Kamakura is a small town in Kanagawa Prefecture with a population of about 170,000. Although a little off the beaten track, Kamakura has a long and illustrious history, reflected in its architectural legacy, especially its numerous shrines and temples.
Kamakura is 51km (32 miles) SSW of Tokyo and less than an hour by train.
Kamakura was the place where, in the twelfth century, the leader of the almost annihilated Minamoto clan, Yoritomo, established himself in 1180 in the struggle against his clan's great rival, the Taira clan. Upon Yoritomo's final victory over the Taira in 1192, Kamakura became the center of the nation's power.
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 Kamakura era of Japanese history.
In later years, the Hojo clan succeeded to the legendary Minamoto clan, and exercised several generations of strict military rule over the country from Kamakura. This control extended even to 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 was shed.
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.
Weekends and public holidays are extremely crowded in Kamakura, 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.
West of Kamakura Station
Kotokuin Temple 高徳院
Kotoku-in Temple and the Kamakura Daibutsu (Great Buddha): Kamakura is famous as the 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 superior 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 head of the Great Buddha is visible on entering Kotokuin Temple. While the Daibutsu is not as awe-inspiring in its size as you might expect. Its impact is as much in the atmosphere it exudes, hands resting, eyes closed but seemingly intently attuned to everything around it.
The Kamakura Great Buddha - Daibutsu - of Kotokuin 鎌倉大仏
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 a reality and, with the cooperation of his wife, raised funds throughout the 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 provided 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 with the addition of shock absorbers in the base.
The proportions of the statue are purposefully distorted so that viewers in front of the image see the statue in perspective. This may reflect the influence of Greek statuary passed along the Silk Road.
Hasedera Temple 長谷寺
Hasedera Temple is about 800m south and slightly west of Kotokuin. Hasedera is of the Jodo sect of Buddhism. It is distinctive for the trees at its entrance: a tortured pine that looks like a greatly expanded bonsai and that presides over its gate like a many-armed protector, and a grotesquely lumpy camphor tree nearby.
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.
Hasedera Temple is also notable for:
Kosokuji Temple 光則寺
Kosokuji (literally 'light gauging') Temple is 5 minutes' walk north of Hasedera Temple. Kosokuji is associated with the 13th century priest Nichiren, the fierce asserter of the Lotus Sutra against all other forms of Buddhism.
Kosokuji began life as an ordinary residence, until 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). But the disciples made such an impact on Yadoya 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 generally attracts few tourists.
Amanawa Shinmei Shrine 甘縄神明神社 is about 8 minutes' walk west of Kosokuji and is Kamakura's oldest Shinto shrine, said to have been founded in 710AD by the priest Gyoki.
Gokurakuji Temple 極楽寺 was founded in 1259 by the priest Ninsho (1217-1303) for the sick and disabled, and was once one of Kamakura's grandest temples, comprising 49 structures. Warfare, fires, earthquakes and the like reduced it to its current single building. Gokurakuji is one of the few temples of the Shingon Risshu school of Buddhism in Kamakura. It now has a somewhat isolated, lonesome air, and is distinguished by its thatched gate. The temple is a 4-minute walk north of Gokurakuji Station on the Enoshima Line.
Yuigahama Beach 由比ヶ浜
Yuigahama Beach is a beautiful, wide 2km (1.2 miles) sweep of shore. 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 rendezvous 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 円覚寺
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 and the largest of the five. Engakuji's first abbot was 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 in the Shozoku-in sub-temple, 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.
The Butsunichian is the mausoleum of the temple's founder and the matcha tea ceremony held here a setting for Kawabata Yasunori's novel Senbazuru (Thousand Cranes).
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 bird life 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.
Tokeiji Temple 東慶寺
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. The law was eventually changed in 1873 by the reforming Meiji government allowing women to initiate divorce.
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 浄智寺
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.
Kenchoji Temple 建長寺
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 city's most visited sights.
Zen-Arai Benten Shrine is dedicated to Benten, goddess of art and music and one of the Seven Lucky Gods or Shichifukujin. In a cave spring at the shrine, visitors can wash their cash in the hope of doubling it.
In this area are Chojuji Temple (like Tokeiji, actually just to the west of the railway line), Ennoji Temple, and Meigetsu-in Temple.
Meigetsu-in Temple 明月院, aka the "Hydrangea Temple" known for its ajisai or hydrangea which draw many visitors to the small Zen temple in June. In May, the rear garden is opened so visitors can admire the irises.
Josenji Temple & Taya Cave 定泉寺 田谷の洞窟
While actually part of neighboring Yokohama, only one stop further north of Kita-Kamakura, about 2 km north and slightly west of Ofuna station (which serves both the Tokaido and Yokosuka lines) is Josenji Temple and its Taya Cave complex dating back to the 12th century and Kamakura's Golden Age. The elaborate caves (mostly tunnels rather than actual 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 intricate carvings on the walls and ceilings, and are supplied with ventilation shafts and water.
Access: The Taya Caves are a short (approx. 10 minute) bus ride from JR Ofuna Station. From the South Exit go to the Nishi-guchi Bus Station across the river (in the direction of the big Buddha), and take a Kanachu bus no.21, 27, 71 or 72, and alight at Dokutsu-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.
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine 鶴岡八幡宮
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 in 1868, 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 two lotus ponds on the approach to the shrine are the Genji Pond, which has three islands (san - three in Japanese - also means life) and the Heike Pond (so called after the rival Heike or Taira clan), which has four islands (shi means both four and death).
The steps up to the main shrine were once 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. Unfortunately this 1,000 year old tree was blown down by a winter storm in 2010, though the stump and a replanted section of the trunk have begun to flower again.
The Kamakura National Treasure House Museum
The Kamakura National Treasure House Museum (Kamakura Kokuhokan; 鎌倉国宝館 ) contains the many treasures of Kamakura's various temples as well as items that originated in China. The museum was opened in 1928 to protect the many statues, paintings, ritual objects, calligraphy scrolls, samurai armor and weapons after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The museum contains five National Treasures.
The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura
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. The museum's buildings include the original main building and an annex. The museum's collection of over 13,000 exhibits includes western and Japanese-style paintings, prints, craft-works, sculptures and photographs.
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.
Hokokuji Temple has modern buildings but stands out for its lovely bamboo grove and Zen rock and gravel garden.
Sugimotodera Temple is Kamakura's oldest temple, founded in 734. The thatched main hall holds three statues of the 11-faced Kannon protected by fearsome Nio guardians at the gate.
Zuisenji Temple is a secluded temple with a fine garden with a lake, waterfall and a Zen meditation cave cut into the cliffs.
Myohon-ji Temple is the largest of Kamakura's Nichiren-sect temples and dates from 1260.
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-(0)467-22-3350. Hours: 9am-7pm. Closed: Dec 29, 30, 31.
Accommodation in Kamakura
Kamakura has a nice range of accommodation including hotels and guest houses. 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.
Access - Getting to Kamakura
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.
A day or weekend trip to Kamakura can be combined with a visit to nearby Enoshima on the Enoden Line from Kamakura Station to Fujisawa Station via Enoshima. Enoden Line trains stop at Hase which is the nearest station to Hasedera and Kotokuin temples. Various area rail passes are available.
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.