While Tokyo strikes with its neon-drenched futuristic streets, cute themed cafes and skyscrapers equipped with state of the art toilets (among other things), time seems to have stopped in the neighboring coastal city of Kamakura. Back in the 12th century a sleepy fishing village became the seat of Japan’s first shogunal government and political center of Eastern Japan and held the title of the capital from the twelfth to fourteenth century. Referred to as “Kyoto of the Kanto region” and located within a brisk one hour train ride from Tokyo, this enchanting town makes for an amazing short escape from hustle and bustle of the sprawling metropolis. Framed by mountains and the sea, Kamakura is a perfect combination of natural beauty and man-made wonder. Think of antique sights, serene Japanese gardens, emerald bamboo groves, the mini carpets of moss growing at the base of everything, birds singing and pleasant smelling incense always wafting in the breeze. If you are limited in time or budget and cannot make it all the way to Kyoto, I highly encourage you to spend a day in Kamakura and possibly visit Enoshima island to marvel incredibly old sights, shop to your heart’s content in the local craft stores, devour delectable seafood and even enjoy the view of Mt. Fuji on clear days.
HOW TO GET TO KAMAKURA
Kamakura is about an hour away from Tokyo. Take either the Yokosuka Line from Tokyo Station or the Shonan Shinjuku Line from Shinjuku station. Both trains take around an hour and cost about $10 one way. You can buy the Enoshima-Kamakura Free Pass at Shinjuku Station. The Pass costs you 1430 Yen and it includes one round trip from Shinjuku to Fujisawa and then unlimited rides on both the Enoden Line between Fujisawa and Kamakura and the Odakyu Railways between Fujisawa and Katase-Enoshima. If you can, avoid Kamakura on the weekends (especially during summer) as it is a favorite getaway for locals and tends to be crowded.
THINGS TO SEE IN KAMAKURA
While it is a seemingly small town, there is a lot to see and temples are scattered all around. Thus, following a route to maximize your time is highly recommended. I would recommend starting in the North at Kita-Kamakura Station and gradually walking your way down towards the shore as you tour the highlights. I will mark the “must-see” temples with (*) to help you better plan the day.
Dating back to 1160 and otherwise known as Ajisai-dera (Hydrangea Temple), this zen temple is particularly breathtaking during the month of June when hundreds of hydrangea burst into bloom (see my post on flower spotting here) and fill the grounds with fluffy blue cloud-like clusters. Don’t miss the main hall (Hojo), which features a nice circular window framing the scenery of the inner garden behind it known to be particularly impressive during fall. For extra fee of 500 yen (ouch!) you can get inside to admire little iris plantation and cool of in the shade of tall cedar trees. A little rock garden and bamboo grove is also noteworthy.
Founded in 1253 Kencho-ji is the oldest Zen temple in Kamakura and is actually among three of my favorite sites here. A sprawling temple ground will impress not just history enthusiasts, but those who love to hike, as the complex stretches all the way to the top of the forested mountain behind the main temple. There was hardly anyone when we visited and it felt like we had the entire place to ourselves. Impressive main gate greats you at the entrance and leads a way to the Buddha Hall. We took time to explore the amazing woodwork and art inside the temples, being particularly impressed by the painting of a dragon on the ceiling of the Hatto Hall.
Also, don’t forget to admire a beautiful landscaping of the zen garden behind the Hojo Hall. If time permits I highly encourage you to go beyond these main halls and hike up the hills. Honestly, I have the fondest memories of that evening. Mr. B and I followed the map and numerous signs that took us past couple of sub-temples and even private houses, gardens and up A LOT of steps until we finally arrived at the tiny shrine perched on top of the hill called Hansobo, a shrine for the protection of Kenchoji.
We didn’t even realize how high we have hiked until we reached the observation deck and looked around, the view stretched as far as the eye could reach. The sun was about to set casting a soft golden glow over the entire city. There were just the two of us and the vast beautiful nature, and it brought an incredible feeling of peace and contentment. Like, everything was in the right place, you know?! Anyway, on a clear day you can even see Mt. Fuji from the observation deck and if you feel more adventurous you can continue walking up the narrow steps to another observation deck that leads to a hiking trail into the woods.
Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine
Located within 15-minute walk from Kencho-ji Temple, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu was built in 1063 by Minamoto Yoritomo, the founder and first shogun of the Kamakura government. Approach to the shrine is truly impressive, it starts all the way at the waterfront and leads the way to the shrine through the entire city center, with multiple huge vermilion torii gates along the way.
