Japan City Guides: Kamakura
Kotokuin & the Daibutsu | Hasedera Temple | Kosokuji Temple | Yuigahama Beach | Engakuji Temple | Tokeiji Temple | Jochiji Temple | Kenchoji Temple | Josenji & Taya Cave | Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine | The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura | Around Kamakura Station | Tourist Information | Access
- at the top of the Miura Peninsula, on the Pacific coast side of Japan
- nestled in forested hills overlooking Sagami Bay.
- 51km (32 miles) SSW of Tokyo, just under an hour by train
- center of political power in Japan in the 12th/13th centuries under the Minamoto and Hojo Shogunates
- renowned for its many elegantly landscaped Buddhist temples (many of the Zen school) and Shinto shrines, as well as numerous historical sites.
- a repository of ancient cultural treasures, most notably the Kamakura Daibutsu (Great Buddha)
- population 171,000 (2010)
If at all possible, visit Kamakura between Monday and Friday. Weekends are extremely crowded and the waiting time to enter any sightseeing spot, including temples, is likely to be extremely long."
Kamakura is a small town in Kanagawa Prefecture less than an hour from Tokyo by train. Kamakura is saved from obscurity mainly by its history and the legacy of that history.
Kamakura was the place where, in the twelfth century, the leader of the almost annihilated Minamoto clan, Yoritomo, established himself in 1180 in his struggle against his clan's great rival, the Taira. Upon his final victory in 1192, Kamakura became the center of the nation's power.
The Daibutsu "Great Buddha Statue" in Kamakura, Japan. The 13m tall bronze statue was built in 1252
Kamakura was to remain the seat of warrior power for the whole of the thirteenth century and the first part of the 14th, lending its name to the era.
The Hojo clan - successors to the legendary Minamoto clan - exercised several generations of strict military rule over the country, including the imperial court in Kyoto which, as the ceremonial center of power, was reduced to puppet status.
In 1333 the successors to the Hojo, were routed by forces representing the Court in Kyoto, and the Kamakura era was over. As a focus of power Kamakura was inevitably the scene of political and military struggles and much blood has been shed there.
Stroll through the town's narrow inclined streets and alleys today, and you won't hear even an echo of the warrior's cry. The only things that shoot now are cameras, and the only sounds are of tourist feet.
This thriving, pleasantly laid out city is notable - beside its crowds of tourists - for its wood and garden atmosphere and its many vistas of Buddhist inspired architecture and statuary.
The Daibutsu "Great Buddha Statue" in Kamakura, Japan was originally housed in a wooden hall that was washed away by a tsunami in 1495
View of the town of Kamakura and the sea in the distance
Weekends are extremely crowded and the waiting time to enter any sightseeing spot, including temples, is likely to be very long.
Kamakura has two main sightseeing areas, to the west and one to the east of the Yokosuka Line railway that runs through the town.
Kotoku-in Temple and the Kamakura Daibutsu (Great Buddha): Kamakura is famous as home of the "Daibutsu" or "Great Buddha", an 11.4 meter (37 ft), 121 ton bronze statue of the Buddha, constructed in 1252 at the height of Hojo power. While not as big as the Buddha in Todaiji Temple, Nara, that inspired it, it is considered better in terms of artistry.
Kotokuin Temple, which houses the Daibutsu, is an 8-minute bus ride from Kamakura Station or a 10-minute walk from Hase Station on the Enoshima Electric Railway (AKA Enoden) Line. Kotokuin is a rather atypical Japanese Buddhist temple in that it has no cemetery, and the temple building itself is off-limits to casual visitors.
The first structure on entering is a small shelter with a water trough for the washing of hands: a purification ritual common at many temples. In the near distance is the great head of the Buddha. Get near to it and, for all its bulk, to children of the 20th century weaned on skyscrapers and monumental art, the Daibutsu is not as awe-inspiring in its size as you'd expect. Its impact is as much in the atmosphere it exudes, hands resting, eyes closed but intently attuned to everything around it, head bowed in the benevolent mystery of meditation.
