The origin of Japan’s ruling class extends into the mists of ancient history, far before the country was unified after a period of civil wars and well into the first millennium A.D.
Warriors, called bushi, began as the armies of aristocratic factions centered around the Imperial court in Kyoto, but soon eclipsed the nobility entirely to usurp control of the nation, such as it was. The clans they formed fought for supremacy, and in the year 1185, the Minamoto clan defeated the rival Taira clan in the Genpei War.
Shortly thereafter Minamoto no Yoritomo chose for the seat of his military government a place in the east for which a period of Japanese history was later named: Kamakura.
The Kamakura Period (1185-1333) saw the first real flowering of the bushi culture that was to dominate Japan with little significant interruption until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
The modern city of Kamakura and its surrounding area are full of reminders of the pivotal time almost a thousand years ago when it was the de facto capital. In an effort to promote this rich history, “Temples, Shrines and other structures of Ancient Kamakura” was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list in 1992. The concept was later refined as “Kamakura, Home of the Samurai” in 2004, and the full-fledged push for UNESCO inscription began in 2007.
In January of 2012 the Japanese government submitted the final nomination dossier to the UNESCO World Heritage Center. Although the decision was taken in 2013 not to inscribe Kamakura as a heritage site, it remains a fascinating porthole into the past and an easy day trip from Tokyo.
Located on Sagami Bay in Kanagawa Prefecture, Kamakura was a natural choice for Minamoto no Yoritomo, not only because it was his family home, but also because the area’s geographical features protect it. Bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the south and ringed by mountains on land, Kamakura is a natural stronghold that was safe enough for long enough to incubate deep traditions, including Buddhism, Shinto and tea culture, that were carried forward over the centuries of warrior rule to come.
What survives are several Buddhist temples, two Shinto shrines, sites of past temples and warrior residences, the remnants of a port, the Daibutsu Buddha statue, and a network of mountain passes through which access to Kamakura was strictly controlled.
At the very heart of Kamakura, and connected to the sea by Wakamiya Oji Avenue, a promenade dating to 1182, is Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. This site, the home of a Shinto deity, was so central to the bushi identity that it was guarded and repaired by subsequent warrior governments all the way through to the Edo period (1603-1868). Thousands throng it each year on the night of Dec. 31 and shiver together in the cold, waiting to climb its steps, throw coins and offer New Year’s prayers. In spring, on the third Sunday in April, a demonstration of yabusame (mounted archery) can be seen at the temple. Nearby Egara Tenjinsha, another important Shinto shrine, houses a deity thought to ward off ogres.
Alongside the Shinto sites, Buddhist temples have also thrived, many of which are important to the history of the “middle way’s” propagation in Japan. The builders of Kamakura placed these temples chiefly in the mountains, at key strategic points along the seven main kiridoshi passes, narrow, closely guarded paths that were the only access points to the city.
Founded in 1200 by Eisai, who brought the Rinzai transmission of Zen to Japan from China, Jufukuji was Kamakura’s first Zen temple, and as Eisai also brought the first tea seeds from the mainland, it is the root of the tea ceremony as well. It was built on the former site of Yoritomo’s father’s residence, and sits at the intersection of two main kiridoshi passes.
Kenchoji, too, stands at a focal point for travel and defense. During the Kamakura period it maintained a strong connection with China, and even today it remains a venue for the training of monks, with certain areas of both temples off-limits to tourists. There are many other temples of note in Kamakura, including Engakuji and Zuisenji, all with unique histories that will reward deeper study.
After Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, the Daibutsu, meaning Great Buddha, is perhaps Kamakura’s most famous monument. Cast in bronze and standing just over 13 meters tall, construction was undertaken in 1252 and took more than a decade. It sits in Kotokuin, a Buddhist Pure Land temple, and was once protected by a larger structure that was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Today, as in the past half a millennium, all 93 tons of it sits under the open sky. Although the stone dais at its base has been destroyed several times by earthquakes, the statue itself remains much as it was when it was cast, displaying elements of traditional Chinese design, as well as Japanese artistic innovation.
Kamakura also features a number of archaeological sites, including the remains of Yofukuji and Toshoji temples, the Hokkedo Buddha Hall, a samurai residence of the Hojo clan, and Wakaenoshima Port, a ruin that is the oldest example of a man-made port in Japan that dates back to 1232. Although it is submerged at high tide, what’s left of it rises from the waves during low tide in the spring.
Despite the presence of so much ancient history, Kamakura itself is a modern Japanese city. Padding its paths on foot all day is enough to tire anyone out, and travelers might consider the occasional taxi or train to ferry them from point to point.
There are several ways to get to Kamakura from Tokyo, but the cheapest is the Odakyu railway line’s ¥1,470 round-trip ticket from Shinjuku Station, called the Enoshima Kamakura Free Pass, which includes use of the Enoden Line within the city.
For more information, visit en.kamakura-info.jp .