Just an hour south of Tokyo, the coastal town of Kamakura in the Kanagawa Prefecture is a very popular day trip from Tokyo for locals and tourists alike. The town was once the first feudal capital of Japan (1185-1333), and has a high concentration of stunning temples and shrines as well as other historical monuments. Further, situated at the coast facing the Pacific Ocean, its sand beaches tend to become quite overcrowded with locals and visitors from nearby Tokyo and Yokohama during the hot summer months.
Among Kamakura’s historically significant structures you will find the 1,200 year old Sugimotodera Buddhist Temple. The name translates to “cedar root temple” and refers to a story that when the original temple was destroyed by fire in 1189, the three Buddhist statues that were interred at the temple were carried safely away from the temple and placed under a cedar tree. Another well-known temple in Kamakura is Kotokuin. Its monumental outdoor bronze statue of Amida Buddha (Daibutsu) is one of the most famous icons of Japan. A 15th-century tsunami destroyed the temple that once housed the Daibutsu, but the statue survived and has remained outdoors ever since.
Located approximately 25-30 minutes on foot from the Kamakura Station is the Zeniarai Benten Shrine. It is a popular shrine in that it is where people go to wash their money (Zeniarai means “coin washing”). The legend states that money washed at this shrine’s spring will double.
Another temple worth visiting is the Shokozan Tokeiji which was a former nunnery and the only surviving one out of a network of five nunneries called Amagozan. It was founded in 1285 by a nun named Kakusanni, after her husband’s death. It was customary for a wife to become a nun after her husband’s death, therefore she decided to open the temple and dedicate it to the memory of her husband. The temple also served as a refuge for battered wives. It is for this reason that the temple is sometimes referred to as the “Divorce Temple”.
The architectural heritage of Kamakura is nearly unmatched, however, much of the city was devastated in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 therefore many temples and shrines today are physically just careful replicas of the actual structures founded years ago.
For a change of pace try the Kanagawa Prefectural Ofuna Botanical Garden (http://www.pref.kanagawa.jp/cnt/f598/p727659.html) located at 1018 Okamoto. Founded in 1961, the garden currently contains 5,700 species of flowers and plants including peonies and Japanese irises which were cultivated in this region since the Taisho period. The garden is open daily except Mondays and there is an admission fee of 350¥.
A major tourist attraction, Kamakura’s streets are lined with souvenir shops, craft stores, galleries, and restaurants and markets that sell local specialties. One specialty item is the Hatosabure (a dove shaped cookie) that is sold next to Kamakura Station and a very popular omiyage (souvenir) item. The dove is a symbol of Kamakura and said to be a messenger of god. As you can imagine many of the souvenir items are based on the town’s popular Diabutsu, everything from wooden carvings to little Buddha shaped cakes with red bean paste instead!
Just an hour south of Tokyo, Kamakura is an excellent choice for those who want to explore outside of Tokyo but do not have more than a day or two to do so. Just keep in mind that the town is very congested on weekends and holidays therefore plan ahead.