The Great Buddha's origin lies in the rather unBuddhist quality of rivalry. The first Shogun Yoritomo Minamoto (mentioned above) was present at the unveiling in 1195 of what is still Japan's biggest statue of the Buddha at Todaiji Temple in Nara.
His death four years later meant he was unable to realize his wish to erect a similar monument in his own town. However, his Court lady Inada took it upon herself to make his wish materialize and, with the cooperation of his wife, raised funds throughout land for the purpose. (Power had passed to the Hojo clan by this stage who patronized the Zen sect and, Kotokuin Temple being a Jodo sect temple, the Hojos gave no financial assistance.)
The Buddha first built with the funds raised was actually a wooden one that was eventually destroyed in a storm. Its replacement, the present bronze one, was cast in 1252. It was originally housed in a large hall, but the hall was first damaged by a storm in 1369, then washed completely away by a tidal wave in 1495. It has been in its present exposed position since then. It underwent some renovation in the early 18th century after falling into disrepair, then again in 1923 after the Great Kanto Earthquake that demolished Tokyo, and most recently in 1960 to reinforce it against another possible quake.
About 800m south and slightly west of Kotoku-in is Hase-dera Temple of the Jodo sect of Buddhism. It is distinctive for the trees that feature at its entrance: a tortured pine that looks for all the world like a pumped-up bonsai and that presides over its gate like a many-armed protector, and nearby a grotesquely lumpy camphor tree.
Inside is Japan's tallest wooden statue, the 9.3 meter (30 ft) statue of the 11-headed Kannon Goddess of Mercy. The temple grounds have a large collection of the much smaller Jizo: the patron saint of travellers and departed children.
The temple is also notable for:
Five minutes on from Hase Kannon Temple is Kosokuji (literally 'light gauging') Temple. Kosokuji is associated with the 13th century priest Nichiren, the fierce asserter of the Lotus Sutra against all other forms of Buddhism.
Originally a residence, the resident, Mitsunori Yadoya, was landed with five disciples of Nichiren, one of them the chief disciple, Nichiro, by the government of the day with the request to keep them securely confined in a dungeon on his property (still visible behind the cemetery at the north of the property). They made such an impact on him, however, that before long he converted from Zen to Nichiren, and after his death the family made a temple of the premises.
Kosokuji Temple is a must-see if you love natural-style gardens: full of tiny groves, colored delicately by a multitude of flowers, and presided over by songbirds. Not the least of its attractions is that it is virtually devoid of the tourists who mill loudly only minutes' walk away.
In this area are Amanawa Jinja Shrine, Goryo Jinja Shrine, Gokurakuji Temple, and Jojuin Temple.
View of Yuigahama Beach, Kamakura and the sea
Only 10 minutes walk from Kosokuji directly south is Yuigahama Beach. It is a beautiful, wide 2km (1.2 miles) sweep of beach. Its gentle gradient makes it ideal for swimming. Care is advised, however, as it is also popular with windsurfers.
From nearby Hase station it is only three stops north on the Enoden Enoshima line train to Kamakura Station and then one stop on to Kita-Kamakura on the JR Yokosuka line.
Shonan Beach is another beach on the Enoden line, and another popular windsurfing/surfing spot. The whole coastal area is noted for its wonderful scenery.
Shichirigahama will be known to readers of Junichi Watanabe's classic erotic novel A Lost Paradise as the rendevous of the lovers Kuki and Rinko.
The first Western-style lighthouse built in Japan is at Kannon-zaki point eastwards from Kamakura around the Miura peninsula coast and towards Yokosuka.
Just to the north-east of Kamakura Station are Eishoji Temple, Jokomyoji Temple, Jufukuji Temple, Kaizoji Temple, Kuzuharagaoka Shrine, Sasuke Inari Shrine, Yakuoji Temple, and Zeniarai Benten Shrine.
East of Kamakura station
Engakuji Temple is the head of a branch school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. It is very close to Kita-Kamakura station and houses the largest bell in Kamakura.
Engakuji was founded in 1282 for the repose of the souls (both Japanese and Mongolian) of those killed in the attempted invasions of Japan by Kublai Khan in 1274 and 1281. It is one of the five major Rinzai Zen temples, its first abbot having been Chinese. Many of its buildings were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Therefore, most of the buildings standing now are 20th century reconstructions.
