Kamakura looks like a sleepy seaside town but its temples and shrines reveal Kamakura’s glorious and bloody past as a military capital that witnessed samurai rule, religious devotion, murderous intrigue, and a burning demise.
Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine
To best understand the historical significance of Kamakura head left from Kamakura Station and either go through the giant red torii gate and down Komachi-dori – the street strewed with souvenir shops and cafes – or proceed to the main street and walk down Wakamiya Oji, a medieval raised road punctuated with three large torii gates and lined with sakura trees which blossom into a brilliant pink every spring.
Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu started as a small seaside shrine in 1063 until it was moved and enlarged in 1180 by Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199) when he made Kamakura his headquarters and later his capital. After a vicious civil war, Yoritomo re-organized the government of the country setting up a military government with a ruling Shogun (general) who reigned nominally in the Emperor’s name.
The entrance passes a steep stone bridge that once only the Shogun could use and passes two ponds created by Yoritomo’s wife, Masako, to reflect the Gempei Civil War between Yoritomo’s family and their enemy, the Taira.
The main vermilion shrine building is up a steep flight of steeps. Along the way up is the relic of a ginkgo tree damaged in a storm in 2010 which is said to be the hiding of an assassin who killed the third shogun one snowy evening in 1219.
The best time to go is when they have yabusame – Japanese archery on horseback – in mid-April and mid-September. Another archery event is a New Years related one on January 5th – Joma Shinji:
Kotoku-In/Great Buddha – 200¥
Sitting serene and gigantic with the rolling hills of Kamakura as a backdrop, the Great Buddha or Daibutsu is a magnificent sight built by devotees of the Jodo-shu sect. Constructed in the mid-13th century, the Daibutsu was once cooped up in a wooden temple until a tsunami washed it away leaving the Daibutsu to contemplate eternity while exposed to the elements for over 500 years. The statue and base is 13 meters high (43ft) and for only 20 yen you can go inside of the statue. In winter, you might get the chance to see Daibutsu in snow:
Hase-Dera – 300¥
After the Daibutsu, the next great Buddhist statue in Kamakura is that of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Legends say the statue was carved as a set in the 8th Century, one being placed in Hase, Nara and the other being set adrift on the sea. The second statue came ashore in Kamakura some years later and a temple was built to house the miraculous statue which stands at 9 meters (30ft). Also of interest is the gloomy cave of the goddess Benzaiten.
A Nichiren Temple, quiet stately Myohon-ji in its secluded valley hides a dark past. In 1203, the powerful Hiki family, in-laws to the second Shogun, were massacred as the result of bloody intrigue over succession. One of the few survivors came back decades later to build this temple to ease their troubled souls.
Hokai-ji – 100¥
A small temple built to placate the souls of the Hojo who died in battle in 1333. The Hojo were the in-laws of Yoritomo and after his direct line failed, they took over the reins of government as regents to the puppet shoguns. They ruled capably for a hundred years but they declined into decadence prompting the Emperor GoDaigo to encourage revolt and restoration of power to the Imperial Court. In 1333 Kamakura was invaded and the Hojo committed ritual suicide as their once proud capital burned to ash.
The white hagi (bush clover) which come out in Autumn are thought to represent the Hojo’s transmigrated souls. Not far from the temple is the Hara Kiri Cave where over 800 Hojo samurai committed ritual suicide on that fateful day in 1333.
Zeni-arai Benten Shrine
About 1 kilometer west from Kamakura station, this shrine to the goddess Benzaiten is interesting for two reasons: 1) the passage way is a carved tunnel through stone and 2) you can wash your money in the shrine’s spring in the hope it will double.
A small temple that sword aficionados will seek out as it has the grave of famed sword-smith Masamune (1264-1343) who applied his skill to perfecting the Japanese sword.
Hokoku-ji – 200¥
A small temple with a lovely bamboo forest. For an extra 500¥ you can have matcha (powered) green tea with a sweet.
For Kabuki fans, Goryo Shrine enshrines the spirit of Gongoro Kagemasa, a famed 11th Century samurai and later a quintessential Kabuki character in striking makeup in the play Shibaraku. In June, many come to see hydrangeas. In September a festival is held where participants where centuries old masks – Menkake Gyroretsu:
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