City Escape: Kamakura

City Escape: Kamakura

A day trip to the ancient capital city is a Japanese rite of passage
The giant buddha (daibutsu) of Kamakura is one of Japan's most iconic bronze sculptures and famous tourist attractions. (Photo by Flickr user chaojikazu)

Just as eating sushi and buying beer from vending machines are cherished experiences in Japan, a visit to the many antique sites of Kamakura -- Japan’s capital from the twelfth to fourteenth century -- is the classic day trip from Tokyo for natives and tourists alike.

Visitors strolling through the city and its nearby temples will encounter traditional Japanese shrine weddings, towering vermillion torii gates and pleasant smelling incense always wafting in the breeze. Framed by mountains and the sea, Kamakura is a perfect combination of natural beauty and manmade wonder.

First steps: the Great Buddha and Hase-dera

Going to Kamakura and not beholding the 13.35-meter-high, 93-ton outdoor bronze Daibutsu (Great Buddha) is like going to the beach and not checking out the sand. Those not content with being the thirty millionth out-of-towner to pose in front of one of the country’s most recognizable icons can pay a few hundred yen and actually get inside the green-gilded statue, which was cast in 1252. Duty though a visit may be, this is one of the most stirring and memorable sites in all of Japan.

The nearby Buddhist temple Hase-dera packs an equally visceral if physically smaller punch. Here, endless rows of jizo statues (small human forms) pay tribute to stillborn, aborted or miscarried babies. Grieving parents outfit the tiny statues in children's clothing and leave toys by their sides. Walking past these countless and completely apolitical reminders of sorrow is a slightly disturbing but certainly unforgettable experience..

Shrine time: Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu

The most significant Shinto shrine in Kamakura, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu is heralded by massive red torii gates, picturesque arched bridges and cherry trees. Originally built in 1063 -- the temple has been moved and rebuilt -- its sprawling grounds and stately bearing invoke Kamakura’s historic significance and help the modern city live up to its tourist-trade nickname “the Kyoto of eastern Japan.” The shrine, however, is still in use -- visitors might be lucky enough to catch a passing Shinto wedding procession.

The temples: Kenchoji and Meigetsuin

Founded in 1250, the large and intricately detailed Kenchoji is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan, and a source of endless study for fans of traditional Japanese architecture. The large Zen garden behind the main hall is arguably the most beautiful in the country and has been justly designated a national scenic spot.

The nearby Zen temple Meigetsu-in houses one of the most photogenic round windows in the country. In June, the grounds are transformed into a breathtaking garden when thousands of bright blue and purple hydrangeas burst into bloom.

The rest: tea and cookies

Something about these temple tours makes visitors feel like sled dogs at the end of the Iditarod, a fact not lost on area merchants. Kamakura’s old-style teahouses are usually filled with weary walkers, and stands selling local specialties such as murasaki-imo sofuto (purple, sweet potato-flavored ice cream) and hato sabure (dove-shaped butter cookies) do brisk business.

And since this living reminder of ancient Japan actually exists in modern Japan, templed-out visitors will eventually find themselves shuffling through familiar rows of shops peddling ceramic and plastic knickknacks that conjure feeble but perhaps just as inevitable reminders of this national treasure.

Getting to Kamakura

JR’s Yokosuka line services Kamakura. The trip takes an hour from Tokyo, and 48 minutes from Shinagawa.