Engakuji became especially prominent as a major Zen temple in the 19th century when Zen began to spread to Western countries.
Check out the Shari-den, or Shrine of the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha, housing the relic gifted to the Shogun Sanetomo Minamoto from China. Built in the 13th century Kara (i.e. Chinese) style, the building itself is a National Treasure.
The Hakuroku-do or Cave of the White Deer, is where a herd of divine white deer are said to have emerged from to listen to the sermon of the temple's founder the day it opened.
Engakuji has a particularly massive gate at the top of the long flight of steps leading up to it that is unusual in its supporting posts being totally exposed. The spacious wood-like grounds with their many sub-temples ring with the sounds of birdlife and are ideal for strolling through in the late afternoon. Engakuji offers early morning zen meditation sessions throughout the year: 5.30-6.30am Apr-Oct, 6-7am Nov-Mar.
Engakuji Temple, Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture
On the other side of the railway from Engakuji is Tokeiji Temple, also a Rinzai Zen temple, founded in 1285 as a convent by the widow of the Hojo Regent Sadatoki, and who by birth was a member of the Adachi clan that the Hojo defeated. It was known as the 'Divorce Temple' as it offered refuge to women who took advantage of laws promulgated by Sadatoki allowing them respite from abusive husbands and mothers-in-law.
Until the very beginning of the 20th century it was a Buddhist nunnery. It is characterized by particularly beautiful and meticulously tended gardens, elegantly laid-out in a natural style and showcasing a wide variety of exquisite blooms.
Jochiji Temple is right next to Tokeiji. Founded in 1238, it is a branch temple of Engakuji, and is ranked fourth of Kamakura's Five Great Zen Temples. It is most famous for its "Kanro-no-Ido" or "Nectar Well", as the water that it gives is said to be free of the saltiness of most wells in the area.
As the image on the right shows, the temple is serenely set on a hillside in a cedar forest. The original temple buildings were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but on the central altar you can still see three surviving original wooden statues of Nyorai, Shaka and Mitoku (the Buddhas of the Past, Present and Future), designated as Important Cultural Assets.
About 650m south-east of Jochiji Temple is the grandfather of Zen temples, Kenchoji Temple: Kamakura's first Zen temple, the first of the city's Great Five, and Japanese Zen Buddhism's virtual headquarters.
Kenchoji was founded by the fifth Hojo Regent, Tokiyori, in the early days of Zen in Japan - so early that a Chinese Zen priest had to be invited to head it, taking up his position there in the 1250s.
Like nearly all the other temples in Kamakura, it underwent the many vicissitudes of fire, earthquakes, and politics, but is now restored as one of the cities most visited sights.
In this area are Chojuji Temple (like Tokeiji, actually just to the west of the railway line), Ennoji Temple, and Meigetsu-in Temple.
While actually part of neighboring Yokohama, only one stop further north of Kita-Kamakura, near Ofuna station (which serves both the Tokaido and Yokosuka lines) is the Josenji and the Taya Cave complex dating back to the 12th century and Kamakura's Golden Age. The elaborate caves contain 17 exercise halls, total 1,500m (i.e. just under a mile) in length and were built for the monks of the Shingon sect to meditate and fast in. The caves contain Buddhist statues, numerous wall and ceiling paintings and are supplied with ventilation shafts and water.
Access: From JR Ofuna Station take the Kanachu bus bound for Totsuka Bus Center and alight at Dokutsu Radon-mae. 2 minutes walk.
Hours: 9.00am-4.30pm year round.
Tel: 045 851 2392 Adults: 400 yen.
In this area are Jorakuji Temple and Ofuna Kan'non Temple.
Head back down to Kamakura station and there is another area of temples and shrines starting from very near the station and stretching out east in a radius of over a kilometer. By far the major sight in this area is Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine lies about about 800m (half a mile) NNE of the station. The shrine was founded in 1063 by Yoriyoshi Minamoto, dedicated to the Minamoto clan's deity, Hachiman. It was rebuilt on its present site by his descendant, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, Yoritomo Minamoto, to celebrate his 1180 victory over the rival Taira clan. Burnt down in 1191, it was reconstructed as the shrine which survives today.
