The COVID-19 epidemic has nearly eliminated foreign tourists from Japan. While this means economic loss for tourism oriented businesses and their workers, it also means that residents of Japan, temporarily at least, can once again enjoy attractive parts of their own country without having to deal with sometimes extreme overcrowding.
My older son and I have been taking advantage of this by engaging in day trips from Tokyo. On August 18, we made one such trip to Kamakura, the locus of the feudal government that ruled Japan 1185-1333.
Because there was a symbiotic relation between the feudal era rulers and Buddhism, Kamakura has numerous temples and shrines, some of which are quite famous. It is sometimes styled “the Kyoto of the east,” although there is little similarity.
Kamakura is a “bed town” for people who commute to Tokyo. Trains arriving at Kamakura Station in the morning have very few passengers. The flow is all toward Tokyo.
Historically, Kamakura has been popular as a residence for writers and people working in the publishing industry, as well as noted film directors. The Kamakura Museum of Literature housed in a western-style Japanese building from the 1930s celebrates this tradition.
Kyoto, in contrast, is both a “bed town” for Osaka and a destination for commuters drawn to its many commercial, industrial, and educational facilities. Unlike Kyoto, Kamakura has little in the way of industry, and no major universities.
Geographically, the cities are quite different as well. Kyoto is located inland in a bonchi (basin) that is known to result in oppressively hot summers and cold winters relative to other parts of the Kansai area.
Kamakura is on the Miura Peninsula and is noted for its year round mild climate. Shops selling beachwear and supplies for surfing are a constant reminder in Kamakura that you are close to the ocean, even when hills or buildings block your view of it.
Getting There is Half the Pleasure
The JR line serving Kamakura from Tokyo Station is the Yokosuka Line, terminating at Kurihama in the naval base city for which the line is named. This used to be a distinct line with its own identity, but in recent years tunnelling has allowed trains from other lines to interconnect with it. These include the Shonan-Shinjuku Line and the Sotobo Line. This has made it very convenient to get to Kamakura from stations in Chiba Prefecture without having to change trains.
While the JR Yokosuka line is the most convenient way to get to Kamakura, there are alternatives. One is the Odakyu Line from Shinjuku to Katasei Enoshima and the beach side of Kamakura. Both standard commuter trains and extra charge luxury express trains serve this station. Details may be found on the Odakyu Line web site.
The station is very distinctive. It is described as being inspired by the “dragon palace castle” (Ryūgū-jō, 竜宮城) of Ryūjin, a dragon-like sea deity, although I must confess that a first sight my initial reaction was to wonder if had been modeled on a Chinese restaurant somewhere in California.
Another route that puts you in the same general area is the Shonan Monorail from Ofuna on the JR Tokaido Line. Like the monorail in Chiba City, it is suspended rather than straddling the track. Moreover, it is very fast, pursuing a winding course above a narrow street before zipping through a tunnel to the terminal station.
At off peak times it is possible to stand behind the driver and get a bird’s eye view of the scenery below. Great for children and adults still young at heart. Details here.
Both the Odakyu Line and the Shonan Monorail put you close to Enoshima on the beachside of Kamakura. Both the Shonan Monorail and Odakyu stations are close to the Enoden Line, as much a Kamakura icon as the Great Buddha statue.
The Enoden began operating in 1901 and runs 10 km (6.2 mi) from Fujisawa to Kamakura on the JR and Odakyu Lines. Some of the rolling stock is more than fifty years old and the company cultivates a retro image. The Enoden has featured in anime, manga and TV drama where it is used to add instantly recognizable atmosphere for readers and viewers.
A day pass (650 yen adults, 330 yen children) allows unlimited use of the train and gives discounts at some facilities along the route. Because the trains come every 12 minutes, there is no need to consult the schedule.
The Enoden is licensed as a standard Japanese railway, but it has one segment where it runs in the street like a tram. In other segments it is running so close to adjacent houses, you have the feeling you are moving through backyards.
It has been particularly popular with tourists to the point that this has made life difficult for local residents who use it for commuting and shopping. Hence, it is something to be experienced while foreign tourism is at a very low ebb.
