Things to do in Kamakura
When you think about the best temples in Japan, often it’s Kyoto that comes to mind first. And that makes sense – after all, it was once the capital of Japan and it has a large collection of historic buildings as a result of that.
However, it’s not the only former capital of Japan. There’s another city, Kamakura, that was effectively the country’s capital during the Kamakura period of history between 1185 and 1333.
It was during this period that the country saw the creation of the samurai warriors and the feudalism in Japan. To support this, enormous temple complexes were built with religious and political significance. It was an extremely influential part of the country’s history and what remains in Kamakura today reflects that.
There’s a reason it’s sometimes called the ‘Kyoto of the East’ and there was even an attempt to list it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (but was not successful).
For visitors to Japan, a day trip to Kamakura is one of the best ways to spend your time. But there are lots of things to do in Kamakura and you’ll need to have a bit of a plan to make the most of the trip.
To help you, I’ve put together this Kamakura day trip itinerary that will take you to the highlights and show you a good mix of the variety on offer here.
Not only are there generations of history and culture to explore, but there’s also a beautiful natural landscape. I’ll show you how to experience it all.
Kamakura day trip itinerary
Most people will arrive in Kamakura by train – and I’ll have some more information later on the best tickets to use to get to Kamakura from Tokyo or Yokohama.
But while it may seem sensible to get off at Kamakura station, I’m actually going to start this itinerary at Kita-Kamakura station (literally: North Kamakura).
You can see on the map below my suggested route – but, a word of warning here, it has a lot of walking in it. If you would prefer not to do so much walking, I’ll have other options for you. And I’m also going to suggest some alternative sightseeing along the way, in case you have some specific interests.
The first temple complex of the itinerary is one of the most significant. It’s called Engaku-ji and is ranked as the second of Kamakura’s Great Zen Temples.
Engaku-ji was founded in 1282 and it stretches up the slope of a hillside with the main buildings in a straight line, as was the style at the time. As you enter, you’ll see the dramatic wooden main gate at the top of the first set of stairs. Further up, there are actually 18 individual temples in the grounds.
Take particular note of the main hall (butsuden) with a sacred statue from the Kamakura period and the great bell (the largest in Kamakura). You’ll also notice how the landscaping in the complex creates a sense of peace – something you’re going to see a lot more of during the day.
Just a short walk from Engaku-ji, on the other side of the train tracks, is the next temple: Jochi-ji. Although it’s ranked fourth of Kamakura’s Great Zen Temples, it is actually quite small. That’s because the original buildings have all been destroyed and the recreation of the site is not as big as it would once have been.
Still, I think it’s a really beautiful and peaceful temple. In fact, because it is small and doesn’t have too many visitors, it offers a nice contrast to many of the other sites you’re going to see today.
Be sure to go through the small cave at the top to see the charming little graveyard.
Daibutsu Hiking Trail
One of the other reasons I recommend Jochi-ji is because this is where the Daibutsu Hiking Trail begins, so you would probably come here anyway.
I love this trail and would highly recommend you do it. It takes about an hour through some lovely forest and takes you to the next set of main temples on the other side of the hill. Plus there are a couple of interesting things to see along the way.
However, if you don’t want to do the walk, you can get the bus to the Daibutsumae stop (changing at the Kamakura stop) and skip ahead in this itinerary. (I’ve got more information about using the bus in Kamakura later in this post).
I’ve marked the Daibutsu Hiking Trail on the map above but it’s quite easy to follow. The path is obvious and there are signposts at any intersections. Just follow the signs to the ‘Daibutstu (Big Buddha)’, which is the final stop of the walk.
If you’re doing the hiking trail, you’ll walk past the small Kuzuharaoka Shrine. It would not be worth the effort to visit otherwise, but it’s a good place to stop seeing as you’re here anyway.
The shrine was built on the site where a traitor was executed in 1333. These days, though, the shrine is dedicated to matchmaking and it’s where hopeful lovers come to pray to find the one.
Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine
A bit further along the hike, you’ll see an option to do a slight detour to visit the Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine. I highly recommend you do this.
Part of the fun of Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine is the entrance, which is through a tunnel cut into a cliff face. But what you’ll find inside is also really interesting.
The shrine is for people who want to get richer and it’s said that if you wash your money in the spring water of the shrine’s cave, it will multiply. Go and have a look at all the worshippers putting their 1000 yen notes in the water and then drying them off!
OPTION: Itsuki Garden cafe
If you need a break along the hike, there’s a lovely little cafe where you can get a drink or something to eat.
Look out for the signs to the Itsuki Garden Cafe before the final downhill stretch to the end of the trail. The outside tables have a nice outlook down to the bottom of the hill.
Kotoku-in Temple (Big Buddha)
Technically this temple is called Kotoku-in but most people know it by the Japanese name Daibutsu and the English translation, Big Buddha. It is the iconic image of Kamakura and a must-visit on a trip here.
There isn’t much temple to see here – the focus is squarely on the large bronze statue of Buddha. But it’s impressive enough that you won’t be disappointed. Historians think the statue dates from 1252 and was built after a wooden version was destroyed by a storm.
The Big Buddha statue is about 14 metres tall (including the base) and you can join the queue of tourists to go inside and have a look at the interior.
OPTION: Hase-dera Temple
Hase-dera Temple is actually quite interesting and is one of the oldest temples in Kamakura, having been founded around the 8th century.
However, I would suggest skipping it if you are taking all of my other recommendations, because you won’t be able to fit everything in. But if you didn’t do the hike, you should have time to pop in because it’s only about a ten minute walk from the Big Buddha.
