Japanese cities are fantastic places to explore with children, but if this column has proven anything, it’s that I like to get away from urban centers whenever I can. Japan is full of natural and cultural wonders for curious families, but they are not confined to cities such as Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Kyoto. In fact, one of my favorite day-trip suggestions for a family day out is Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Already quite popular with tourists and locals alike, Kamakura offers the natural beauty of Japan’s countryside while providing plenty for those who want to delve into the country’s rich cultural history. Below I’ve come up with some ideal places to visit and things to do in Kamakura as a family.
For cultural heritage lovers
Step out of Kamakura Station and you have some of Japan’s most important historical sites in every direction. Walk north along the main drag of Komachi Street and you’ll arrive at Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu. This massive shrine dates back to the 11th century and is steeped in stories of the Kamakura shogunate.
There are a considerable amount of steps to the top of Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu, so take a little time before leaving home to consider if you really want to take that stroller. If you do, plan to leave it at the bottom of the steps while you explore the upper levels.
After leaving Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu, visit Hokokuji Temple further east. You can walk there in half an hour, or take the bus from the Jomyoji bus stop near the entrance of Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu.
What makes Hokokuji Temple special is the lovely bamboo grove behind the temple itself. While not as grand as the Arashiyama area of Kyoto, it can still be quite lovely to visit. There are a few small caves behind Hokokuji Temple as well, and for some reason, my kids always thought treasure was buried there.
Not far away are Zuisenji and Jomyoji , both Zen temples surrounded by fall leaves and a peaceful atmosphere. If the kids are in need of a rest, stop for tea at Jomyoji and enjoy its stone garden.
Ten minutes’ walk from Hase Station on the Enoshima Line west of Kamakura is one of the area’s main attractions: the giant Buddha. Over 13 meters tall and surpassing 90 tons, this is Japan’s second-largest bronze Buddha statue. What you might not realize by looking at it, however, is that you can also step into the interior of the statue and marvel at its construction. At ¥20 it’s worth a look, but you won’t spend much time there. In fact, I wouldn’t advise this in the hottest months, as it can get rather stuffy when the vents are closed — but fall and onward is an ideal time to sneak a peek.
For nature lovers
Kamakura also offers some beautiful hiking trails. If you and the kids are up for it, these trails are easy to traverse and can provide a welcome breath of fresh air.
The first trail that I recommend is the Daibutsu hiking trail. This trail starts near Kita-Kamakura Station and, as its name suggests, ends at the giant Buddha. Simply exit Kita-Kamakura Station and follow the signs to Jochiji Temple. The start of the trail can be found behind the temple. Buried nearby are a number of samurai and other elites, but your goal now is to find the trail that leads southwest to the Buddha.
Along the way you’ll encounter another Buddhist site that kids often enjoy: the Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine. The name of this rare Buddhist/Shinto hybrid shrine literally means “money washing,” and that’s what many people do there. It was once believed that water from this cave would bring prosperity to those who use it, and so many people try to re-create this ritual even today. Wash your money, they say, and it will double. I’ll spare you the steps, but it can be fun to go through the motions, as long as your young ones don’t forego their allowance in hopes of get-rich-quick schemes.
Another recommended hiking route takes you east and into some prime places to view autumn’s colors. The Tenen trail can be taken from the Kenchoji Temple near Kita-Kamakura Station, or from the other end near Zuisenji and Jomyoji. Stairs and other paved surfaces occupy more of the Tenen trail than its western counterpart, but both trails are great places to spend a day with active kids.
For beach lovers
While it’s not the best season for swimming, any family interested in seeing the waves or throwing a Frisbee (wind allowing) can head down to Yuigahama Beach for a whiff of ocean air.
If you’re willing to venture even further, Enoshima is another half-hour away by train and offers more than its share of family-friendly activities. There are shrines, caves and nice beaches. The tidal pools along the southern coast can be a great place to spot small oceanic life. If you want to see something bigger, then head into the Enoshima Aquarium.
Kamakura packs a lot of family fun into a small space, and all without making families venture too far from Tokyo. At only an hour from Tokyo and less than half an hour from Yokohama, this historic town offers inspired families with enough day trips to last several years.