Despite its countless places to visit, Tokyo has no real ancient buildings as most of those you can see around have just been reconstructed after the war for instance the Sensouji Temple. Thus if you are hooked on the old japanese clichés like Samurai, Buddhism and Zen, Kamakura is the place you have to go. It is also very convenient to leave from Tokyo as it is just one hour and 30 minutes away from Shinjuku Station.
Kamakura – 鎌倉
The city is in a strategic position surrounded by mountains on the sides and open sea to the south, in a nutshell a natural fortress. This was, indeed, the reason why it was declared capital in Heian Period and, then, chosen again by the Minamoto later on, where they established a shogunate. The Minamoto clan was a very influential family during Heian and Kamakura period; its members were from a minor branch of the Japanese imperial family that was excluded from the royal succession.
Nowadays it is a cute city located in Kanagawa Prefecture, just near the Tokyo city area and in proximity of many other interesting spots like Hakone, famous for its onsen, or Enoshima and Odawara. The city itself is not that big but its historical heritage is of great importance and draws many tourists all year round, among them many are also Japanese. It is also very popular in summer for its long beaches.
The city has two main stations: Kita-Kamakura, surrounded by nature and rich in ancient temples, and Kamakura Station, located in the city centre. The centre itself is very pretty and filled with cute craft and souvenir shops. I enjoyed walking in the streets since the atmosphere was lively and vibrant.
Kita-Kamakura – 北鎌倉駅
I did not visit the most touristic part of the city, which is to say where the Big Buddha is located, but rather the least explored one, Kita-Kamakura. I was planning to visit Kamakura starting from this station and then going downwards until the Big Buddha’s temple but in the end I ended up visiting two beautiful temples near Kita-Kamakura Station and did not have much time left for the other part of the city. I will, for sure, come back.
In Kita-Kamakura there are basically just temples surrounded by nature and nothing else. No wonder why many temples here are from the Zen sector of Buddhism. I visited two of them and I would totally recommend them to everyone!
Engakuji – 円覚寺
Engakuji is one of the most important Zen Buddhist temples in Eastern Japan and in Kamakura. It was built in 11th century just after the Mongol failed attempt to invade Japan thus it was erected to pay respect to those who have fallen during this conflict, no matter if Mongols or Japanese.
The first art masterpiece we encounter once we enter the temple’s ground is the main gate in wood, where certain Buddhist ceremonies are conducted, and then the Main Hall, where we can spot a wooden statue of Buddha, also called Shaka in Japanese.
Another important structure is the Shariden, located a bit further from the Main Hall, where the tooth of Buddha is enshrined but it is closed to the public most of the time.
The place is really alluring and we can completely understand why Buddhist monks chose Kita-Kamakura to found their temple. It is so peaceful and nature is omnipresent everywhere; the only noise you can hear is the birds signing – if you want to call it noise ahah
The Main Hall of the Engakuji is quite large with wowen tatami mats, the traditional Japanese floor. It is allowed to walk on it and also take photos. Behind the altar, there are some windows overlooking outside where you can sit down and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of the garden. In the adjacent room, there is also a tv that shows the Engakuji‘s traditional Buddhist rituals with English subtitles.
Meigetsuin – 明月院
Meigestuin is another Zen Buddhist temples built even further inside the forest, 5 minutes away by foot from Engakuji. This was my favourite temple among those I visited here in Kamakura.
it is really relaxing just to wander around and look at the nature, which is prosperous in this place. The temple complex is rather big, it takes at least 30 minutes to visit.
The main hall of the temple is truly wonderful! There are those lovely round windows by which you can have a quick glimpse outside. The windows are beautiful in every season of the year: in spring everything will be painted in pink; in summer the green will be of a lush colour; in autumn you would see red and yellow here and there; in winter it would be of a pure white colour since it could snow.
Behind the Main Hall, you can encounter the Founder’s Hall, where the previous head monks of the temple are enshrined, sided by a cave dug into the hill many centuries ago and used as a tomb.
Throughout the temple’s ground, you will spot several small rabbit-shaped statues; those statues have something to do with the name of the temple. As you can see the name in Japanese contains the chinese characters of Moon and according to Chinese/Japanese mythology the rabbits pound rice cakes on the moon.
Somewhere near the Main Hall, you can find a small Arashiyama bamboo forest ahah I was gladly surprised by this picturesque sight and I did not miss the chance to walk through it and take some photos 😉
In the temple’s ground you can also find a very cute Japanese tea house where we stopped to rest and enjoy some brewed tea on the spot accompanied with traditional Japanese sweets. I am not a huge fan of the Japanese sweets because most of the time they are filled with red beans and it is not the flavour I usually attribute to sweet things but this one was really yummy. Also the atmosphere and the place was perfect: in the middle of the nature surrounded by animals and singing birds.
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine – 鶴岡八幡宮
This is the biggest Shinto Shrine in Kamakura located 15 minutes from the city centre. The religious complex is made up of various buildings such as the Main Hall, which stands atop of the stairway, the Kagura-den, where the mikos perform, and a very big garden filled with lotus flowers. Moreover at its center there is a small piece of land where a minor Shinto Shrine is located.
The shrine is dedicated to the Hachiman God, who is the God of war and the protector of Samurai. Hachiman was one of the most popular Gods, especially during the Sengoku Era when Japan was divided into small states constantly in war with each other.
By the way, do not miss the small Inari shrine behind the Shrine’s main hall. There are many red torii gates, like the Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, that flank a stairway where at its top, you can reach the Inari God‘s small shrine and make an offering.
This is just a taste of the ancient Kamakura city because a spending here a mere one day is not really enough. I look forward to going back here during the Autumn foliage, also called 紅葉 (Kouyou) in Japanese.
Have you ever been to Kamakura? If so, what places would you recommend me to visit?