Travel

Why Kamakura is bigger than its Buddha

Ruthlessly passed over by UNESCO, Kamakura’s charm lies in the quotidian

by Russell Thomas

Contributing Writer

Kamakura, capital of Japan’s first shogunate (1185-1333), once angled for a UNESCO-shaped stamp of approval. Under the title “Kamakura, Home of the Samurai” there were a number of landmarks included in the proposal. It was roundly rejected by UNESCO in 2013, who concluded that “tangible testimonies of the places of shogunal power, other than the temples, are few in number and are often rather inexplicit.

“The Medieval city of the plain is absent … and today has been overlain by 20th century urban development.”

And, after seeing the Daibutsu — the city’s famed 13-meter tall bronze statue of Amida Buddha — it’s easy to feel that Kamakura falls flat. Souvenir shops, food, entrance fees, tour groups: At first glance this seems to be it.

Set in coastal Kanagawa Prefecture, Kamakura is just under an hour’s train ride on the Yokosuka Line from Tokyo. Near Kamakura Station, tourists crowd Komachi-dori on the way to Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, taking pictures of food with a backdrop of the stall they just bought it from, milling in mind-melded mobs around storefronts and menus, getting in the way of each other. That’s not to say it isn’t lovely. Who doesn’t enjoy that singular atmosphere of weekend jubilation you can only get from escaping to another town for a day or two?

Though savaged by UNESCO’s advisors, Kamakura remains fascinating. Its shrines and temples, of which there are many, are worth visiting. If you like shrines and temples, you’ll find Kamakura a veritable playpen of piety.

Oyster shells hang as ema (votive tablets) at Kakigara Inari Shrine in the grounds of Hase Temple. | RUSSELL THOMAS
Oyster shells hang as ema (votive tablets) at Kakigara Inari Shrine in the grounds of Hase Temple. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Take Hase Temple. Situated on the road to the Daibutsu, it is a fairly compact temple site that has just about everything a fine Buddhist establishment should have, including an interesting origin story. In 721, a monk named Tokudo commissioned two huge statues of Kannon (a genderfluid deity of mercy depicted with 11 heads) from a sacred camphor tree — one for Hase Temple in Nara Prefecture, the other sent out to sea to find its karmic resting place and help alleviate mankind’s suffering. The second statue eventually washed up on a beach on the Miura Peninsula near Kamakura and there it was enshrined in 736.

The temple also has a cave through which you can scramble around in the dark in hope of a shard of enlightenment; a small pond shaped like a swastika (manji in Japanese, in case you were wondering); modest slices of moss garden; a rinzō, a rotating wooden bookcase storing sutras and scriptures which, when turned, is allegedly as good as reading them (visit on the 18th of each month to speed read); a lot of steps; a restaurant and cafe; and views of the beach and town below.

Then there’s the Kakigara Inari Shrine in the temple’s gardens, where oyster shells are hung as ema (votive tablets) because when that Kannon statue of yore appeared on the beach, it was encrusted with oysters that were believed to have guided it to its final destination. It’s a nice touch.

You’ll find more novel ways to worship, or at least load yourself with luck and merit, at Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine, aka Zeniarai Benten, dedicated to Benzaiten-associated Ugajin, the snake-bodied, human-headed kami of fertility and harvest. Zeniarai refers to washing money (“zeni” are those old-school coins with the square holes, and “arai” means washing). Not that your money is dirty (though it probably is, and not figuratively speaking), washing your money in the pure spring that trickles into a pool in a cave here is good luck: doing so is said to return your money to you and then some.

Zaru (wooden colanders) are provided for the purpose of dunking your money — including notes. The money is supposed to be left to dry naturally, though I saw one couple dutifully patting ¥10,000 bills with flannels. One enterprising worshipper was washing her credit cards. Imagine the returns.

Reaching Zeniarai Benten through its tunnel entrance, bored right through a ridge into the shrine’s natural theater, feels decidedly adventurous. It’s not the only place you can feel the historical routes of old-world Japan jump into life.

Kamakura was considered such a strategically sound locale because it was, and still is, surrounded on three sides by mountains. The famed routes into first shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo’s capital were known as the Seven Entrances of Kamakura. Some were once climbable hills that have since been flattened into narrow paved roads, but some remain rustic and primed for hikes.

The Nagoe Pass — connecting Kamakura to the Miura Peninsula — is a narrow scramble of a route that is one of the most adventurous, least-populated ways to experience the history of the former capital. At its narrowest point, a crag-lined obstacle course of a trail, you can almost feel the panic of potential attackers. The trail is also home to Mandarado Yagura tombs : the most famous example of yagura, Kamakura’s cliff tombs; coffin-sized spaces hewn right into the rock, the final resting places of samurai, monks and artisans.

