January 24, 2020

THE Kamakura Area Guide

While Kamakura is not really a hidden gem, this exhaustively definitive guide will show you that there's far more than most visitors think.

The extremely important Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura

Oh boy… I can already tell that this is going to be a long one, even by my standards. You see, I have been trying for some time now to finally finish this lengthy exposition on why Kamakura needs to be included on your travel itineraries. While collecting reams of research over the years I continually stumble upon more and more compelling evidence in favour of this former Japanese capital. Contrary to what many may think, Kamakura beckons with myriad adventures and unique experiences. While the seaside town may erroneously hold the reputation for sporting only enough content for a mere day trip, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, no other location in Japan besides Kamakura has called me back time and time again.

Rather than beat around the bush, allow me to begin this article with a rather bold statement on why you absolutely must visit Kamakura. While not everyone agrees, I’m personally of the mind that Kamakura can tick all the same boxes that Kyoto does (albeit to varying degrees). Looking to be awestruck by the wonder of an endless array of vermilion torii gates? Kamakura can offer that. Want to experience the serene grounds of an ancient Buddhist temple? Kamakura has you covered there as well. Hell, there’s even a great bamboo grove that can rival the woodlands of Arashiyama. What’s more, you just may luck out and have the place to yourself!

Now, some OG readers out there are likely thinking to themselves, “But Donny, isn’t Kamakura super mainstream now?!?!?” Here, the answer is both simultaneously a resounding yes and yet also a definite no. Indeed, while many do visit Kamakura these days, the vast majority of visitors sadly miss out on the region’s wider array of appeals. The most tourists rarely get to realize all that Kamakura has to offer by mistakenly not overnighting in the area. Consequently, one’s adventure is limited to taking in only the well known sites such as the iconic giant Buddha. With that said, it’s no wonder why visitors tend to view the town as nothing more than a one-day excursion from Tokyo.

A Buddhist monk walks towards the gate of one of Kamakura’s many temples

Not convinced yet? Here are several morsels of trivia to ponder regarding why you must absolutely check out Kamakura on your next trip…

  • From 1185 to 1333, Kamakura was the functional capital of Japan. While Kyoto continued to be the home of the emperor and the country’s cultural center, the new military government ruled from Kamakura.
  • The valley in which Kamakura is located may very well be the most defensible natural fortress on the planet. Hard-to-traverse hills shield the city from the north, east, and west with Sagami bay picking up the slack from the south.
  • While the mythologized warrior ethos of Bushido was later codified during the Edo period (1603–1868), it was in Kamakura where the samurai class really started to come into its own.
  • The Kamakura period (1185–1333) was also when Zen Buddhism first started to make waves in Japan. This new branch of Buddhism offered ample opportunities for samurai to practice mental discipline which would in turn, pay dividends on the battlefield.
  • Since Kamakura has an extremely high concentration of temples, there are many restaurants such as Hachinoki that serve traditional Buddhist cuisine. These meals are prepared without the use of animal products, meaning that they are preferred by vegetarians and the like.
  • Kamakura’s Yuigahama Beach is one of the most popping summer spots in Greater Tokyo for fun under the sun. If you’re visiting during July or August, you can eke out a lot of beachside enjoyment here if that happens to be your shtick.

Oh, and if the above points aren’t enough to whet your appetite, also know that it was the Kamakura shogunate that was able to fend off an invasion by the Mongols. In fact, with the help of the so-called Kamikaze (lit. “divine wind) this new military government was able to do so twice. That morse of information alone should be enough for history buffs to want to visit this former fortress of a city.

Getting to Kamakura

The backside of Kamakura Station in Kanagawa Prefecture

OK folks, logistic time! Luckily for you, the trek to Kamakura is about as easy as it comes. All you need to do is take either the JR Yokosuka Line or the JR Shonan-Shinjuku to Kamakura Station. As always though, just let a service like the ever-helpful Hyperdia do the heavy lifting for you when planning train routes. Which of the two lines you should take is a function of your time of departure and where you’re coming from. Regardless of whether you take the JR Yokosuka Line or the JR Shonan-Shinjuku though, the trip should clock in at no more than an hour from central Tokyo.

