One hour south of Tokyo, nestled between the hills of Kanagawa Prefecture and the open water of Sagami Bay is the city of Kamakura Japan, one of Japan’s most popular destinations.
During the Kamakura era (1185 to 1333) this city was the most populous settlement in the nation. It was also the seat of the Kamakura shogunate, effectively making it the capital of Japan. In addition to the beaches and natural, serene beauty, Kamakura is home to many historically significant temples and shrines.
With more than 65 shrines to explore, Kamakura tells the story of Japan’s religious history. The city is home to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples reflecting several different Buddhist traditions. The influence of Zen, Nichiren, and Tendai Buddhism is evident in the shrines' architecture and character.
Kamakura has a high concentration of historical sites preserved by the government, creating a place where people can get a taste of traditional Japan. Many people enjoy embracing these preserved historical traditions by visiting one of the town's Kimono shops and walking around the temples dressed in traditional clothing.
Maximize your time in this meditative place by booking a Kamakura Guided Tour with a Context expert in Japanese history. The tour will take you from the Hase Temple, one of the oldest temples in Kamakura, to the Great Buddha of Kamakura, a Bronze Buddha statue at the Kotoku-in Temple, to the Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu Shrine, a Shinto shrine that serves as the de facto **cultural center and venue for many of the city’s traditional festivals.
Stroll through the lush gardens and take in some of the most beautiful shrines in the world at Kamakura.
Context’s tour of Kamakura begins at the Hase Temple. Although legends place the construction of the temple as early as 736, the oldest documents at the temple can be traced back to the 12th century, during the early Kamakura Period. The two levels to the temple sit halfway up Mount Kamakura, offering stunning views of the city below, as well as panoramic views of the forested hills and the bay.
The temple consists of seven buildings and a winding cave. The low-ceilinged cave, called the Benten Kutsu, contains many statues devoted to Benzaiten, the sea goddess and only female of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japanese mythology. The temple is also home to one of Japan’s largest wooden statues, a 30-foot camphor wood and gold gilded statue of Kannon. The eleven-headed statue depicting the goddess of mercy is why the temple is often referred to as Hase-kannon.
Although initially the Hase temple was associated with the Tendai Buddhists, the temple eventually became an important, independent temple for to the Jodo sect of Buddhism. If you time your trip, you can see the temple’s famous hydrangea path blooming in June and July.
The Kotoku-in Temple is home to a colossal bronze Buddha statue that is designated a Japanese National Treasure. Weighing in at more than 100 tons, the bronze statue dates from the 13th century and depicts Amitabha, the primary Buddha of pure land Buddhism. The statue itself is actually hollow and visitors can get a peek inside!
The statue cuts an impressive sight, standing in the open air, as most large Buddha statues in Japan are actually indoors. The Great Buddha of Kamakura has been outdoors since 1498 when its great hall was destroyed by an earthquake. Another earthquake in 1923 destroyed the base of the statue, but it was rebuilt in 1925. The statue, whose appearance is defined by its exposure to centuries of weather, still has a small amount of its original gold gilding near the ears.
Additionally, the Great Buddha of Kamakura is notable for its unique artistic style and the fact that it was constructed using a combination of bronze and wood, which is rare among large Buddha statues in Japan. In addition to the Great Buddha, visitors can walk the Kotoku-in Temple grounds, and amidst the serenity and beauty, can view several stone monuments, many engraved with poems written by traditional Japanese poets.
Unlike the Hase Temple and the Kotoku-in Temple, which are both Buddhist temples, the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is a Shinto shrine. In fact, it is the most important Shinto Shrine in Kamakura and a must-see on a Kamakura day trip.
The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine offers an incredibly unique lesson in the history of religion in Japan. In 1868, the Japanese government officially separated Shintoism from Buddhism. Today, although the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is the most popular Shinto shrine in Kanagawa prefecture, its layout and design reflect its history as a Buddhist temple.
The shrine was founded by Minamoto Yoriyoshi in 1063. It was enlarged and moved to its current site in 1180 by Minamoto Yoritomo, the founder and first shogun of the Kamakura era. The shrine is dedicated to Hachiman, the patron god of the Minamoto family, and the samurai in general.
The shrine's architecture is a beautiful example of traditional Japanese design, with many ornate torii gates and buildings set amidst a forest landscape. One of the most striking features of the shrine is the wide stone staircase that leads up to the main hall, which is lined with cherry trees. Visitors never forget the enchanting experience of walking the staircase during the spring as the cherry trees blossom.
The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is also the site of many important Shinto festivals throughout the year, including the New Year's celebrations, which draw more than two million visitors, the Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival), and the Reitaisai festival, which is held in September and features a grand procession of shrine priests and participants in traditional dress.
By the end of your Kamakura day trip with Context, you will gain an enhanced knowledge of this important historical town and better understand the relevance of its temples and shrines. You will also appreciate the serenity and great beauty on display.
Make time to stay in Kamakura to have lunch at one of the many food stalls, or spend some of the afternoon hiking around the hills, visiting the beach, or exploring any of the 65 Buddhist temples and 19 Shinto shrines in the city. The Engaku-ji Temple, for example, is a Zen Buddhist temple that maintains the classic, monastic design associated with Japanese Zen Buddhism.
The efficiency of the Japanese transit system makes a Kamakura day trip easily accessible from Tokyo. Just an hour outside of one of the world’s megalopolises, the Kamakura excursion packs a serene and unforgettable experience of traditional Japan into a single day.
Getting from Tokyo to Kamakura is easy; there are three train lines that connect the two cities, with direct trains from Tokyo departing every thirty minutes. Read our Context Stories to learn more about Tokyo’s complex metro system.
When you take an expert-led guided tour of Kamakura, you’ll gain a new appreciation for the area’s cultural, spiritual, and historical significance. Our expert tour guides will share unique insights and details you won’t get elsewhere, making your trip to Kamakura a memorable and magical one.
Context Learning offers a wealth of online courses and seminars about Japan – from an Introduction to Buddhism to Top 10 Kyoto Highlights for Curious Travelers, all taught by experts and designed to give you a crash course on a variety of topics.
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