Japan: Kamakura – A Journey Back Into History

Kamakura is a historic city  about 50 km south-west of Tokyo and reachable by train in less than an hour on Japanese railway’s Yokosuka line. It is a nicely laid out “museum” city and walking along the streets, you would feel like you have stepped back in time during the samurai era. It is a city rich in history and culture, which is preserved to this very day in the city’s shrines and temples, unfortunately most of these temples do not seem to be functioning Buddhist institutions, which is a sad reflection on Japanese youth of today who don’t seem to appreciate the richness and practicability of their Buddhist culture and heritage.

Kamakura became the political center of Japan, when Minamoto Yoritomo  chose the city as the seat for his new military government in 1192. The Kamakura government continued to rule Japan for over a century, first under the Minamoto shogun  and then under the Hojo regents. After the decline of the Kamakura government in the 14th century and the establishment of its successor government in Kyoto, Kamakura remained the political center of Eastern Japan for some time before losing its position to other cities. Today, Kamakura is a small “historic” city and a very popular tourist destination.

Unlike in Buddhist countries like Thailand, Myanmar or Sri Lanka, the ancient shrines and temples here seem more museum pieces – well laid out and maintained – than functioning religious institutions. However, walking through the historic area adjoining the vast Kamakura Buddha statue you get a feeling of calm and serenity, as the surroundings lack the highrise buildings and the noise of motor vehicles and other sounds of contemporary society. In order to protect its serenity, the Japanese government has banned the construction of tall buildings in the vicinity and if you happen to be here early in the morning or at dusk, you could hear the tooling of temple bells.

The highlight of a visit to Kamakura is to see the world famous Daibutsu Buddha statue that appears in numerous tourist brochures advertising travel to Japan and is designated an a national treasure. So many tourists take the one-hour ride from Tokyo to merely to visit this. But, once here they will obviously be attracted to visit other Buddhist and Shinto shrines in the vicinity.

Daibutsu means great
Buddha statue and its formal name is Amida-nyorai-zazou. The Buddha statue here was made in 1252. Its height including the plinth is 13.35 m and it weighs 121 tons. It is an imposing statue, not only for its size but also as a sculpture that has retained its appearance since it was cast. Initially it has been housed inside a building but in 15th century, this building has been washed away by a tsunami, that left the statue intact as it stands today.

Few minutes walk from Daibutsu Buddha are many impressive wooden structures with a huge roof that forms gates entering different areas of a temple complex that could be between 500 to 800 years old. Inside you may find the multi-layered pagodas, the single layer lecture halls and the double-layer shrine rooms with sacred objects such as Buddha statues where many devout Buddhists still go to worship. Most of these large complexes were monasteries and I could notice only one that seems to function as such today.

Kencho-ji Temple is one Buddhist complex that gives you a taste of the Buddhist architecture and temple lay out of Japanese Zen tradition. Established in 1253, this temple was the first Zen dojo (school) in Japan. The current complex is believed to be smaller than what it was in its heydays. After passing through the main gates visitors will see the Kenchoji’s bell, which is considered a national treasure. Inside the two tier dhamma hall you can see a dragon that was painted on its ceiling and which is still in good shape. The garden the buildings reflect austere refinement and quiet simplicity of the Zen Buddhist mindset.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is the symbolic shrine of the old capital city, Kamakura. It is the main Shinto Shrine today and number of people come to visit this historic shrine every day. The origin of the shrine goes back to the year 1180, when the Shogun Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, who established the Kamakura Shogunate to rule Japan, constructed the shrine pavilions at the current location. It used to be the cultural centre of the city when Buddhism and Shintoism were closely intertwined. Tsurugaoka Hachimangū was for most of its history not only a Hachiman shrine, but also a Tendai Buddhist temple, a fact that explains its general layout, typical of Japanese Buddhist architecture. It is now just a Shinto shrine after the Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order of 1868. The mixing of Buddhist and Shinto worship has been normal for almost 700 years until this order separated these.

Another interesting Buddhist temple is Jochi ji temple, fourth in the ranking of Buddhist temples in the ancient city, that was built in 1280s by the grandson of Hojo Tokiyori and was established by a Chinese priest. At this temple one could also see a well-maintained Buddhist burial ground.Another is the Tokei ji Temple which has many buildings and images considered national treasures.

A visit to Kamakura should be an enjoyable full day excursion from Tokyo which could also be accommodated into a half-day if you leave Tokyo early in the morning. A full day would give you time to have a relaxing walk along a pathways connecting various ancient shrines, taste some street food and if you can afford it, have a lunch or a Japanese snack and coffee seated in one of those cute little cafes on Komachi-dori Street that is full of fashionable coffee shops, restaurants and souvenir shops.

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