This Kamakura travel guide presents the highlights of Japan’s first feudal capital, which is famous for its monuments, temples, and shrines. This vast collection of stately ancient sites led to its moniker as the “Kyoto of Eastern Japan”. And with a convenient location an hour south of Tokyo, it’s an enticing alternative for those who can’t make it to Kyoto (of course, there’s no harm in visiting both).

    Aside from its impressive selection of 12th-century shrines, Kamakura has a broad range of attractions. From beautiful beaches to scenic hilly hikes, the city has a wonderful natural charm. Shopaholics will find all sorts of souvenirs in the bustling Komachi-dori district, as well as tasty traditional meals and tempting Japanese sweets. Whether you’re here for a quick day trip or planning an extended Kamakura stay, read on to learn more about the best things to see and do in town.

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    Kamakura temples and shrines

    The former capital is home to countless ancient temples

    • History
    • Photo

    Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples abound in the enchanting historic town of Kamakura. The largest sacred site is Tsurugaoka Hachimangū, a sprawling Shinto shrine lined by red torii gates and vibrant cherry trees. To the north, Engaku-ji Temple is a tranquil Zen Buddhist complex with an enormous cast-iron bell. The wood-carved Kencho-ji is the oldest temple in town – think serene gardens with scenic Mount Fuji views.

    Garden lovers will adore Meigetsu-in, a 14th-century Rinzai Zen temple famed for its picturesque round window and blooming hydrangeas. Hokoku-ji resides in a thick bamboo grove and has a tea house with traditional matcha ceremonies. For sweeping city views, head uphill to the Hase-dera Temple. This elaborate 8th-century construction has lush Japanese gardens overlooking the city and sea.

    2

    Kamakura beaches

    Kamakura is a bustling summer beach town

    • Families
    • Budget
    • Adventure

    There’s more to  than spectacular shrines. During the sweltering summer months (July to August), the town packs out with Tokyo and Yokohama holidaymakers who come to cool off at its stunning sandy beaches. Aim to visit outside summer if you don’t want to jostle for elbow room.

    Yuigahama and Zaimokuza are the 2 most popular stretches. Both beaches sit side-by-side in the town centre, separated by the Nameri River. Facilities like restaurants, washrooms, parks, and campgrounds lie on each side. Hit Isshiki Beach or Southern Beach for slightly thinner crowds. The rough waters of Shichirigahama Beach are the best bet for surfers and windsurfers.  

    3

    Komachi Dori

    Kamakura’s premier pedestrian strip

    • Shoppers
    • Budget

    Komachi Dori is the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Kamakura. Located in the centre of town, the bustling retail strip has over 250 stores to browse, from authentic souvenir shops to high-tech retail outlets. An estimated 18 million people wander around the district each year, so expect to encounter crowds.

    Venturing into its hidden back alleys to discover hole-in-the-wall boutiques is all part of the fun. You’ll also find a variety of local eateries for a post-shopping bite. Pop in for pancakes at Iwata Coffee, a favourite haunt of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

    4

    The Great Buddha

    The 2nd biggest Buddha in Japan

    • History
    • Photo

    The most iconic Kamakura attraction is the Great Buddha, a 121-tonne statue sitting 11 metres tall. Cast in the 13th century, the Buddha originally sat inside a custom-built temple hall. Several 14 and 15th-century tsunamis and typhoons destroyed the enclosure on multiple occasions, so it’s been sitting in the open air since then. The buff bronzed behemoth is the second biggest Buddha in Japan – Nara’s Todaiji Temple statue takes the top gong.

    While you’re here, take the time to explore the attached Kōtoku-in Temple, with its tranquil gardens and ornate shrines. And don’t miss the Buddha’s 1.8-metre warazori straw sandals. Local children wove the humungous footwear in the '50s, so Buddha could use them to walk across Japan.

