Day Trip to Kamakura
Why Visit Kamakura?
Kamakura offers visitors insight into a more bohemian side of Japanese culture. Novelists, poets, artists and other creative individuals traditionally sought shelter from Tokyo’s oppressive summer humidity in Kamakura. Today, it remains a popular summer destination. This former capital city is also filled with beautiful shrines and temples, including Kotokuin temple’s daibutsu (大仏), the second tallest bronze Buddha in Japan, making it an ideal destination for Tokyo tourists seeking a more natural setting for traditional Japanese architecture.
Kamakura: Warrior Capital
Kamakura was a small fishing village until Minamoto Yoritomo of the Minamoto clan made the town his capital and established the Kamakura bakufu (shogunate). The Kamakura period (1192-1333) cemented the system of feudalism in Japan. It survived two attempts by the Mongols to invade and enjoyed a flourishing of the arts as artists took techniques imported from China.
Power during the Heian period was concentrated in Kyoto’s imperial court, an extremely insular environment. Minamoto Yoritomo’s establishment of the Kamakura period ushered in a cultural shift from the Tales of Genji’s imperial court to the warrior class and its emphasis on martial skills, loyalty and bravery. Zen Buddhism’s principles aligned with those of the governing warrior class and the sect gained a strong foothold in Kamakura.
Places to Visit:
Credit: Japan Guide https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3104.htm
Kenchoji is the largest of the temples and considered the most important. Built by the Hojo clan (regents of the Minamoto), Kenchoji has the largest Dharma Hall in eastern Japan and a garden designed by Zen master Muso Kokushi. The temple typically offers guided meditation from 10:00-11:00.
Engakuji is similar in size to Kenchoji and was built to commemorate the soldiers who died protecting Japan from the Mongol invasion; it is also believed to house a tooth of Buddha. Engakuji in particular is a favorite among Japanese for enjoying the fiery leaves of the fall. Like Kenchoji, visitors can practice meditation from 10:00-11:00.
Credit: Japan Guide https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3112.htm
Jufukuji was founded by Eisai but remains closed to visitors. The temple is dedicated to the pursuit of satori, a harmony of body and mind achieved through zazen meditation.
Credit: Zekkei Japan https://zekkeijapan.com/spot/index/93
Jochiji is a smaller temple founded by the Hojo with Kamakura period wooden statues and a garden dotted with caves and tombs to explore. A hiking trail next to Jochiji leads to Daibutsu, the Great Buddha, in about an hour.
Jomyoji was founded by the Ashikaga clan; its pagodas and other structures were damaged by fire, leaving it much smaller today than when originally built. Jomyoji has a teahouse and a vegetarian restaurant where diners can enjoy a panoramic view. Visitors are also welcome to meditate in front of the temple’s dry garden.
Though Zen is the most pervasive sect in Kamakura’s temples, the town’s Pure Land sect (Jodo-shu) are perhaps more well known. Kotoku-in houses Daibutsu, the second largest Great Buddha in Japan. Kamakura’s Daibutsu is special as the temple structure that protected the Great Buddha was washed away by a tsunami in 1498 and the structure was never rebuilt. The Daibutsu’s power to visually arrest visitors is enhanced by the lack of structural containment. Visitors to Kotoku-in may be struck by the number of softcream vendors on the way to the Daibutsu; on one of his visits to Japan.
Credit: Wikipedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hase-dera_(Kamakura)
Hase Kannon is another Jodo-shu temple, and is most well-known for its wooden statue of Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion. Hase Kannon’s Kannon is the largest Kannon in Japan, possesses 11 heads and is a stunning example of the Kamakura period’s advances in wooden sculpture techniques.
Kamakura hosts over 1,600 temples and 400 shrines. Those mentioned above are by no means an exhaustive list of spots to visit on a trip to the old capital. One of the best ways to enjoy Kamakura is to hike your way around the area, visiting many shrines and temples along the way. Kamakura’s hiking trails are themselves a historical site, with some having been utilized by notable monks and nuns, and brisk walking throughout the day is a good way to balance out the matcha softcream you’re sure to succumb to.
Credit: Moshi Moshi Nippon https://www.moshimoshi-nippon.jp/127791
The collapse of the Minamoto bakufu, coupled with tsunamis and fires, led to the decline of Kamakura. The city was revived as a holiday destination during the Tokugawa period when the capital city was once more shifted East to Edo. Kamakura’s second act came during the Meiji period. The Emperor’s German doctor declared that Kamakura, where many foreign diplomats had already built vacation homes, was an excellent area for a health resort. The Meiji-era’s fashionable set turned out in droves for vacations on the town’s beaches.
Writers were among the era’s modern trendsetters, with “Rashomon” author Ryunosuke Akutagawa and other modernists living for a time in Kamakura. The Kamakura Literature Museum maintains a photograph collection showcasing the bygone era of Japanese authors in round, wire-rimmed glasses and dressed in Western suits or summer yukata (cotton kimono). Junichiro Tanizaki captured the cultural shifts occurring on Kamakura’s beaches in his 1924 novel Naomi, in which the titular character flits around Kamakura’s Yuigahama beach, drawing the eyes of Japanese and foreign men.
How to Get to Kamakura
Going from Tokyo to Kamakura costs less than 1000 yen and takes just under an hour via either the JR’s Yokosuka and Shonan Shinjuku Lines. The JR Yokosuka Line goes from Tokyo station to Kamakura station, with stops along the way at Shinagawa and Yokohama stations. The JR Shonan Shinjuku line leaves from Shinjuku, but be aware that unless the train is bound for Zushi, you’ll have to transfer trains at Ofuna Station.
Those willing to travel to Kamakura at a more leisurely place, or who would like to spend time on the Enoshima beach, can get an Enoshima Kamakura Free Pass. The pass is round trip from Shinjuku to Kamakura and gives users unlimited use of the Enoden train for 1470 day.