There’s more hiking on the 90-minute Daibutsu Hiking Trail, which connects Kitakamakura to the main road running southeast toward the Daibutsu. Somewhere in the middle is the picturesque, multiterraced Itsuki Garden, a cafe where you can momentarily swap the sweat and probable mud of your hike for coffee and cake a la terrasse. The steps at the Daibutsu end come out at the former Daibutsuzaka Gymnasium, a disused, midcentury brick building that entices visitors from behind its fence and overgrown undergrowth.

Casa Kamakura Espresso Pub & Bed is a hostel, cafe and bar housed in a refurbished corrugated iron building. | RUSSELL THOMAS
Casa Kamakura Espresso Pub & Bed is a hostel, cafe and bar housed in a refurbished corrugated iron building. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Indeed, old buildings that are neither temples nor shrines make their appearance throughout Kamakura, part of the “20th century urban development” that scuppered the city’s UNESCO hopes. There’s The Bank, a smoky cocktail lounge set in a Showa Era (1926-89) bank. There’s Capdeporc, a specialist shop focusing on Catalan and Spanish books, records and other curios, set in a now multiuse apartment building on the run-up to Kamakura Seaside Park.

There’s the estate agent near Kamakura Station in an old wooden store complete with old wavy windows; and a renovation and interior design company adjacent in a similar setting in an old liquor store. There’s an impromptu standing bar in the sequestered corner of the back entrance to Takasakiya, a liquor store down Onari-dori. Near the Daibutsu, Bread Code bakes loaves of bread, and only loaves of bread, in a traditional corner plot setting polished with renovated cool. The charming Casa Kamakura Espresso Pub & Bed is a hostel, cafe and bar housed in a refurbished corrugated iron building.

Countless establishments from cafes and butchers to bars and workshops are reanimating the city’s dead buildings. Not valuable for UNESCO, but valuable for the life of the town and something that makes Kamakura endlessly revisitable. Edificial carcasses remain prevalent; what will inhabit them next, and imagining how they’ll be used, is part of the fun.

Yuigahama Beach is home to an unlikely mix of scantily clad surfers and sunhat-wearing tourists looking for the perfect photo op. | RUSSELL THOMAS
Yuigahama Beach is home to an unlikely mix of scantily clad surfers and sunhat-wearing tourists looking for the perfect photo op. | RUSSELL THOMAS

I visited Kamakura the week before 2019’s Typhoon Faxai was scheduled to arrive, and enjoyed the pre-storm lack of tourists at Yuigahama Beach.

The heat of summer turns the place into a controlled wilderness of tanned bodies, tattoos, bikinis and surfing. The shore is lined with wooden “beach houses,” some of which are spacious vending machine affairs where sandy-footed beach-goers flirt over highballs, while others are upscale cafe-type establishments. There’s even a Thai Village to complete the subtropical beach feel.

Colliding with this fervent, florid beach culture are those who don’t really use the beach, but just come to see it. Their wardrobe clearly inspired by the Victorians, these parasol-wielding, long-dress-and-sunhat-wearing women come for photo opportunities, dipping a hand in the sea, carving a summery message into the sand with a stick.

The typhoon, and the end of beach season, puts a dampener on proceedings as the beach becomes a building, or de-building, site. Undeterred, and with a strong propensity to ignore ugly backdrops, people continue. Surfing is an unabating pastime.

A surfer walks the backstreets of Sakanoshita, a traditional Japanese village on the coast near Kamakura. | RUSSELL THOMAS
A surfer walks the backstreets of Sakanoshita, a traditional Japanese village on the coast near Kamakura. | RUSSELL THOMAS

Follow the board-carrying surfers from the beach, away from the crash and salt of the sea, through to the utterly charming lanes of Sakanoshita — a traditional Japanese village transplanted to the coast. Here, guys sit, snacking and laughing around a table in the yard of a windsurfing club; a mother on a mamachari bike ferries her child back home.

Bakeries, guesthouses and famous pancakes at Cafe Sakanoshita make this area a sun-worn splinter of rustic perfection and surf-friendly languor. Stay at Diner & Hostel Ushio, a well-renovated wooden home with a dormitory, to be on the doorstep of this area.

Nearby, trace the flow of the Inase River from the beach toward the much-trafficked street leading to the Daibutsu. Stop by Cafe Luonto, grab a window seat and an iced coffee, and watch the Enoden trains scuttle in and out of Hase Station right in front of you. This cafe, owned by a friendly coffee lover with a pack of Marlboro Reds in his T-shirt pocket, has colorful sea- and train-themed art on the walls: splats of an artsy English seaside scene that this city occasionally echoes. Think St. Ives crossed with Yanaka.

The spaces between tourist sights in Kamakura are coils of curiosity, contrasts of renovation and off-piste religious sites. Your time in the city after you’ve seen the Daibutsu, and even paid the ¥200 to clamber inside the statue and feel the heat of sun-cooked metal, is more precious than you think.

Don’t “do” Kamakura: make it a regular thing.

Kamakura Station is connected directly to Tokyo Station via the Yokosuka Line. The journey costs ¥920 and takes just under an hour one way.