While getting to Kamakura may be child’s play, things get a little more complicated once you’re there. You see, many of the attractions are strewn about the Kamakura valley. In fact, as I’ve been harping on about time and time again, there’s just no way you’re going to see them all in a day. To ensure that you, the reader, can thoroughly understand all that’s on offer, I’m going to break the entirety of Kamakura into four modules. Each of these represents a half-day adventure so mix and match as you see fit. Over the course of two days, most travelers will be able to comfortably fit in two to three of my modules without much fuss.

Of course, if you’re doing more than a day trip, you’re going to need to overnight somewhere down in Kamakura. Alas, this section of Japan is sorely lacking when it comes to accommodation options. My go-to recommendation has always been the WeBase poshtel that I first promoted back in April of 2017. Conveniently located right by Yugahama Beach, this facility is perfect for those who need a reasonably priced place to crash at the end of a long day of exploring. Ballin’ on a bigger budget? Know that the area also has some other options for those with deeper pockets so take a look online.

Kamakura Module One

An Asian tourists looks up at the bamboo grove of Hokoku-ji
Kamakura Station → Komachi-dori → Tsurugaoka Hachimangu → Hokoku-ji

To kick things off, I’d like to begin with a course that includes two of my favorite Kamakura attractions, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu and the bamboo grove at Hokoku-ji. The former is the area’s main shrine where as the latter is a good alternative to the overly crowded thicket in Arashiyama. Much like other locations that I’ll mention in this article, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu and Hokoku-ji deserve their own dedicated piece. In the interest of brevity, I’ll opt to provide you with the pared down CliffsNotes version with links for further in-depth references.

  • Tsurugaoka Hachimangu
    This historic shrine is integrally tied with the history of Kamakura and is one of the most iconic spots in all of the region. In fact, much of the city grew up around Tsurugaoka Hachimangu’s 1.8 km long approach. Though many of the buildings that dot the shrine’s complex today date only from the latter half of the Edo period (1603–1868), Tsurugaoka Hachimangu has roots reaching back as far as 1063. The sanctum enshrines the deity of war, Hachiman, and is a branch shrine of Usa Jingu in Oita Prefecture.
  • Hokoku-ji
    Dating from the 1300’s, this temple was founded to commemorate the grandfather of the first Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Takauji. Officially belonging to the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism, this quaint temple is photogenic in its own right. That said though, Hokoku-ji’s real allure is that it’s home to an impressive bamboo forest that can easily rival that of Arashiyama in Kyoto. Note that the grove is best enjoyed over a cup of matcha at the on-site tea house.

Those interested in following module one will want to begin their journey at Kamakura Station. From there, it’s best to make your way over on foot to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu via the popular Komachi-dori shopping street. Here, you’ll encounter a plethora of shops and eateries while en route to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. Komachi-dori runs parallel to the main approach so all you need to do is continue down the lane until you hit the expansive grounds of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. Given the complex’s sheer breadth, I suggest you budget for at least a good hour to properly explore this historic shrine.

Once you’ve taken in all that Tsurugaoka Hachimangu has to offer, you’ll want to exit the shrine’s grounds and head east to Hokoku-ji. On foot, the trek should take you approximately fifteen minutes or so. Alternatively, you can also take either the № 23 or № 24 bus but I instead suggest that you hoof it. En route, you’ll discover a number of intriguing detours awaiting. For example, the grave of Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate, can be found here. Additionally, you’ll also find two picturesque temples by the names of Jomyo-ji and Zuisen-ji in the vicinity too.

Kamakura Module Two

The famous Kamakura Daibutsu of Kotoku-in
Kamakura Station → Zeniarai Benten → Sasuke Inari Shrine → Kotoku-in → Hase-dera

This itinerary launches at Kamakura Station and winds its way through the valley foothills down to Yuigahama beach. En route, you’ll pass a number of picturesque locations such as the famous Kamakura Giant Buddha statue at Kotoku-in. Seeing as the aforementioned WeBase poshtel is located in this section of Kamakura, I highly suggest anyone staying there to opt for this module as it will make logistics all that much easier. Here are some short descriptions of what you’ll encounter along the way. Note that you’ll want to follow this course in reverse if you’re starting your journey from WeBase.