Hase-dera Temple is famous for the statue in the main building which, at 9.18 metres, is one of the largest wooden statues in Japan. Another interesting (but sad) element are the hundreds of small Jizo statues that are placed by parents who lost a child before they were born.
Hase-dera also has nice views of the city and the gardens are very pleasant.
By now you’re probably getting hungry, so I would suggest heading into the central part of Kamakura city, which you can do by bus (or its about a 20 minute brisk walk).
There are lots of restaurants here and I’m not going to recommend any particular ones. However, I will mention the cafe at the Kamakurabori Museum because they have an interesting lunch option. You can get a vegetarian set menu that is modelled on the meals that the Buddhist monks of Kamakura would have eaten.
While you’re in the centre of Kamakura, have a wander along the Komachi Dori Shopping Street, which is full of places to buy souvenirs and snacks.
For something very traditional in the city where the samurai culture was founded, have a look at the Masamune sword shop, which has a heritage that goes all the way back to the original Kamakura period of history 700 years ago.
Hokoku-ji Temple is not one of the most historically-significant temples in Kamakura – but it is one of the most famous with tourists. That’s because of the stunning bamboo forest which has become a favourite backdrop for photographers and instagrammers.
It was founded in 1334, the year after the Kamakura period officially ended, and has a large main building with a beautiful landscaped garden and pond next to it.
The bamboo forest is behind the main building and on the other side is a teahouse. Stopping here to have some traditional tea with the bamboo for a view is quite spectacular and worth doing.
Heading back into the centre of the city, the next stop is Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. This is the most important Shinto shrine in Kamakura (as opposed to most of the others, which are Buddhist). It’s hard to miss because it’s set on a hill in the geographic centre of the city with a long 1.8 kilometre approach from Kamakura city.
The shrine was founded in 1063 and moved to its current site in 1180. The main building at the top of the staircase includes a small museum which has a small entrance fee (and is probably not worth it). You also get fantastic views of the city from this terrace.
On the ground level, you’ll find some interesting elements including fish ponds, a performance stage, and a special garden.
Depending on how quickly you’ve been moving today, you may be starting to run out of time. But don’t be tempted to skip this last suggestion – it’s one of the most important (and, in fact, I would suggest you drop something else from the itinerary rather than miss this one).
Kencho-ji is ranked first amongst Kamakura’s Great Zen Temples. It was built in 1253 and is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan. And, as you’ll see, the complex is really large.
From the entrance, you’ll see the main wooden gate and then, beyond that, the Butsuden with an important statue of Jizo Bodhisattva. The Hatto building next to it is the largest wooden temple building in eastern Japan.
Further on is the complex’s main building, which you can go inside and walk around the balcony. From the far side, you get a wonderful vantage point of the beautiful zen garden.
If you have the time or the inclination, there are a couple of others paths you can follow within the Kencho-ji grounds that will take you to smaller shrines and viewpoints in the hills. They are a lovely way to see a bit more of the natural environment here.
Tours to Kamakura
Even though you can follow my suggested Kamakura day trip itinerary and see all the highlights, you may prefer the idea of having everything arranged for you. With a guided tour, you’ll get all of that plus someone who can explain the history and point out the most significant things.
If you’re interested in a guided tour to Kamakura, here are a few options that I would recommend:
Getting from Tokyo to Kamakura
If you’ve spent any time in Tokyo already, you will have realised that the transport can be a bit confusing because so many different private companies offer different options. Going from Tokyo to Kamakura can seem just as overwhelming at first because you have a few choices.
The first option is to use the JR Yokosuka Line. It goes from Tokyo station to Kamakura and stops at Kita-Kamakura station. It costs 920 yen (US$8.10) each way and takes about an hour. This is the best option if you are staying closer to Tokyo station than Shinjuku station and won’t need too much public transport once you reach Kamakura.
The second option is to use the JR Shonan Shinjuku Line. It also takes about one hour and costs 920 yen (US$8.10) each way. It doesn’t come as often but may be more convenient if you’re staying near Shinjuku. However it normally doesn’t stop at Kita-Kamakura, so you’ll have to use my suggested itinerary in a slightly different order.
The third option is to use Odakyu Railways. The train leaves from Shinjuku station but it takes about 90 minutes each way. However, it’s cheaper at 1470 yen (US$13) return and you’ll be able to use the Enoden train in Kamakura, which will get you from the main station to Hasedera Temple (and near the Big Buddha). This is a good option if you’re staying near Shinjuku and want to save a few dollars.
If you have a JR Rail Pass, it will work with either the JR Yokosuka Line or the JR Shonan Shinjuku Line. (A JR Rail Pass can save you a lot of money when travelling Japan, so have a look at the details here.)
Getting from Yokohama to Kamakura
I’ve written recently about things to do in Yokohama and why the city is worth a visit for a couple of days. It’s also quicker to get from Yokohama to Kamakura, so it might make sense to do a Kamakura day trip from here.
If so, it’s very easy to use the train. From Yokohama station, you can catch either the JR Yokosuka Line or the JR Shonan Shinjuku Line. Either one will take about 25 mins and cost 340 yen (US$3) each way.
Getting around Kamakura
Kamakura is small enough and the main sites are close enough to each other that it is possible to walk between everything if you want. However, that does add up to a lot of walking in one day and takes up a bit of time, so you may prefer to use public transport.
If so, a good option is to buy the Kamakura Free Kankyo Tegata travel pass. It costs 570 yen for an adult or 290 yen for a child and offers unlimited bus rides for the day, which will be able to take you to all the main sights I have mentioned in the itinerary.
You can buy it at the tourist information office at Kamakura station or at the Engakuji souvenir shop near Kita-Kamakura station.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Kanagawa Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.