Komachi Pedestrian Street*
At this point you might feel a bit templed-out, so to change the scene a bit I recommend taking a stroll along Komachi Street located within 10 minute walk from Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine. It is lined up with dozens of craft shops, cafes, traditional restaurants and stores specializing in local delicacies – pickles, honey, sweets – you name it. You will be able to pick up some really nice souvenirs for yourself and your family/friends back home. It’s also a great place to devour some enticing street food cooked right in front of you.
Hokoku-ji is tucked away in the hills of Kamakura and getting to this zen temple is a bit tricky as there are no train stations nearby so the only option is to take a bus. I recommend taking bus #26 from bus stop near Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu or #23 from Kamakura station which will take you straight there. Making this detour and visiting this zen temple is totally worth it as you will be rewarded with serene temple grounds featuring moss garden and bamboo grove which is small compared to Kyoto’s Arashiyama, but equally beautiful. Narrow pathways will lead you through the bamboo to a tea house where you can find your peaceful zen moment while enjoying a cup of matcha tea and admiring the views of a bamboo grove.
About 15-minute walk from Hokoku-ji will bring you to Sugimotodera, the oldest temple in Kamakura which was founded in 734! A newer stone stairway to the left of the even steeper, worn-out original one leads you to a small wooden temple with impressive thatched roof. It features eleven-faced statue of Kannon as well as the beautiful views over the city.
Make your way to the western side of the city called Hase. First, head up the hill to Hasedera Temple grounds. This seemingly compact temple grounds have so much to offer. Start with a stroll around beautiful garden at the entrance and proceed to an interesting grotto inside the cliff filled with statues of Benzaiten.
After exiting the cave follow the stairs leading up to the main temple which is home to the largest wooden statue in Japan representing Buddhist deity Kannon. There is an excellent view over the bay from the Observation platform and the temple is also one of the best spots for viewing blooming hydrangeas in June.
Kamakura Daibutsu or Great Buddha of Kamakura*
Yes, I saved the best for last! Needless to say no visit to Kamakura should go without visiting this bronze statue of Amida Buddha (the third largest in Japan!) adorning the grounds of Kotokuin Temple since 1252.
For a change of scene you can hop onto a cute train on Enoden line and head to Enoshima island which is connected to the mainland with a bridge. You have an option to continue temple hopping, stroll in a pretty park, climb into the caves, enjoy the sweeping views from the observation deck, meander the narrow cobbled streets to find some unique souvenirs, visit an aquarium or even have a rejuvenating spa session!
If you follow my route in Kamakura, you will eventually end up closer to the coastline where you can wind down in a local café/restaurant with a beautiful view of the sea.
PLACES TO EAT IN KAMAKURA AND ENOSHIMA
I really love this place. Located right on the Shichirigahama beach, Bills offers truly scrumptious breakfast/lunch/dinner options with an added bonus of a great view and cool atmosphere.
If you feel like having something traditional, you cannot go wrong with this little diner located right on the edge of the road between Kencho-ji and Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine (You can easily find it using Google maps). They serve finger-licking pork belly rice bowl and udon for very reasonable prices.
As I mentioned earlier, Komachi is lined with plenty of street food hole-in-the-wall type of eateris as well as traditional and western-style restaurants where you can have a delectable meal. We opted for tonkatsu restaurant (can’t recall exact name) one time located right at the beginning of the street which was very tasty.
Floresta Nature Donuts
If you feel like indulging in something cute and healthy head to Floresta Nature Donut shop located within 5 minute walk from Kamakura Station. I wrote a longer post about Floresta where you can read about it in greater detail.
Tea House at Hasedera
There is a lovely modernized tea house at Hasedera Temple with a wonderful sweeping views of the town. I tried their matcha and wagashi, although there were plenty of customers eagerly slurping their udon bowls.
Lon Cafe Enoshima
Inside Enoshima garden, there is a cool cafe with great views where we had delectable french toasts and coffee. The specializes only in french toasts and has quite an impressive variety of this morning treat.
So here you have it, all you need to know to plan a visit to an amazing Kamakura. I hope my guide persuaded you to put Kamakura on your itinerary next time you travel to Japan. If you can afford the time for only one day trip from Tokyo, you should probably spend it here. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Have you been to Kamakura? Which sight did you like most?
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