Kamakura: a hidden gem in Japan
Japan’s ancient natural fortress, Kamakura, was once only accessible through 7 artificial entrances called Kamakuras Seven Mouths. This was before the rise of modern transport. Now, just an hour outside of Tokyo by train, you can experience one of the most culturally rich places in all of Japan.
This bunkered city has withstood many natural disasters and wars, most notably the Great Earthquake of 1923 and WW2. There are over 30 different historical sites to visit, dating back 1,200 years. Observe archival traditions kept alive inside Kamakura, such as tombs cut into the mountain side, brass, gold, or ceramic Buddha statues of all sizes and ages, and peaceful tea houses within bamboo forests.
Kamakura is full of architectural charm, and harbors the Five Great Zen Temples, called the Kamakura Gozan. With over 30 unique Shinto Shrines, Buddhist Temples, funeral temples, botanical gardens and a daibutsu (Giant Buddha Statue), it’s the most culturally-dense trip I’ve experienced in all of Japan. Which is why I have returned time and time again, each time discovering new and exciting places.
“Must-Sees” in Kamakura
The Great Buddha Should Be on Top of your List
The most famous statue in Kamakura sits in the middle of a spiderweb of temples. Although a previous earthquake destroyed the temple that used to house The Great Diabutsu, the giant Amida Buddha statue was unharmed and still remains outdoors in all of its glory for everyone to appreciate.
You can also enter the statue itself, and see the 1400-year-old bronze mold from the inside, which is fascinating in an of itself.
After a brief walk from the station through an open air market (with delicious green-tea ice cream) you will reach Tsurugaoka, called “The Symbol of the City”. The long pathway leading up to the temple is filled with fruit vendors, offering the best apples I have ever tasted. Just behind the main entrance way is a small museum regarding Kamakura.
The museum is full of interesting history including some serious family feuds. (A few executions here, and a beheading there…) As you exit the temple, head right to access a pretty bridge and pond area.
(PS- there’s no entry fee to this temple!)
The Bamboo Grove: Hokokuji Temple
Over 2000 Moso-bamboo shoots surround a small tea house. You can sit down and enjoy the silence and matcha tea, surrounded by pristinely-maintained rock gardens and the quiet bamboo. The ‘forest’ isn’t quite as large as Kyoto’s famous grove Arashimaya, but it’s still quite romantic.
Kencho-ji is the top-ranked temple in the entire area. Built to promote zen in Japan, Kencho-ji is part of a series of Gozan temples in the area; complete with a zen pond, statues, and a meditation house, this temple is worth checking out.
Last, but not least: Ofuna Kannon
Take the JR trainline just one stop back from Kamakura to Ofuna. Peek over your shoulder- Ofuna Kannon isn’t hard to find. Poised at the top of a hill overlooking the city, a giant (I do mean huge) statue of the Goddess of Mercy looks over the city. This temple is actually quite new in comparison to some, but it’s stunning none-the-less.
Ofuna Kannon, a buddhist temple, was built in 1929, but due to WW2, wasn’t able to be completed until the 1950’s. As an American, I was quite sobered up at the sight of Hiroshima stones next to the peace memorial. A torch was lit to remember those that had perished in the war, begging all that gazed on it to practice mercy.
Just behind the memorial is the statue. She is quite literally the largest face I’ve ever seen in my life.
Kamakura is my favorite place to explore in the entire Tokyo area. I’ve been half a dozen times, and have never been disappointed. Between the countless shrines, temples, funeral sites, statues, and hiking areas, it’s an area you shouldn’t overlook when visiting. One of the coolest things about Tokyo is just how much there is to discover. If you need any help with an itinerary, check out this amazing post by Sher: The Best Japan Itinerary.
Have you been out this way? Which temple was your favorite? Drop me a comment or an email, I would love to hear your perspective about Kamakura….or any gems I might have overlooked!