There’s a scene in Junichiro Tanizaki’s serialized novel “Naomi” (originally titled “A Fool’s Love”) from 1924 where the besotted protagonist, Joji, watches his wife, Naomi — part Lolita, part Madame Bovary, all trouble — through the pine trees. Having just emerged from a seaside villa, she is sashaying across the sand in nothing more than a cloak and high heels; the pied piper to no less than four men. The beach is Kamakura’s Yuigahama, which was a draw for moga — the new so-called modern girls who emerged after the 1923 Tokyo earthquake shook up the city and its culture. (The term “Naomi-ism” was also used at the time to describe the new phenomenon of modern girls, but I guess that one didn’t stick.)
In her 2007 essay, “The Modern Girl as Militant,” Miriam Silverberg describes this iconic female figure of the ’20s as “A glittering, decadent, middle-class consumer,” and, of course, she was a thorn in the side of “Joji’s” across the nation.
The moga congregated in a number of places, but one of their main stomping grounds was Kamakura — a coastal town and district, located an hour by train from Tokyo. Today it’s a bedroom community, peopled by those looking for a slower pace than Tokyo, full of cafes, organic restaurants and surf shops. These things — and Kamakura’s old-town atmosphere — make it an attractive date spot for Tokyoites, while its trove of temples and shrines make it a popular excursion for foreign and local tourists alike.
Kamakura is most famous as Japan’s first feudal capital, established in the 12th century by Minamoto no Yoritomo after the Minamoto clan won the bloody Genpei War. It was during this era that Kamakura’s dozens of temples — almost as ubiquitous here as Starbucks are in Tokyo — and a 13-meter tall bronze Buddha were constructed.
Yet this early Kamakura is too distant for me; its architects are too remote, their Game of Thrones-style power struggles too ancient and unfathomable. For me, the most beguiling part of Kamakura’s history is its second coming, when it was reborn as a fashionable seaside resort at the turn of the 20th century.
The origins of this second coming began in 1868 when the Meiji period rolled around. Kamakura was nothing more than a fishing village, a few days journey on foot from the capital, Edo (now modern-day Tokyo). At this time, Japan had just opened itself up to the West, and along with the influx of Western ideas came one novel idea in particular — the idea that swimming in the sea was good for you. By the time Kamakura Station opened in 1889, things really began to change as the area became much more accessible to Edo residents.
The popularity of the seaside town at this time was partially due to the Meiji Emperor’s personal doctor, a German by the name of Erwin Balz, who declared Kamakura to be an excellent site for a health resort. Several foreign diplomats already had besso (vacation homes) along the Kamakura coastline and as many of the Meiji-era elite followed suit the fashion for kaisuiyoku (sea bathing) was born.
“The Japanese do have a history of going into the sea. It’s just that those people tended to be fishermen,” says Emi Hirata, director of the Modern History Archive at the Kamakura City Central Library.
By the early 1900s, “those people” — the sea bathers — were not fishermen, but Japanese who considered themselves to be on the cutting edge of modernity.
I’d gone to visit Hirata at the archive to look through the library’s photo collection, filed away neatly in plastic binders. She showed me pictures of areas around Kamakura: Hase when it was just a village surrounded by rice paddies; Yuigahama’s sandy shoreline before it was truncated by Route 134; and staff photos of the Kaihin Hotel — a Meiji-era sanatorium — where guests undertook a strict regime of sea bathing and beach walks. Group photos of the staff showed men in Western-style suits, with thick mustaches striking jaunty poses, and straight-faced women in kimono staring right through the camera.
But my favorite image representative of Kamakura’s early 20th-century beach culture is Kageyama Koyo’s 1928 photo, “Mogas’ Beach Pajama Style.” Shot in Ginza, this image of three young women strutting confidently down the street in full beach-going attire, sizing up the camera like a potential suitor, shows just how powerful, and even a little subversive, beach culture had become. I can picture the media at the time wringing its hands about these girls, as it would, 70 years later, about Shibuya teens with their ultra-tanned skin and neon-bright clothes.
It was the Kamakura of the moga’s that I’d fallen in love with and wanted to find. And also, I have to confess, I really wanted to find out if I could get my hands on some beach pajamas.
The most well-known repository of old Kamakura glamor is the Kamakura Literature Museum in Hase. A number of Japan’s leading modernists have links to this seaside town — both “Rashomon” author Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata lived here at one point — and the museum has a trove of old photos from that era. The images are filled with thin, almost gaunt literary types in round, wire-framed glasses and light summer kimono.
