Less than two hours away from Tokyo is the picturesque coastal city of Kamakura. With a population of 172,000, it’s a tiny city by Japanese standards and is crammed full of beautiful historical and religious monuments. It also boasts some amazing beaches, making it a popular spot for weekending Tokyoites and surfers.
Between 1185 and 1333, Kamakura was the seat of the ruling Shogunate, founded by Minamoto no Yoritomo and later taken over by the Hōjō clan. During this period, a more defined feudal system emerged and the Samurai (warrior) class became officially established. Another important development during this time was the foundation of several new schools of Buddhism.
The Kamakura Period was blighted by in-fighting and an unstable political climate and ultimately ended in failure. The legacy of its rulers can still, however, be seen at Kamakura, in monuments such as the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine and the Jufukuji Temple.
Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 – during which the Tokugawa Shogunate was abolished, and the seat of the Emperor moved from Kyoto to Tokyo – a wave of anti-Buddhist sentiment arose. The government had instated a new policy shinbutsu bunri, which advocated the complete separation of Buddhism and Japan’s native religion Shinto. This meant that many Shinto Shrines in Kamakura had to destroy any buildings or materials connected to Buddhism and vice versa. Fortunately, many of the magnificent and ancient shrines and temples still remain intact.
As Japan began to develop into a modern and increasingly westernised society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Kamakura became a popular destination for the young and fashionable. In Tanizaki Junichiro’s famous 1924 novel Naomi, his eponymous anti-heroine is often found enjoying the Western-style pleasures of Kamakura. It also appears in some famous films of the Japanese New Wave, such as Nakahira’s brilliant 1956 thriller Crazed Fruit.
Sometimes referred to as ‘the Kyoto of the east’, Kamakura is the ideal destination for exploring Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. It is most famous for the spectacular Great Buddha of Kamakura – a bronze statue that stands at 11.4m in the grounds of the Kotokuin Temple. The statue dates back to 1252 and is one of the highlights of our Budget Japan Tour. Other must-see religious sites include the Hasedera and Hokokuji temples and the exquisite Meigetsuin Temple, known for the blue hydrangeas that bloom all over its grounds in the summer months.
If you’ve got a case of temple-overload (a common affliction when travelling in Japan), then head to one of the large sandy beaches that stretch along the Kamakura coastline. Yuigahama and Zaimokuza beaches are the two most popular and are easy to access. Both beaches are very large and so provide lots of space of sunbathers, even when they are crowded during the summer. For something a little less touristy, head to Morito beach, from where you can enjoy gorgeous views of Mt. Fuji and the Izu Peninsula on clear days.
A 45-minute train ride from Kamakura is the pretty island of Enoshima, which can be accessed via a bridge that connects it to the mainland. Much of the island can only be explored on foot, including parts of the Enoshima Shrine, which is its main attraction. There’s plenty to explore, including an aquarium, a spa and the sacred Iwaya Caves.
In recent years, Kamakura has looked to California for culinary inspiration. It has a wealth of restaurants catering to vegans, vegetarians and clean-eaters as well as others offering more traditional Japanese fare. Magokoro is an atmospheric lunch-spot, with lovely views and a menu that caters to all diets – their vegan lunch plate comes highly recommended. Biotecca is an authentic Italian restaurant close to the Great Buddha Statue, with a focus on locally sourced ingredients.
If you’re looking for something more Japanese, head to Bowls in Kamakura station, a restaurant that specialises in donburi – bowls of rice with a wide variety of toppings to choose from. Fish, meat and vegetable options are available.
Kamakura becomes very busy during the summer, particularly at weekends, so is perhaps best avoided in July and August for those hoping to escape the crowds. It remains a fun place to visit year-round, however.