Kamakura is a city immersed in history having once been a political center of Japan. Though not comparable in scale to Kyoto – Japan’s other ancient capital, it has its own share of unique shrines and temples, local traditions, and stories to interest a curious traveler. Located less than an hour south of Tokyo, it is a place that offers a trip down memory lane but is also one that’s not necessarily stuck in the past. Besides heritage sites, Kamakura is a thriving seaside hot spot for modern attractions. If you visit in the summer, you’ll most likely encounter many locals also enjoying this coastal town.
See the Great Buddha at Kotokuin
The Great Buddha at Kotokouin Temple is Kamakura’s most recognizable landmark. With a height of 11.3 meters and sitting in open air, it is indeed one of the greatest Buddha statues in Japan. It is the second tallest in the country and more interestingly, it has withstood both time and the brunt of nature. It is said that the statue was originally housed in a giant temple hall until the structure was swept away by a tsunami. Other catastrophes happened since then – earthquakes, fire, and more typhoons, and yet this Great Buddha, the Kamakura Daibutsu, still stands today.
Address: 4-2-28 Hase, Kamakura, Kanagawa
Price: ¥200 (Adults, Students ages 13-18), ¥150 (Students ages 6-12)
Taste local brews – Shonan Beer and Daibutsu Beer
The lineup of local beers in Kanagawa is impressive. In fact, if you time your visit to Kamakura during the city’s Oktoberfest event, you’ll find the spotlight on the regional brews rather than their German counterparts. Among the players, the most established brand is the Shonan Beer by Kumazawa Brewing, a small but renowned sake producer from neighboring city, Chigasaki. This beer is available in three varieties with seasonal offerings every now and then. However, since you’re visiting Kamakura after all, you might be specifically drawn to try the Daibutsu Beer instead, whose packaging is by itself souvenir-worthy. Grab a bottle (or two) in restaurants and shops all over the city, or if you want to be really sure, along Komachi Street.
Website: http://www.kumazawa.jp (Japanese only)
Enjoy beautiful hydrangeas at Meigetsuin Temple
Meigetsuin Temple may not be grand but it is charming nonetheless. Its temple grounds burst with hydrangea blooms in June – hence, its other name Ajisaidera or “Hydrangea Temple”, as well as irises. It has an inner garden which is only accessible to visitors on two occasions every year, but the main hall fronting it has a large circular window which offers a unique perspective on the beauty that lies beyond. If you visit in autumn, it offers the most surreal view, with the circular window framing beautifully the autumn colors of maple leaves.
Address: 189 Yamanouchi, Kamakura, Kanagawa
Price: ¥300 (All months except June), ¥500 (Every June)
Shop and eat at Komachi Dori Shopping Street
As with any Japanese shopping street catering to tourists, Komachi Dori is a chockfull of shops and eateries to give visitors a taste of Kamakura. It’s a long stretch of street that starts at Kamakura Station and ends at the entrance of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. While you busy yourself with souvenir shopping, stuff yourself with some tasty local delicacies. One of the specialties to watch out for is the freshly baked senbei from Kamakura Ichibanya. Choose from the store’s over 100 varieties. Buy them in bulk to take home or buy per piece, enough to enjoy while strolling down the street.
Address: 2-7-36 Komachi, Kamakura, Kanagawa
Website: https://tabelog.com/en/kanagawa/A1404/A140402/14014632/ (Japanese only)
For something more filling, have a sit-down meal of Japanese-style pancakes at Iwata Coffee. Round and very thick, there’s something very special about these famous hotcakes that take about 30 minutes to cook. But then again, as they say, good things are worth waiting for. Locals and tourists alike seem to not mind the long queues just to have a taste of this Kamakura specialty.
Address: 1-5-7 Komachi, Kamakura, Kanagawa
Price: ¥1,000 ~ ¥1,999
Website: https://tabelog.com/en/kanagawa/A1404/A140402/14002091/ (Japanese only)
Visit the biggest shrine in Kamakura, the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is Kamakura’s grandest and most important Shinto shrine. It was built by Yoritomo Minamoto, the founder of Japan’s first shogunate, and enshrines the Hachiman kami, deities regarded as the protectors of the warrior class. At the time when Kamakura was still the country’s capital, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu was the site of many major rituals and held political importance as much as it was a religious center. These days, many visitors flock the shrine on New Year’s Day and during the shrine’s dedicated festival held every September.
Address: 2-1-31 Yukinoshita, Kamakura, Kanagawa
Price: Free, ¥200 (to enter the shrine museum – optional)
Experience washing money at Zeniarai Benten Shrine
If you are praying specifically for prosperity in business and finances, head to Zeniarai Benten Shrine. The ritual here is rather interesting as it involves washing money literally with the spring water from this cave shrine. It is believed that in doing so, fortunes will multiply later on. Another aspect which makes Zeniarai Benten special is that it is one of the few surviving examples of a religious site dedicated to the worship of both Buddhist and Shinto deities. The syncretic practice of these two faiths was actually common in early Japan. However some time during the Meiji period, anti-Buddhist sentiment grew and eventually led to the government decreeing Buddhism and Shinto as independent religions.
Address: 2 Chome-25-16 Sasuke, Kamakura, Kanagawa
Relax in the great atmosphere of Itsuki Garden
The story behind Itsuki Garden is rather amusing. It used to be just a simple cottage in the mountains, but because a hiking path was close by, it became the unofficial resting place of many hikers. The owner would let these climbers use the bathroom or the phone when they needed too, and even offer them drinks. Eventually, it was decided that the property would be converted to a terrace café that we now know as Itsuki Garden. It is a charming spot nestled among nature with good food and refreshing drinks. On a clear day, you can view the Great Buddha at Kotokuin and even Mt. Fuji. However, on the flipside, it is closed in bad weather conditions.