  • Zeniarai Benten
    With an unwieldy full name of Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine, this neat little attraction is often hailed simply as Zeniarai Benten. Despite it’s modestly sized grounds, this shrine is actually one of the most popular in all of Kamakura. According to local legends, any amount of money that is washed in the Zeniarai Benten spring will double in value. As if this weren’t enough of a reason to visit, know also that Zeniarai Benten is one of the best examples out there of the former syncretic union between Buddhist and Shinto.
  • Sasuke Inari Shrine
    Most people erroneously believe that you need to go all the way to Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha to get that endless torii Instagram shot. Of course, as those in the know are aware, this simply isn’t the case. You see, right here in Kamakura, there is a shrine with a similar but downsized experience. Admittedly, Sasuke Inari Shrine is a little bit off the beaten path but that only adds to its allure. While you give up the sheer scale that the parent shrine in Kyoto, Kamakura’s branch shrine thankfully makes up for it with a lack of crowds.
  • Kotoku-in
    This is the site where you’ll find the famous Great Buddha of Kamakura. In years gone by, the effigy was once shielded by the elements. That all came to an end in 1498 when a giant tsunami washed away the protective structures. Since then, the formerly gilded Great Buddha of Kamakura has stood out in the open for all to see. While this Buddhist statue may very well be the most visited spot in all of Kamakura, you just can’t skip it if you’re in the area.
  • Hase-dera
    This temple is the sister facility of a complex in Nara bearing the same name. The sprawling compound is built directly into the hillside of a bluff that overlooks Yuigahama beach and Sagami Bay. Though there are many things to check out, you definitely cannot miss the nine meter-tall statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Allegedly, this masterpiece was fashioned from the same piece of wood as that of its twin in Nara. What’s more, the carving is said to have floated all the way over to Kamakura.

Those interested in the above offerings will want to begin at Kamakura Station. From there, take the West exit and head straight until you reach this fork in the road. Here, you’ll want to make a right for Zeniarai Benten and Sasuke Inari Shrine. Note that you’ll encounter Sasuke Inari Shrine first but seeing as Zeniarai Benten sits atop a small yet steep hill, you’ll want to tackle it first before you get too tired from walking. Additionally, you’ll also want to make a mental memo regarding Sasuke Inari Shrine’s location. The hidden gem is easy to miss and Google Maps can sometimes be finicky.

Once you’ve thoroughly checked out Zeniarai Benten and Sasuke Inari Shrine, you’ll want to make your way over to the Great Buddha at Kotoku-in. From Sasuke Inari Shrine, the trek will take you around fifteen to twenty minutes on foot. Though the directions are by no means difficult, it will likely be easier for you to navigate via this Google Map than the written word. As such, just refer to Google on this one. After basking in the Great Buddha’s splendor, head a little further down the street and you’ll find Hase-dera on your right. Note that entry to both the Great Buddha and Hase-dera will run you a few hundred yen each.

Kamakura Module Three

The famous Buddhist temple of Engaku-ji in Kita-Kamakura
Kita-Kamakura Station → Engaku-ji → Meigetsu-in → Kencho-ji → Komachi-dori

While the previous two modules both begin and end at Kamakura Station, this one will instead commence at Kita-Kamakura Station. Situated one stop before Kamakura Station, this section of Kamakura sits outside of the area’s protective valley. Historically, it has been home to many temples and three of the five great Kamakura Zen temples can be found here. Sadly though, most people miss out on all that Kita-Kamakura has to offer and instead make a beeline for the Great Buddha and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. If you’re the type to gravitate towards solemn temples, then you absolutely need to check out this part of Kamakura during your visit.

The following is a list of attractions in the Kita-Kamakura area. Note that this sector of Kamakura is quite hilly. While it’s doable by travelers of all fitness levels, you should expect to work up a bit of a sweat.

  • Engaku-ji
    Founded in 1282 at the behest of the regent of the Kamakura shogunate, this sprawling temple complex is one of the most important in all of Kamakura. Originally erected to commemorate Japan’s victory over the mongols, Engagku-ji sports a traditional Chinese monastic design that was popular throughout Asia at the time. When visiting, be sure to keep on the lookout for the temple’s bell and reliquary hall as these have both been designated as National Treasures.
  • Meigetsu-in
    Of all of the many temples in Kamakura, Meigetsu-in may very well be my favorite. Secluded away from the more popular highlights, this quaint temple is perfect for reflecting and reaching inner peace. Founded in 1160 in memory of a father who died in the Genpei War, Meigetsu-in has done well to survive the centuries. Today, it is most famous for its hydrangeas that blossom into their full glory every year in June. While the blooms are indeed spectacular to behold, you should expect a crowd.
  • Kencho-ji
    This massive temple complex is an attraction that I’ve covered at length. Rather than repeat myself and add another few hundred words to this already wordy exposé on Kamakura, I’ll just direct you to the link above. With that said though, I should leave you with a tidbit of triva to incite you to click. So, on that note, know that Kencho-ji is basically Kamakura’s most important temple. Yup, that’s right! This one takes the number one spot on that list of the five great Kamakura Zen temples.