For those simply interested in getting to Kamakura from Tokyo, use Yokosuka Line trains from the underground platforms at Tokyo Station. Travel time is 62 minutes. The adult fare is 935 Yen. A nearly identical service is offered from Shinjuku on the Shonan-Shinjuku Line: same time, same price. No change of trains is required on either route.
The Great Buddha
The most notable temple along the route is Hasedera, noted for its enormous wooden statue of Buddha and views of the sea from its hillside location. As with many temples and shrines in Kamakura, it charges admission (400 yen adults, 200 yen children).
Kamakura temples and shrines lost their feudal patrons centuries ago, do not get government subsidies unless they have been designated as national treasures, and generally lack contemporary congregations that could at least partially offset staffing and upkeep costs.
Getting Around Kamakura
While it is possible to cycle Tokyo to Kamakura, doing so is not particularly pleasant and does not leave you much time for sightseeing if you want to get back to Tokyo before dark, even during the longest days of summer. In our case, we rented electric assist bicycles from a shop adjacent to the JR Kamakura station. The charge was 2000 yen for a full day of use.
Kamakura as a whole is very bicycle friendly, but there are several caveats. Generally, you must park in designated areas and these may be some distance from what you want to see. Even without foreign tourists, in some popular areas there are still more than enough domestic tourists to make cycling some streets impractical or even dangerous. In short, even if you are cycling, expect to do quite a bit of walking as well paying for bicycle parking.
Where To Go
We first made a loop following the Enoden to Enoshima along the beach side of Kamakura. Compared to a “normal year” there were very few people on the beach and only a few people windsurfing. Enoshima itself, which would have hosted Tokyo 2020 Olympic sailing events, had only a moderate number of people in one area with restaurants and souvenir shops.
From Enoshima we returned to the Katasei Enoshima area and followed the Enoden back to Kamakura, stopping first to take photographs at Ryūkō-ji (龍口寺).
Notable features of this temple include a cave where Nichiren, the founder of the Buddhist sect that carries his name, was confined awaiting execution (he was spared) and a five story pagoda, the only one in Kanagawa prefecture. It is in front of this temple that the Enoden begins its 450-meter street run.
Our second stop was the Mitama Shrine noted in guidebooks for the photographic opportunities presented by the Enoden trains passing only a meter or so distant from its gateway. As is common with shrines in Japan, a variety of lesser shrines inside reflect various folk beliefs. As at Ryuko-ji, again we had the shrine to ourselves except for one very sleepy cat.
Our only visit to a really famous spot was to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu that is just a few hundred meters north east from the JR station. A shrine was first constructed here in 1063. For centuries it was also a Buddhist temple because in medieval Japan, Shinto and Buddhism were not well differentiated.
After the Meiji Restoration (1868), the new government embarked on a sometimes violent program of separating Buddhism and Shinto. The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu lost some of its overtly Buddhist artefacts and structures, but there is much even today that reflects the period of mingling. It is very different from more purely Shinto shrines such as those that are part of the Ise Shrine complex.
The shrine is also distinguished by a 1.8 km corridor that extends to the beach at Yuigahama. This corridor is flanked by Wakamiya Ōji Avenue, Kamakura's main street. The west side of this street has numerous shops and restaurants that are perhaps best described as up market or boutique style. On side streets there are still more shops and restaurants.
As is typical of areas that expect foreign tourists, kimono rental is readily available. There is no general sense among Japanese that non-Japanese wearing kimono is cultural appropriation.
Anyone going to Kamakura for shopping, dining or primarily to see temples and shrines should consult guide books and sights dedicated to these subjects. Artisanal ceramics and antiques are among the items for which Kamakura is noted. The number and variety of temples and shops precludes treatment here.
Our approach to Kamakura was largely unscripted. Although we had seen parts of Kamakura previously, we wanted to get a better sense of the whole, and we wanted to do that before mass foreign tourism resumed.
Kamakura was very pleasant to visit and would probably be even better to experience as a resident.
Author: Earl H. Kinmonth, with Simon Kinmonth, photographer