But the museum’s building is arguably the biggest draw. Built in 1936, by the Maeda family — old feudal lords — the three-story villa has a vaguely Spanish feel, with it’s blue roof tiles, arched windows and sandstone-colored stucco. The building was famously the setting for a scene in “Spring Snow,” Yukio Mishima’s 1969 novel set in the Taisho Era, and also, for a time, the summer home of former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato.
Hase is a particularly rich landscape for uncovering old Kamakura (just stay away from the hordes visiting the Giant Buddha at Kotoku-in Temple, unless you want to summon some medieval rage). Narrow alleys, which trace the old footpaths through the rice fields, meander alongside the dream homes of decades past. Of course there are modern ones, too: tall angular things with big plates of reflective glass.
Just down the road from the Literature Museum is the Hase Kodomo Kaikan — aka the Hase Children’s Hall (and formerly the Moroto Residence) — a 1908 structure with Grecian columns and ornamentation like swirls of frosting. Around the corner, the Kagaya Residence is more typical of early 20th-century Japanese villas: It has both Western and Japanese style wings, curiously fused together. Both buildings can only be viewed from the outside (the latter, identifiable by its copper-green trim, is still a private home).
All of the above are among the 30-odd structures — built during the Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods — that are registered as important scenic buildings by the city of Kamakura (see www.city.kamakura.kanagawa.jp/keikan/kezyuyou.html for the full list). From this list you can put together a walking tour that would include several more villas and at least one functioning liquor shop from the late 19th century. It’s also worth peering over the gate (and somewhat overgrown lawn) of Koware-tei, the sprawling villa of a Mitsubishi Bank executive built in 1916 (it’s not on the list).
As for what went on in any of these places — whether it was Great Gatsby-esque parties, or something far more subdued — you’ll have use your imagination, or read the novels by Mishima and Tanizaki.
And what happened to Naomi? She didn’t fade away, she went mainstream. By the 1930s, Yuigahama was so packed with bathers that it was called Umi no Ginza — the Ginza of the Sea, a satellite of Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood, then the city’s principal nexus of people and fashion. It’s not so different today. Though Enoshima is now the area’s most popular beach, Yuigahama comes in second, attracting hundreds-of-thousands of visitors each season. It’s a panorama of parasols and bodies stretching uninterrupted from bluff to bluff. On hot summer’s days you can see endless versions of Naomi appearing up and down the beach; still nearly naked, still wearing heels on the beach, still trailed by suitors. Poor Joji, he never stood a chance at taming her — not then, not now.
Getting there: Kamakura Station is one hour from Tokyo Station on the JR Yokosuka Line. The Enoden, a vintage electric train, connects Kamakura with Hase, Yuigahama and Enoshima.
Spending a weekend in historical Kamakura
In the early 20th century, visitors would come to Kamakura and stay for weeks on end — the best way to get a feel for the area today is to at least spend the night.
Kaihin-so (4-8-14 Yuigahama, Kamakura; 0467-22-0960; www.kaihinso.jp) A classic example of a seaside villa, built in 1924, which is now a ryokan (Japanese inn). Just a few minutes from the beach, it has both Western and Japanese-style wings.
Hotel New Kamakura (13-2 Onarimachi Kamakura; 0467-22-2230; www.newkamakura.com) A Western-style hotel that would qualify as boutique by today’s standards. It, too, dates to 1924 and has vintage fixings and a fabulous red-carpet entrance.
Restaurants and Cafes
A recent trend in Kamakura dining has seen restaurants and cafes move into restored former residences. The best ones blend the best of past and present. Reservations are recommended.
Esselunga (1-14-26 Hase, Kamakura; 0467-24-3007; esselunga.jp) A restaurant that serves upscale Italian cuisine inside a restored house from 1921.
Matsubara-an (4-10-3 Yuigahama, Kamakura; 0467-61-3838; matsubara-an.com) Here you can try soba (buckwheat noodles) and colorful local veggies in a garden villa that dates to the 1940s.
Osaragi Saroh (1-11-22 Yukinoshita, Kamakura; 0467-22-8175; www.1938.jp/osaragi) Once the teahouse of the Taisho-era writer Jiro Osaragi this is now a coffee shop with a sprawling garden. It’s only open on weekends and holidays.
Kamakura Literature Museum (1-5-3 Hase, Kamakura; 0467-23-3911; www.kamakurabungaku.com)
Hase Kodomo Kaikan (1-11-1 Hase, Kamakura; 0467-24-1165; www.city.kamakura.kanagawa.jp/keikan/ke12.html)
The Kagaya Residence (1-11-32 Hase, Kamakura) and Koware-tei (1-7-23 Ougigayatsu, Kamakura) are private residences.