Kamakura is famous for temples, and lots of them – temples with big Buddhas, temples with even bigger bamboo groves, even temples with magical money-multiplying waters. But on top of all the shrines lies a city with a more diverse to-do list, all just an hour’s train ride south of Tokyo.
Set between mountains and ocean, this natural fortress town served as Japan’s de facto capital late in the 12th century. And although it’s now dwarfed by the modern capital just up the train line, Kamakura retains its traditional Japanese atmosphere… mostly.
Sunny strips of sand and the busy laneways around Komachi-dori complement the string of must-visit Buddhist and Shinto shrines that earn Kamakura its reputation as the Kyoto of eastern Japan. Brace yourself for beaches, Buddhas and butter cookies – these are the 11 best things to do in Kamakura, Japan.
Weighing in at 121 tonnes, measuring more than 13m (43ft) in height and coming with a pair of straw sandals that are taller than most men, meet the second-largest Buddha in the entire country. The Great Buddha of Kamakura might not be quite as enormous as his cousin in Nara – a whopping 15m (49ft) behemoth – but backed by blue sky, this mammoth Amida Buddha is no less striking. After the building in the Kōtoku-in temple (five minutes’ walk from Hase Station) that originally housed the Buddha was washed away by a tsunami in the 15th century, the big bronze Buddha has survived outside for the past 500 years. Today visitors can delve inside for ¥20 (£0.15).
At almost 1,000 years old, Kamakura’s largest temple is also its most important. Tsurugaoka Hachimangū is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Hachiman, the god of war, at the order of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura government in the 12th century. A string of bright red torii gates and hundreds of cherry trees connect the coast with the bridge at the entrance of the temple – a walk north along the Komachi-dori shopping street from Kamakura station – which splits two ponds that represent warring clans. Sadly, the gingko tree that stood here even longer than the shrine was felled by a storm in 2010, although the gardens remain dazzling.
Sitting in the shadow of Kamakura’s smorgasbord of ancient religious sites, this bustling shopping street is the most modern corner of the city. Surrounding the torii gate at the east exit of Kamakura station is a galaxy of cafés, bars, restaurants, boutiques, bakers, snack stores and markets hugging the pedestrianised street at its spine. Peckish? Try shirasu– white fish, normally sardines or anchovies, either raw or boiled – served between a bed of steamed rice and an egg yolk, or the sweeter 7cm (3in)-thick pancakes at Iwata Coffee, rumoured to be a favourite of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Hiking between all these hillside temples is tiring work. Lucky there’s an onsen only metres from the sand, and just next door to Inamuragasaki station. Renovated with a fresh modern fit-out in 2017, Inamuragasaki Onsen has two baths gazing out over the ocean – including one al fresco option that even reveals Mount Fuji on a clear day. The bicarbonate salt spring water is good for the skin, and don’t worry about the slightly yellow hue – the colour is said to come from specs of gold dust rather than anything ickier.
Supplying some of the closest sand to Tokyo and Yokohama, Kamakura is crowded with city slickers escaping the big smoke during the summer months (July and August). Zaimokuza and Yuigahama are Kamakura’s two golden arcs of sand, while Hayama’s Isshiki Beach to the east and Chigasaki’s Southern Beach to the west are another two popular swimming spots further along the Shōnan coast. Kamakura itself is always well populated with Tokyo types and their umbrellas blanketing the sand – join the legions of sunbathers, swimmers, surfers and swillers of chuhai alcoholic canned drinks for an authentic Japanese summer.
Follow in the footsteps of samurai by treading these trails through the hills that fringe the city. The top trek is the Daibutsu walking trail, which borrows its name from the big Buddha and links Kita-kamakura station in the north with Hasedera in the south via Tōkei-ji, Jōchi-ji and Kōtoku-in. Don’t miss the Zeniarai Benzaiten shrine, a cave where people come to literally wash their money in the belief that the mystical waters will multiply it. The Ten-en hiking trail connects Zuisen-ji and Kenchō-ji – the oldest Zen monastery in Japan – through the hills north of the city centre. And the Nagoe Pass – one of Kamakura’s seven fabled entrances to this natural fortress – brings hikers to the tombs of the Mandarado Yagura Caves, where samurais were buried centuries ago. Some of the terrain is tough, so be sure to bring boots.
Built in honour of the Japanese soldiers who died protecting the country from Kublai Khan in the late 13th century, this Zen shrine hosts open meditation sessions every morning at 5.30am, or Saturday afternoons for those who prefer to sleep in. Built into the hills on the doorstep of Kita-Kamakura station, Engaku-ji’s buildings lead to the Butsuden main hall where a huge wooden Shaka Buddha lives, while a tooth of Buddha is enshrined in the Shariden hall further into the grounds. Visit in autumn to see the maple trees at the entrance dazzle crowds in brilliant shades of red and orange.
These dove-shaped butter cookies are the ultimate souvenir to take home from Kamakura. Toshimaya – a compulsory stop just off Komachi-dori in the middle of the city – has been selling these biscuits since way back in 1894, and they’re as popular now as they were a century ago. Packaged in a bright yellow box decorated with a white dove, these buttery birds are a Kamakura institution and one of the few food traditions unique to this seaside city.
Hōkoku-ji – a Zen Buddhist shrine accessible by bus or foot east of the city centre – is fairly modest compared to the grandeur of Kamakura’s other shrines. But its forest of dark green bamboo stalks is what lures visitors into the hills. Although not quite as vast as the legendary Arashiyama in Kyoto, this bamboo grove is equally serene – especially when observed while sipping a cup of matcha in the bamboo teahouse on-site.
Mere blocks from Hase station, Hase-dera is brimming with stunning sights. There’s the garden of thousands of hydrangeas that bloom in June and the sweeping hilltop perspective over Sagami Bay below. There are the caves and tunnels devoted to goddess Benzaiten and the countless Jizō statues outside, each tragically donated by grieving parents. But the shimmering gold statue of Kannon, goddess of compassion, steals the limelight – a 9m (30ft)-tall tribute to the 11-headed deity made of gilded wood, making this one of the tallest wooden statues in all of Japan.
West of Kamakura lies this beachy island that also attracts its fair share of day trippers from Tokyo. As well as being a beach break, Enoshima is a sacred island peppered with shrines dedicated to Benzaiten, the goddess of wealth, music and knowledge. There’s also an aquarium, a viewing tower called the Sea Candle, a botanical garden and the Ryuren Bell of Love, rung by couples who then leave love locks on the neighbouring fence. Buy an Enoshima-Kamakura Free Pass (¥1,520 [£11]) for unlimited trains between Fujisawa and Kamakura, stopping at Enoshima station, connected to the island by a short bridge.