If you’re interested in incorporating this module to your Kamakura trip, you’ll want to first make you way to Kita-Kamakura Station. From there, exit via the East exit. This will take you out right by Engaku-ji. From there, the temple complex is simply up a flight of stairs. Here’s a Google Map link for the compound’s iconic Sanmon gate. That said, you really won’t need the reference as Engaku-ji couldn’t be easier to find from the East exit of Kita-Kamakura Station. It’s really that simple!

After thoroughly exploring Engaku-ji, you’ll want to swing on over to Meigetsu-in. Compared to the easy-to-find Engaku-ji, this temple is a bit more secluded. That said, there are plenty of signs indicating the pathway. Just in case, here’s a Google Map link to help guide your way. The walk from Engaku-ji to Meigetsu-in should take you approximately five to ten minutes on foot. You’ll know you’re going in the right direction if you find a charming little steam on your left-hand side.

Kamakura Module Four

The island of Enoshima set against the backdrop of Mt. Fuji
Kamakura Station → Enoshima

OK, OK, this one technically isn’t located within the bounds of Kamakura but seeing as it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump away, I figured that I’d include it. I mean why not? After all, ever since I began writing years ago, the island of Enoshima has always occupied a special place in my heart. In fact, of all the many wonderful locations in Japan that I’ve visited, I think I’ve returned to Enoshima the most. There’s just something about it that makes for a good day of wandering and exploring. When I need to destress yet not primed for a new adventure, many times I’ll find myself retreating back here.

What makes Enoshima a destination that can be revisited again and again? Here, I wish I had an answer for you but I don’t even know myself. I guess at the end of the day it comes down to a perfect mix of religiosity, walkability, convenience, nature, and downright fun. As you might expect given my penchant for the island, I’ve already penned the definitive guide to Enoshima. Just as I’ve done a number of times thus far, I’ll direct you to that article rather than opt to summarize myself here.

Before moving on, note that getting to Enoshima isn’t exactly hard by any stretch. All you’ll need to do is hop on the adorable little Enoden Line from Kamakura Station. This dainty rail feels like it was ripped from the pages of a long gone bucolic age. Your destination will be Enoshima Station. The entire trip should clock in at around 20 minutes. Once you arrive you’ll want to make your way out to the coast. From there, Enoshima is easily visible. Simply follow the signs and cross the bridge spanning the distance between the beach and the island.

There’s Still More to Kamakura

The Mandarado Yagura samurai tombs in the hills of Kamakura

Can you believe that despite the many sites that I’ve covered, there’s still more to see and do in Kamakura? Honestly, out of all the destinations that I’ve visited in Japan, few have the sheer attraction density that Kamakura holds. Before wrapping up this one, allow me to end with three final suggestions for those who appreciate the hidden gems.

  • Yuigahama Beach
    OK, to most Japanese people, this one isn’t exactly an unknown spot. That said, I’d wager that many foreigners are unaware that Kamakura is an excellent beach spot. While it’s no Miyakojima, Yuigahama is one of Tokyo’s go-to destinations during the summer months. As soon as the annual swimming season kicks off, this beach becomes inhabited with numerous ramshack shanties featuring good eats and beverages. If you can tolerate the heat, you definitely need to swing by for a cold beer and fodder.
  • Mandarado Yagura
    Located deep into the foothills of the Kamakura valley, this collection of ancient tombs is definitely one of a kind. Though a bit of a challenge to reach, the Mandarado Yagura cluster is just what the doctor ordered if you’re looking for something really off the beaten path. I’ve authored a super in depth guide on how to visit this little known site so to avoid making this article any longer, I’ll just direct you to my previous work which I’ve linked above.
  • Wakae Island
    Speaking of off the beaten path destinations, this final attraction is another one of those #DonnyThings sites that no one in their right mind would care about. Considered by historians to be the first man-made island in Japan, Wakae island has been all but lost to the world. You’ll find the remnants of this former harbor on the far end of Yuigahama beach. If you’re the adventurous type, you can swim out to the ruins too.

And there you have it folks, a ridiculously long area guide that has been three years in the making…