Kamakura death trip: The holy city's most haunted hangouts

Kamakura death trip: The holy city's most haunted hangouts

Leave the tourists behind to uncover a mountain of severed heads and ancient tales
Look beyond Kamakura's "Big Buddha" and you'll find a gory chunk of the city's past.

Kamakura, a beautiful beach city 50 kilometers southwest of the capital, has long been the day trip of choice for Tokyoites in the mood to get out of the big city in a hurry.

Ask a dozen people for their favorite stops and you’ll inevitably hear about famed holy sites like the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue of Kotokuin Temple or the opulent Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine.

These places are great and definitely worth a visit, but there’s a darker, less well-known side of this storied destination as well -- a place where history and horror meet. The spots on our alternative tour aren’t exactly secret, but they sure aren’t on many tour lists either.

1. Kamakuragu Shrine

KamakuraguKamakuragu Shrine -- a welcoming front belies the death and intrigue lurking within.

The unusual white color of Kamakuragu’s torii gate is a tip that this place isn’t quite like others in the area.

This shrine was created to venerate the memory of Prince Morinaga (1308-1335), aka Otonomiya.

This valiant warrior was accused of a crime he didn’t commit and thrown into a jail cell made out of a cave that’s located right on this very spot.

In fact, Morinaga could well be called the angriest ghost in Kamakura. When the political maneuvering of his rivals dictated that he needed to die, an executioner was sent to his cell.

Kamakuragu ShrinePrince Morinaga met his untimely demise right outside of this cave cell at the shrine.

But Morninaga was no wilting violet. Not only did he lock eyes with the man sent to kill him, he caught the tachi blade in his mouth, biting down so fiercely that he broke it in two -- or so the story goes.

The assassin was forced to use his short sword to finish the task.

The expression on Morinaga’s face was so terrifyingly angry that even the seasoned killer sent to dispatch him dropped the severed head in fear ... right here on this very spot where you’re standing. Oops -- forgot to mention that bit in the beginning.

2. Prince Morinaga’s Grave

Prince Morinaga's graveMorinaga’s headless body rests in this forest grave.

Now that you’ve acquainted yourself with the hole in which this warrior spent his final days, perhaps you might want to show your respects at the place where his body is interred. It’s a ten-minute walk from the shrine.

Days after his brutal execution, Morinaga’s remains were gathered by a kindly monk who gave them the burial he deserved.

But there’s a catch. Many historians believe the grave only holds his body. His head, they say, was spirited away to Ishifune Shrine in Yamanashi Prefecture, which puts the (now gilt and bejeweled) mummy head on display once every year.

3. Tennen Hiking Trail

Kamakura gravesAncient graves dot the area, most hidden away from casual passersby.

This sylvan path leads through the wooded hills above Zuisenji Temple. It also happens to be an ancient burial ground.

In 1335, (then still very much alive) Prince Morinaga cornered a warlord named Hojo Takatoki.

Hojo committed seppuku and one of his loyal followers sprinted away with the head, desperate to keep it out of enemy hands.

This is where he buried his bloody parcel away from prying eyes.

In fact, hundreds of graves dot the rolling hills here.

Keep your eyes peeled as you walk for unmarked, almost hidden side-paths.

Harakiri CaveDo we really need to explain why a place called Harakiri Cave is considered haunted?

Accessing some of them requires slashing through vines and underbrush, revealing scenes that will make you feel like a Japanese Indiana Jones.

Dozens of grottoes filled with headless statues, some cavernous enough to walk inside, honeycomb the area. It’s a stark reminder of the violence that once occurred in this now tranquil spot of forest.

Getting there:

Kamakuragu Shrine and Prince Morinaga’s Grave, 154 Nikaido, Kamakura, Kanagawa 248-0002. Take the #4 bus to “Otonomiya” from the East exit of JR Kamakura Station. Website.

The Tenen Hiking Trail is a 10-minute walk from Kamakuragu. Map.

Hiroko Yoda runs AltJapan Co., Ltd., a Tokyo-based entertainment localization and translation company. She is the author of many books about Japan, including "Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide," "Ninja Attack!:True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws," and "Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide."

Read more about Hiroko Yoda