Header image courtesy of Context Travel
As the capital of Japan during the twelfth century and the religious centre of the time, the historical city of Kamakura has over one hundred Zen temples and Shinto shrines, making it difficult for visitors to decide which temples and shrines are worth visiting. Since Kamakura is less than an hour from Tokyo, it is very likely that most people will choose to do a day trip instead of staying in the city, so how do you pick which temples and shrines to visit when you have such limited time?
Here are five temples and shrines worth visiting in Kamakura, Japan, based on their religious importance, historical significance, cultural importance, and scenic quality.
There is no way that Kōtoku-in (高德院) is not going to be included in this list as it is the poster child of Kamakura. When you step out of the Kamakura station, the first thing you will see is the 37-feet Kamakura Daibutsu, a 121-ton copper statue of Amitabha Buddha cast in 1252. It is also the second-tallest bronze statue in all of Japan and a designated National Treasure.
Kōtoku-in belongs to the Jodo Buddhism sect with the Daibutsu originally enshrined in the Daibutsu-den Hall; however, the building was repeatedly destroyed by natural disasters, resulting in the statue being exposed outdoors since the late fifteenth century. It is worth noting that the statue is hollow, so remember to take the opportunity to step inside to take a closer look into this giant treasure.
Kōtoku-in, 4 Chome-2-28 Hase, Kamakura, Kanagawa | (+81) 04 6722 0703
Originally built at another location by Yoriyoshi Minamoto, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate, in 1063, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū (鶴岡八幡宮) is dedicated to the clan’s patron deity, Hachiman, the god of samurai and war. The shrine is now sitting at the end of the picturesque and cheery tree-lined Wakamiya-Oji.
Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū moved to its present site in 1180 when the Kamakura shogunate, the first samurai regime, was established. Considered to be the most important shrine in Kamakura, it is not only a Shinto Hachiman shrine but also a Tendai Buddhism temple. Taking the path that starts from the waterfront, you can take the opportunity to have a good glimpse of the city centre and enjoy the cherry blossoms if the season is right.
Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, 2 Chome-1-31 Yukinoshita, Kamakura, Kanagawa | (+81) 04 6722 0315
Belonging to the Kenchoji school of the Rinzai sect, Hokokuji (報國寺) is a Zen temple that is well-known for its magnificent bamboo grove of more than two thousand Moso bamboos, earning it the name “Bamboo Temple.”
After passing the gate and moss garden, you will arrive at the main hall, which was rebuilt in the 1920s after the original structure was destroyed during the Great Kanto Earthquake, and right next to it stands a unique bell tower with a thatched straw roof. When you walk to the back, you will find the famous bamboo grove and a teahouse where you can enjoy a cup of green tea served on a Kamakura-bori styled tray and take in the serene view.
Depending on the season, you can also expect a peaceful and tranquil walk amidst flowering quince and rose in the spring, conandron in the summer, and sakura and camellia Japonica in the winter.
Hokokuji Temple, 2 Chome-7-4 Jomyoji, Kamakura, Kanagawa | (+81) 04 6722 0762
Ranking number one among Kamakura’s five great Zen temples is Kenchoji (建長寺). It is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan and was founded by Hojo Tokiyori in 1253.
Due to fires that happened during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Kenchoji has lost many of its original structures but still consists of a large number of buildings and ten sub-temples, including a temple bell that is designated a national treasure. The temple is also home to the Dharma Hall, the largest wooden temple building in eastern Japan.
If you have time to spare, remember to visit two observation decks behind the main grounds to get a full view of Mount Fuji and the city of Kamakura.
Kenchoji, 8 Yamanouchi, Kamakura, Kanagawa | (+81) 04 6722 0981
Founded in 1285 by Kakusan-ni, the widow of Hojo Tokimune, Tokeiji (東慶寺) is best-known as a historical refuge where women suffering from spousal abuse could stay for a period of three years while seeking for an annulment. It was certainly a forward-thinking concept in a time when only men could apply for a divorce, thus earning Tokeiji the name “refuge temple” or “divorce temple.”
When its role as a refuge ended in 1872, Tokeiji was taken over by monks who turned it into a Zen temple. For those who are interested in the temple’s history, you can visit the Matsugaoka Treasury, which houses a variety of exhibits, including divorce decrees from the Edo period. In addition, the Tokeiji Buddhist Statue Exhibition is held each year from February to March and allows visitors to view the statue of the Suigetsu Kannon without making any reservations in advance.
Tokeiji, 1367 Yamanouchi, Kamakura, Kanagawa | (+81) 04 6722 1663