    Location: 4 Chome-2-28 Hase, Kamakura, Kanagawa 248-0016, Japan

    Phone: +81 (0)46-722-0703

    Map
    5

    Hiking in Kamakura

    Scenic trails between traditional temples

    • Budget
    • Adventure

    Wedged between the ocean and verdant wooded hills, Kamakura has an impressive network of scenic hiking trails. Some routes connect the city’s main temples, allowing visitors to sightsee and exercise in one outing.

    The 6-km Daibutsu Trail (Western Trail) connects the Great Buddha to Jochi-ji Zen Temple, passing by the unique Zeniarai Bentenn “money-washing” Shrine along the way. The steep, 7.5-km Tenen Trail (Northern Trail) has challenging inclines but rewards hikers with secluded temples and elevated views. An easier option is the Gionyama Trail (Eastern Trail), a gentle 4-km jaunt visiting a Samurai burial ground in Harakiri Yagura Cave.

    6

    Kamakura dining and restaurants

    Authentic Japanese eateries abound

    • Food

    Kamakura has a wide range of excellent eateries, from rustic beachfront venues to traditional curry restaurants. While some western cuisine is available, the city primarily caters to Japanese tastes.

    Matsubaraan is a popular local hangout serving top-notch tempura and steamy soba noodles. On the west end of town, Sometaro is an affordable, family-run restaurant famed for its delicious okonomiyaki (Japanese-style pancakes). Overlooking Yuigahama Beach, Magokoro is a rustic clean-eating café serving organic, vegetarian-friendly fare. To the west of town, Sangosho Moana Makai is your best bet for a yummy katsu curry.

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    7

    Shopping in Kamakura

    From mega malls to back-alley boutiques

    • Shoppers

    Kamakura is a great place to pick up a charming souvenir or a snazzy new piece for your wardrobe. The highest concentration of small boutique stores lies scattered around Komachi Dori, where you’ll find everything from ceramics to chopsticks and kimonos. For an edible souvenir, don’t miss the dove-shaped butter biscuits at Toshimaya, a beloved local tradition since 1894.

    Self-caterers should hit up the Kamakura Farmers Market. This daily, no-frills fair stocks a solid selection of locally sourced seasonal produce at reasonable prices. If you need a big modern mall, Kohnan Kamakura Ofuna has an impressive selection of home and hardware brands. Its 100-Yen Store is a hit with bargain hunters.

    8

    Nightlife in Kamakura

    Bustling beachfront bars and low-key mood-lit venues

    • Nightlife

    Kamakura has a thriving after-dark scene for a city of its size. When the town packs out with summertime holidaymakers, lively pop-up bars serve beer along the shores of Sagami Bay. Kamakura’s inner-city drinking holes do a roaring trade year-round.

    Baramu, or Bar Ram, is a tiny tachinomiya (standing-room-only) bar in Komachi Dori. Cosy decor, classic rock melodies, and friendly chats make it a fun spot for a few drinks. Just down the alley, Jazz Club Daphne does smooth live tunes in a candlelit New Orleans-style venue. So San is an elegant spot to sip wine and nibble on cheese, while Bar Kelpie does creative cocktails from seasonal Shōnan region fruits.

    9

    How to get to Kamakura

    Most folks arrive at Kamakura Station via the JR Yokosuka Line, which takes an hour from Tokyo or 25 minutes from Yokohama. Consider the Enoshima-Kamakura Free Pass (from Tokyo) or the Hakone Kamakura Pass (from Hakone) to save on your return fare. Kamakura is a tad too large to explore on foot, and there’s no metro. Bike rentals and local buses offer cheaper alternatives to taxi fares. The closest airport is Tokyo Haneda, some 35 km away.

    Due to its proximity to the most populous urban area on earth (Tokyo-Yokohama is home to 38 million people), Kamakura can get chock-a-block. Avoid the beaches in summer and the garden temples during the blooming season – summer for hydrangeas and autumn for foliage. Travelling midweek always helps.

    Harry Stewart | Contributing Writer

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