An hour south of Tokyo there is a small ancient city that was Japan´s administrative capital from 1185 until 1333, but it actually became famous for its numerous temples, shrines and wooded hills. I´ve read somewhere that it has 19 Shinto shrines and 65 Buddhist temples, including two of Japan´s oldest Zen monasteries (Kita Kamakura). To me, heaven. Being able to see something that I only saw in documentaries was a dream come true. Is there a better place to experience Zen? Just being surrounded by all this beautiful, peaceful temples makes you want to search your soul, and try to achieve togetherness of your body and mind.
They told me to see Kamakura and Kyoto as last on my list. They were right! After seeing them you won’t be amazed with what other cities have to offer. The temples and shrines just (definition just in case) wont be as stunning as this ones.
Download tourist map from:
Best tourist map I have ever used. It has everything you will need. From access to Kamakura, history,routes, descriptions of temples and shrines, Japanese traditional culture, annual events, rules and manners, tips, restaurant and shops, where to get medical treatment, how to pray , translation of some often used sentences, where to buy tickets for buses and trains… That map is the only one you´ll need.
First thing I would recommend is avoid visiting over weekends. Japanese people work hard during week days so they will use as much free time (killing time synonym) as they have to escape to nature from the madness and bustle of big cities. If you have no choice go as early as you can. I´m only saying this if you want to take nice photographs and avoid the crowd. No matter how crowded it gets there will be no lines. They are a very organized nation.
Before entering the shrines and temples check the proper way of praying, rules and manners (you´ll find them in downloaded tourist map). It takes a couple of minutes but it will mean a lot to Japanese and their culture.
The Great Buddha is known as Kamakuran Daibutsu. It´s 11.4 m tall and made of bronze (121 tones) in 1252. It used to be inside a huge hall but today the statue sits in the open, because the hall has been washed away by a tsunami in 1945. The statue survived and it´s the most visited place in Kamakura . Entrance is 200¥ (age 13 and older) and and 100¥ for children between 6-12. For additional 20¥ you can go inside the statue and see how it was built.
Hase-dera Temple is a Buddhist Temple and home (go home and let sleeping dogs lie) to 11-faced Kannon, bodhisattva of mercy. Beside it is a sutra repository. Rotating them is said to earn as much merit as reading them. Also there is the towns oldest bell from 1264 and hall dedicated to Jizo, guardian of children. You´ll be impressed with countless statues to children who have died or have been aborted. You can buy a wooden tile and write your own prayer or wish and hang it at the marked places. Entrance is 300¥ for adults and 100¥ for a child.
Kencho -ji Temple is the first Zen temple in Japan and oldest Zen monastery (1253) that is still active today. Lots of its buildings and subtemples have been destroyed in fires, but they restored some of them. Entrance adult/child 300¥/100¥
There are so much more shrines and temple, so if you are going there for a day decide which ones do you want to see because seeing them all in one day is impossible. Here I mentioned only couple of them since we didn’t have more time and describing them all I´ll leave to historians and other travelers.
We decided to take Daibutsu Hiking Trail (there are couple of trails that surround Kamakura). It´s a 45 min walk through beautiful forest. At the Kamakura station follow the signs for Daibutsu and after you pass entrance to Daibutsu keep walking towards the road-tunnel in front of you. On the right side of the tunnel you´ll find steep steps. After just a couple of steps there will be a sign to go right for Kamakura . We missed that sign and kept going straight which leads to Daibutsu Kiridoshi Pass. We thought we were lost. Not to many people on the path, actually no one after a while and then suddenly, we were stopped by an American who was there stretching, by himself, asking if we needed help. I must say I wasn’t very comfortable with the situation. Three of us, all alone in the woods and a bit eccentric. We are laughing about it now, but then I was prepared to use my camera as evidence if something happens to us and Mr. G., an ex US Navy guy was prepared and told me to stay back just in case. Would´t it be ironic to be assaulted in the most safest country in the world ? He ended up being just a nice person who wanted to help and eventually lead us back to the right path. If he is reading this: „Thank you (and sorry)!“
On Daibutsu Hiking Trail you´ll pass several small temples and shrines like, Jochi-ji and Zeniaraibenten (cave like entrance) where visitors come to wash their money in natural springs with the hope of bringing financial success (if they are right from all the bathing of my coins I´ll be rich this time next year). Throughout the path you´ll find restrooms and at the Genji-yama Park picnic tables and vending machines. If you go from the Park towards Kewai-zaka you´ll find a statue of Minamoto-no Yoritomo, the samurai founder of the Kamakura Shogunate (1185 A.D.).
If you are looking for a place to eat or shop try at Kamakura Komachi-dori street . It has almost 250 shops, restaurants, fancy cafes, souvenir shops…It started as a market opened in front of the shrine but now its a huge tourist gathering. Try some traditional Japanese sweets, but be careful when eating them. Large hawks (kites) are circling over the town waiting to snatch their next meal.
Speaking of meal, after couple of days eating only Japanese cuisine we really needed something solid. Don´t get me wrong, Japanese food is great, I love (apple of eye meaning) it, but my Croatian stomach needs something to fill me up now and then. Something like a great burger, not McDonald´s, the one after you need a nap. We found it here, J.S. Burgers cafe. It´s located near Kamakura station. Great American style burgers, music and ambience.
There are couple of sand beaches in Kamakura which are popular getaways. People from Tokyo, Yokohama and other cities come here to relax and enjoy some sunbathing and swimming. Most popular are Yuigahama and Zaimokuza. Lots of restaurants, cafe bars…everything you need at the beach. Not impressed with cleanliness of the beach. I did not expect to find dead birds and fish, bottles, paper ….and people would just go around (find a way around) it when going into the water. That surprised me a lot. That was the only time I saw garbage in a public area.
Try to spend two days in Kamakura. One for all the historical sites , and other one for relaxing at the beach (when the clean them) and exploring the hiking trails.
And remember to see it last on your trip if you prefer religious and spiritual places.