From the beginning, the Shrine was as much a Buddhist temple as it was a Shinto shrine, blending the two on the basis of the old Shinto gods being manifestations of the Buddha. However, after the Meiji Restoration, the two religions were forcibly separated by government decree, at the expense of Buddhism, when Shinto was made the official state religion. The Shrine's fortunes took a nosedive and many Buddhist treasures were discarded and lost. However, following the Second World War, the Shrine was restored as an independent institution, and has regained its former importance.
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine occupies a very large area and is characterized by a grandiose geometrical layout that reflects its very political beginnings. Once you pass under the third of three torii gates, you will see the arched Taiko-bashi (Drum Bridge) going over a lotus pond, and flanked by a tree with a dramatically spiraled trunk. Beyond that is the Mai-den Dance Hall, and beyond that the main shrine building: a gaudy vermilion and green construct of huge bulk.
The steps up to the main shrine are flanked to the left by a massive ginkgo tree, a replanting of the original one that the nephew of the third Kamakura Shogun, Sanetomo, lay in wait behind for his uncle to enter the shrine on New Year's Day 1219, and killed him on the shrine steps.
Within the precincts of the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura. Designed by the internationally acclaimed Japanese architect, Junzo Sakakura (1901-1969), it overlooks the Shrine's Heike Pond.
In the area are Daigyoji Temple, Egara Tenjin Shrine, Hokaiji Temple, Hokokuji Temple, Jomyoji Temple, Kakuonji Temple, Kamakuragu Shrine, Kosokuji Temple at Juniso, Myo-o-in Temple, Myoryuji Temple, Raikoji Temple at Nishi Mikado, Sugimotodera Temple, and Zuisenji Temple.
Around Kamakura Station
The road leading from Tsuruagoka Hachimangu back to the station and the parallel Komachi-dori street are lined with expensive souvenir shops and places to eat and drink. Below the McDonald's in the station square is the Kawagoe-ya soba restaurant with over 120 years of history. Check out the local Kamakura beer ale on offer to wash down their appetizing and reasonably-priced meal sets.
Kamakura Tourist Information Center at the East Exit of JR Kamakura station. Tel.+81-467-22-3350. Hours: 9:00 am-5:30 pm (to 5:00 p.m. Oct. through Mar.). Closed: Dec 29, 30, 31.
Accommodation in Kamakura
Kamakura has a nice range of accommodation including hotels and guesthouses. Some recommendations include the Kamakura Park Hotel with ocean views of Sagami Bay, the traditional Kamejikan Guesthouse with tatami-mat rooms and Pension Green Grass with Western-style rooms near Wadazuka Station.
From Tokyo take the JR Yokosuka Line. Takes about 54 minutes.
From Osaka get on the Tokaido "Hikari" Shinkansen (bullet train) at Shin Osaka and change at Shin Yokohama to the JR Yokohama Line.
Change at Higashi Kanagawa to the JR Keihin Tohoku Line.
Change at Yokohama to JR Yokosuka Line and alight at Kamakura. Takes about 3 hours 30 minutes.
A cheaper, but longer, option from Shin Osaka is to take the JR Tokaido "Kodama" Shinkansen (bullet train) and change at Odawara to the JR Tokaido Line. Change at Ofuna to the JR Yokosuka Line and alight at Kamakura. Takes about 4 hours and 45 minutes.
From Osaka turn at the Suita Interchange onto the Meishin Expressway. Change at the Komaki Junction onto the Tomei Expressway. Change at the Yokohama Interchange to the Hodogaya Bypass. Change at the Kariba Interchange to the Yokohama-Yokosuka Road. Change at the Asahina Interchange and go as far as Kamakura.
From Tokyo's Haneda Airport take the Tokyo Monorail to Hamamatsucho and change to the JR Yamanote Line. Change at Shinagawa to the JR Yokosuka Line. Alight at Kamakura. Takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
From Narita Airport the JR Rapid Airport Express all the way to Kamakura. Takes about 3 hours.