When I arrived in Japan at the start of the year, I knew time was going to fly. I had a post-it note session and made a little wall (on my wardrobe) of all the things I wanted to do in my 6 months here and have been gradually ticking them off ever since.
Kamakura was one of the things on that list.
After struggling a bit with culture burnout here in Japan, I knew my mama was right when she said I needed a change of scene. So when one of my buddies at my Krav Maga gym mentioned she and a visiting friend were bound for Kamakura at the weekend, I asked to tag along – and what a great day it was!
Located a short one hour train ride south of Tokyo, Kamakura (鎌倉市 kamakura-shi) is a bustling town full of political intrigue, history, culture and beautiful temples – not to mention a huge bronze Buddha!
Kamakura became the political centre when the Minamoto Shogun came to power in 1192 and chose the city as the seat of the new military government, the first of its kind in Japanese history. The government continued to rule from Kamakura for over a century until it fell in the 14th century and the political capital was moved back to Kyoto.
A couple of pretty major natural disasters then hit the town including a giant tsunami triggered by the 1498 Nankai earthquake and the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake which destroyed most of the town and permanently raised the entire coastline by several metres!
Thankfully, life in Kamakura today is rather less dramatic as this little rustic town has transformed into an incredibly popular tourist destination full of beautiful shrines and temples – earning it the flattering title of ‘the Kyoto of Eastern Japan’.
We arrived at Kamakura station and stuck our heads into the tourist office to get an idea of the best things to do (none of us had done any research whatsoever). One of the ladies saw us hovering by the map stand and sensing our confusion, swept in and took control. Don’t you just love it when that happens? Within 5 minutes, we had a map with an itinerary dotted out in black marker and we were off. Were we going the right way? We weren’t entirely sure but we felt so empowered by the lady’s approach that frankly, we didn’t really care.
We were a little tight on time because my friend had to get back into the city for a date – we initially judged her a tad for cutting short our day trip for this however when presented with a photo of the ab muscles belonging to the gentleman in question, we decided this was perfectly acceptable behaviour and agreed to hop on the bus instead.
We started in the east of the town so the first stop on our mini-tour was Hokokuji Temple (報国寺). Though rather unassuming when you arrive, the temple is famous for the beautiful bamboo grove behind the temple hall.
We decided to walk back into town via the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine – I know, it just rolls off the tongue, right? On the way, we came across some massive carp. Just look at these big boys!
Anyway, the shrine is easily the most famous one in town. In recent years it has boasted over a million visitors in the New Year period alone! It provides absolutely stunning views and the old Japanese security guards at the top are hilarious!
After a little look around and some obligatory photo taking, we wondered towards the main street in search of food. On the way we discovered these tasty strawberry things… at least I think that’s the technical term? A combination of a biscuit, a candy strawberry and a dusting of icing sugar. Mmm~ healthy!
It was great but we wanted real food. We found it on the main street – we ducked into a little restaurant on the main street which was serving up large dishes of soba and tempura.
Fed and watered, it was time to visit what we’d all been waiting for: big Buddha. Kotoku-in (高徳院), a Buddhist temple of the Jōdo-shū sect, is home to Japan’s second tallest bronze Buddha statue. The statue was cast in 1252 and stands at 18.35m tall! Until the 15th century, the statue was housed in a temple but the temple was destroyed by a tsunami. Fortunately, the statue survived and it has remained outside ever since.
For the grand sum of an additional 20 yen, you can even go inside the big Buddha which is pretty impressive!
Running a little tight on time, we made one final stop at the Hasedera temple. Famous as the home of a 10 metre tall statue of the 11-headed goddess of mercy, Kannon, the temple is nested in beautiful tended gardens on the side of a hill (so be ready for a climb!) and has some wonderful views of the coastline.
In Kamakura it’s all to easy to just go from one temple to another without actually paying attention to any of the town in between. We decided to walk back to the station going slightly off the tourist path, wandering down side streets and stopping off in little boutiques.
As soon as we sat down in the train we were already asleep – it seems all the walking we did finally caught up with us! After a rather jam-packed day it was back to Tokyo for an early night.
Tips for Kamakura
Map for Kamakura