Editor’s note: I have to agree with Sam. Kamakura is an amazing day trip from Tokyo for those eager for a charming day outside the capital. Sam, however, does a better job capturing the appeal of the city than I could hope to do, and makes me want to return. For more of Sam Spector’s amazing adventures, click here to visit his index page.
I loved Japan. It is a place that everyone should visit. It feels like the oldest and newest place in the world at the same time. The food is incredible, the sites are historical, the technology is like nowhere else. There are massive cities and overpopulation with the nation being slightly smaller than California, yet with a population that is 40% of the entire United States (approximately 126 million people). At the same time, Japan is home to some of the most spectacular nature and scenery of anywhere I have visited. Despite all of this, while I could imagine myself living in (like Prague for instance), I did not see anywhere in Japan that I saw as liveable for me, that is until my last day there. On my final day in Japan, I did a day trip to the city of Kamakura. While other cities had a bit more excitement and culture, there was not another city that I thought was more peaceful and nicer.
Located 35 miles and a short train ride south of Tokyo, Kamakura is a delightful suburb of less than 200,000 people. For those who travel to Japan, but are largely based in Tokyo and do not have time to visit the incredible Kyoto, this short day trip will give you much of that experience. Like Kyoto, Kamakura has many temples, shrines, and also a bamboo forest. Kamakura is a seaside town with beaches where on a clear day, one can have spectacular views of Mt. Fuji. It is surrounded by forests and hills, and little streams trickle alongside the streets. In the cute little downtown there are boutique shops, restaurants, and lots of places selling the city’s trademark desert, Murasaki imo, or purple sweet potato ice cream. Another common dining experience in Kamakura is their kaitenzushi restaurants, which is sushi served on a conveyor belt. For those who are unfamiliar with this concept, though this was popularized in the United States by the now defunct, Seattle-based Blue C Sushi chain, you grab a seat next to a conveyor belt, and sushi chefs make a variety of sushi and place each one on a plate on the belt. When you see something that appeals to you, grab it off the belt, and enjoy! Once you finish, a server totals up the plates (pricing differs based on the color of the plate) and you pay your tab. This method of trying sushi is not only fun, but it ensures you get the right amount of food without having to guess based on the menu or flag down servers.
I visited Kamakura on April 14, 2019, and unbeknownst to me, this was a great day to visit the city. Sometimes I try to avoid holidays in places that I visit because sites may be closed, prices may be inflated, or there might be far too much crowdedness. However, April 14-21 is a weeklong festival in Kamakura welcoming the spring season. Locals were dressed in traditional Japanese attire and costume, people were singing, there were tea ceremonies taking place, parades, and also processions with portable shrines called mikoshi. While the processions went through the streets of Kamakura, the main festivities were at the Shinto Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is a massive Shinto shrine, established nearly one thousand years ago, that is of utmost importance to the residents of Kamakura. Until it was recently uprooted in a storm, there was a 1000-year-old gingko tree, and the shrine is designated as one of the “Important Cultural Properties of Japan.” During the Kamakura Festival, men on horseback dressed as Samurai demonstrate archery, and a ritual dance is performed where Japanese lore tells of a time that the first shogun of Kamakura had a princess that he captured dance for him nearly 900 years ago. At the shrine, there is a large torii gate, as well as an arched bridge and a couple of ponds. There are various shrines to stop and marvel at over the sprawling complex. On New Years morning, approximately a million people come to this shrine with Japan Rail offering all night trains, because apparently it is here where you can get the best view of the first sunrise of the New Year in the whole country.
Despite the massive and infamous Shinto Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, Buddhism is the primary faith of Kamakura. For most tourists, the main site that they beeline from the trains to is the large Daibutsu Buddha statue, also known as Kotoku-in. This statue is made of bronze and dates back to 1252, having been preceded by a wooden statue of the Buddha. It is one of 22 sites that the city of Kamakura has proposed be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sitting Buddha is 43.8 feet tall and approximately 30 feet wide; it weighs 93 tons. The statue is tranquil yet imposing, and is a marvel to walk around. Visitors also have a special treat of being to go inside the statue as well, which is rather impressive. However, in Kamakura, my favorite place that I visited was the 1300-year-old Hase-dera Buddhist Temple. Hase-dera is most famous for housing the 30-foot statue of the Buddhist deity of compassion, Kannon. The statue is carved from a single piece of camphor wood, has gold gilding and eleven heads, each depicting a different stage of enlightenment. According to legend, a Buddhist monk carved two Kannon statues out of one piece of camphor wood in the year 721. One was put in the city of Nara, while the other was cast adrift out to sea, and when it washed ashore near Kamakura in 736, it was placed in the temple built for it. Underneath the temple is a cave called Benzaiten Grotto, which is a winding cave tunnel with statues dedicated to the sea goddess Benzaiten, but be careful to watch your head on the low ceiling! The statues, which also depict other deities are carved right into the side of the cave, and annually Buddhist faithful make pilgrimage to the cave to honor Benzaiten. Yet, the most moving part of the temple is the Jizo statues. Jizo is a monk who is on his way to enlightenment; he has a happy, peaceful look on his baby-faced bald head. These statues were placed there by parents who experienced a loss during pregnancy whether through miscarriage, abortion, or still-birth. Currently, there are hundreds of Jizo statues, but since World War II, there have been an estimated 50,000 placed there. During the winter, it is common to see some of the statues with handknit hats and scarves perhaps placed by the caring mother, still watching after their child that they never got to dress warmly for winter. It is heart wrenching in some ways, and in another way, these shrines are beautiful sources of comfort and solidarity among families who have suffered a terrible loss.
When you find yourself in Tokyo, make sure you get out of the city for some day trips. And when you do, do not skip Kamakura. It might not be Tokyo or Kyoto, and it might not be the reason that travelers flock across the world to experience the Land of the Rising Sun, but it might be its most charming city. A visit to Kamakura will not only make your day, it will make you consider if you should cancel your return flight home and stay a bit longer.
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