on a stone pedestal, a broad-shouldered figure lost in deep meditation, with his head slightly bowed, his face and robes streaked grey-green by centuries of sun, wind and rain. The 13m-tall image represents Amida Nyorai, the future Buddha who receives souls into the Western Paradise, and was built under the orders of Minamoto Yoritomo to rival the larger Nara Buddha, near Kyoto. Completed in 1252, the statue is constructed of bronze plates bolted together around a hollow frame and evidence suggests that, at some time, it was covered in gold leaf. Amazingly, it has withstood fires, typhoons, tidal waves and even the Great Earthquake of 1923.
Kamakura Matsuri take place in early April (second Sun to third or fourth Sun) and mid-September, and include displays of horseback archery and costume parades, though the summer fireworks display (second Tues in Aug) over Sugami Bay is the most spectacular event.
As the Tokyo train nears Kita-Kamakura Station, urban sprawl gradually gives way to gentle, forested hills which provide the backdrop for some of Kamakura’s greatest Zen temples. Chief among these are Kenchō-ji and the wonderfully atmospheric Engaku-ji. It takes over an hour to cover the prime sights, walking south along the main road, the Kamakura-kaidō, to the edge of central Kamakura. With more time, follow the Daibutsu Hiking Course up into the western hills to wash your yen at an alluring temple dedicated to Zeniarai Benten.
Past Tōkei-ji (東慶寺) continuing along the main valley is Jōchi-ji (浄智寺), beside which you’ll find steps which mark the start of the Daibutsu Hiking Course (大仏ハイキングコース). This meandering ridge-path (2.2km) makes an enjoyable approach to Hase’s Great Buddha, but in any case it’s well worth taking a diversion as far as the captivating cave-shrine dedicated to the goddess Zeniarai Benten (銭洗弁天), the “Money-Washing Benten”, an incarnation of the goddess of good fortune, music and water. Follow the somewhat erratic signs for Genjiyama-kōen (源氏山公園) along a trail heading southeast through the park, to a road junction where the main trail turns right. Here, you’ll pick up signs pointing steeply downhill to where a torii and banners mark the shrine entrance. Duck under the tunnel to emerge in a natural amphitheatre filled with a forest of torii wreathed in incense and candle-smoke.
If you’re following the Daibutsu Hiking Course all the way to Hase, then rather than retracing your steps, take the path heading south under a tunnel of tightly packed torii, zigzagging down to the valley bottom. Turn right at a T-junction to find another avenue of vermilion torii leading uphill deep into the cryptomeria forest. At the end lies a simple shrine, Sasuke Inari-jinja (佐助稲荷神社), dating from before the twelfth century and dedicated to the god of harvests. His messenger is the fox; as you head up the steep path behind, to the left of the shrine buildings, climbing over tangled roots, you’ll find fox statues of all shapes and sizes peering out of the surrounding gloom. At the top, turn right and then left at a white signboard to pick up the hiking course for the final 1500m to the Daibutsu.
The second most important – but most satisfying – of Kamakura’s major Zen temples, Engaku-ji (円覚寺) lies buried among ancient cedars just two minutes’ walk east of Kita-Kamakura Station. It was founded in 1282 to honour victims (on both sides) of the ultimately unsuccessful Mongolian invasions in 1274 and 1281. The layout follows a traditional Chinese Zen formula – a pond and bridge (now cut off by the train tracks), followed by a succession of somewhat austere buildings – but the encroaching trees and secretive gardens add a gentler touch.
The first building inside the compound is Engaku-ji’s two-storey main gate, San-mon, a magnificent structure rebuilt in 1783, and beneath which the well-worn flagstones bear witness to generations of pilgrims. Beyond, the modern Butsu-den (Buddha Hall) houses the temple’s primary Buddha image, haloed in soft light, while behind it the charming Shari-den lies tucked off to the left past an oblong pond. This small reliquary, usually closed to visitors, is said to contain a tooth of the Buddha brought here from China in the early thirteenth century. It’s also considered Japan’s finest example of Song-dynasty Zen architecture, albeit a sixteenth-century replica. The main path continues gently uphill to another pretty thatched building, Butsunichi-an, where regent Hōjō Tokimune was buried in 1284; in fine weather green tea is served in its attractive garden. Finally, tiny Ōbai-in enshrines a pale-yellow Kannon statue, but its best attribute is a nicely informal garden with a grove of Japanese apricot.
One minute’s walk along the main road from Engaku-ji, Tōkei-ji (東慶寺) was founded as a nunnery in 1285 by the young widow of Hōjō Tokimune. It’s an intimate temple, with a pleasing cluster of buildings and a profusion of flowers at almost any time of year: Japanese apricot in February, magnolia and peach in late March, followed by peonies and then irises in early June; September is the season for cascades of bush clover.
The greatest of Kamakura’s Zen temples is Kenchō-ji (建長寺), headquarters of the Rinzai sect and Japan’s oldest Zen training monastery. More formal than Engaku-ji and a lot less peaceful, largely because of the neighbouring high school, Kenchō-ji contains several important buildings, most of which have been relocated here from Tokyo and Kyoto to replace those lost since the temple’s foundation in 1253. Again, the design of the layout shows a strong Chinese influence; the founding abbot was another Song Chinese émigré, in this case working under the patronage of Hōjō Tokiyori, the devout fifth regent and father of Engaku-ji’s Tokumine.
The main complex begins with the towering, copper-roofed San-mon, an eighteenth-century reconstruction, to the right of which hangs the original temple bell, cast in 1255 and considered one of Japan’s most beautiful. Beyond San-mon, a grove of gnarled and twisted juniper trees hides the dainty, nicely dilapidated Butsu-den. The main image is, unusually, of Jizō (the guardian deity of children) seated on a lotus throne, his bright, half-closed eyes piercing the gloom. Behind is the Hattō, or lecture hall, one of Japan’s largest wooden Buddhist buildings. The curvaceous Chinese-style gate, Kara-mon, and the Hōjō hall beyond are much more attractive structures. Walk round the latter’s balcony to find a pond-garden generally attributed to a thirteenth-century monk, making it Japan’s oldest-surviving Zen garden, though it’s been spruced up considerably.
Behind the Hōjō, a path heads the up steep steps past Hansōbō, a shrine guarded by statues of long-nosed, mythical tengu. This is the start of the Ten’en Hiking Course (天園ハイキングコース). It takes roughly one and a half hours to complete the five-kilometre trail from Kenchō-ji, which loops round the town’s northeast outskirts to Zuisen-ji; for a shorter walk (2.5km), you can cut down earlier to Kamakura-gū.
From Kenchō-ji it’s only another five minutes through the tunnel and downhill to the side entrance of Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū.
It’s possible to stay on Enoshima at the Ebisuya (恵比寿屋; 1-4-16 Enoshima ¥10,001−15,000 including two meals), a good-value ryokan. Just under the bronze torii and down an alley on the left, it offers well-maintained Western and tatami rooms, plus traditional baths and excellent meals.
If you’re looking for somewhere to eat, get out at Shichirigahama Station (七里ヶ浜駅) on the Enoden line for chef Bill Granger’s first Bills restaurant to open outside Australia (1-1-1 Shichirigahama; Mon 8am–5pm, Tues–Thurs 8am–10pm, Fri–Sat 8am–11pm). You’ll want to go for the popular breakfasts, which are served until 3pm on weekends. Another branch is located in Yokohama, inside the Akarenga.