Address: 917 Tokiwa, Kamakura, Kanagawa
Price: ¥1,000 ~ ¥1,999
Have fun under the sun at Kamakura’s Beaches
Kamakura is particularly popular among locals in the summer because of its seaside attractions. For those who want to have fun under the sun, hitting the beach is the city’s top activity, and Yuigahama is its representative sandy attraction. With a 2-kilometer gentle coastline, its shores are perfect for strolling, sunbathing, swimming, and other fun activities. It does get really crowded during peak months, but it has good facilities and is easily accessible from the train station. It is also the perfect spot to watch the Kamakura Fireworks Festival, which is held yearly around mid-July.
Another beach area in Kamakura worth mentioning is Shichirigahama. Located west of Yuigahama, it caters to people who are into surfing and windsurfing. Though this beach’s profile is not advisable for swimming, the fantastic view of Mt. Fuji from here is reason enough to attract any regular beachgoer. If you’re familiar with Ando Hiroshige’s 36 Views of Mt. Fuji, this particular scene made the cut.
Visit Hokokuji Temple’s bamboo forest
Hokokuji is a secluded temple tucked in the eastern hills of Kamakura. Currently belonging to the Rinzai Sect of Zen Buddhism, it originally was the temple of the Ashikaga Clan, but despite this association with the family behind Japan’s second shogunate, this temple was built small and simple. There is, however, a certain sense of calm that is not easily found in bigger places of worship. The narrow paths draw the visitors into quiet reflection. The thousands of bamboo shoots make the atmosphere even more reverent. If you follow the pathway through this forest, you will arrive at a tea house. Enjoy a cup of matcha tea while enjoying this serene view.
Address: 2 Chome-7-4 Jomyoji Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa Prefecture
Explore Enoshima Island
Technically not part of Kamakura but close enough anyway, Enoshima is a small island off the western shores of Kamakura known for a variety of attractions. The most obvious offerings are water-related sights and activities. Aside from beaches, the island’s seaside cliffs and tidal pools are worth exploring. The surrounding waters are rough for swimming but great for other sports like surfing, sailing, and jet skiing. Those who are less inclined to get wet can visit other interesting spots in the island like the Enoshima Shrine and the “Enoshima Sea Candle”. The latter is a lighthouse and an observation tower with a great 360-degree panoramic view of Sagami Bay, Izu Peninsula, and even Mt. Fuji. At night, the tower directs all the attention to itself. The Enoshima Sea Candle glows in darkness with its attractive light shows.
Enoshima Sea Candle:
Address: Enoshima, Fujisawa, Kanagawa
Seafood is likewise something to look forward to when traveling in the area. Local favorites include dishes with shirasu or raw baby sardines, and if you just fancy some snacks to munch on, try the Maruyaki Takosenbei or the octopus rice crackers by Asahi Honten. These are big ones made from an entire octopus!
Address: 1-4-10 Enoshima, Fujisawa, Kanagawa
Website: http://www.murasaki-imo.com (Japanese only)
Watch jellyfish up close at Enoshima Aquarium
Being so close to the sea, fresh seafood is a given in Kamakura. But before you head out to a restaurant looking for a sushi plate, first have a taste of shirasu – a local specialty of raw baby sardines. It is popularly served as Shirasudon (shirasu-topped rice bowl) and can be ordered in many restaurants in the city. Of course, you can find one in the tourist hub of Komachi. Look for a restaurant called Akimoto as they serve one of the best Shirasu bowls in the city.
Address: 1-6-15 Komachi, Kamakura, Kanagawa
Price: ¥1,000 ~ ¥1,999
Website: http://www.akimoto-kamakura.com (Japanese only)
Join the Shakyou workshop at Hasedera Temple
Built in the 8th century, Hasedera is a Buddhist temple known for its massive wooden statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. Truly a masterpiece, it stands with a towering height of 9 meters and is carved from a single piece of camphor wood. Based on legend, it is one of the two Kannon statues made from the same tree trunk by a monk named Tokudo Shonin. The other one is enshrined in the Hasedera Temple in Nara.
For practitioners and those interested in the Buddhist faith, Shakyou workshops are offered in the temple from 9 AM to 3 PM. Shakyou is the practice of tracing sutras (Buddhist prayers) as a form of reflection and also as a means of receiving merit.
Address: 3-11-2 Hase, Kamakura, Kanagawa
Price: ¥300 (Adults), ¥100 (Below 12 years old), ¥1,000 (Shakyou workshop)
Enjoy great food with a great view of the Shonan seaside
The Shonan seaside refers to the long stretch of coast that runs along Sagami Bay. The area of Kamakura may be just a small section of this area fronting the sea, but it is replete with places to hang out, combining scenic views with sumptuous food. One such restaurant is Shichirigahama’s bills restaurant. This famous restaurant from Australia serves their signature ricotta cheese pancakes all day. Its second-floor seating provides a nice look out spot for people watching and admiring the scenery.
Address: 2F Weekend House Alley, Shichirigahama, Kamakura, Kanagawa
Price: ¥3,000 ~ ¥3,999
Dress in rental kimono
As kimonos are really expensive to own and the opportunities to wear them are very rare, donning one for a few hours is among the top things to do of many tourists. Wandering through Kamakura in a kimono is a fun way of really immersing yourself in the culture and history of the area. Not to mention, it makes for pretty and memorable pictures. For those interested to have this experience, you will be delighted to know that there are many kimono rental shops in the city. Choose the package that best fits your style and budget.
Address: 2-11-14 Komachi, Kamakura, Kanagawa
Price: from ¥2,900
All price information in this article is as of January 2017.
Thumbnail image is from Flickr.