Fighting for the samurais

For a city once the centre of Japan’s power, it was sad to be rejected for the World Heritage List. After all, this is the birthplace of the samurai.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Kamakura, Japan

In May of this year, the Japanese city of Kamakura was dealt a cruel blow.

It was once the effective centre of the country’s life, when the rulers of the city used brute force to crush rival clans 800 years ago. Kamakura was strong and proud. Now, the pride may remain, but strong it is not.

That show of force in the 12th century was the first time in Japan’s history that a family of great power was able to effectively steal control of the country from the imperial court.

It was the beginning of a new warrior class in Japan – or, to put it in a different way, this was the birth of the samurais and Kamakura was its father.

Visit Kamakura, samurai town, Japan

You would have thought this would have been an extremely important time and place in the history of Japan.

Kamakura, as a city, still has a large number of temples, shrines and monuments founded during this period or in the lead-up to it.

So the city had applied to be included on the World Heritage List, the ultimate collection of the world’s cultural and natural history.

This year, it was one of just a few dozen sites to be officially considered for inclusion on the list. And then in May, the bombshell.

Kamakura found out that UNESCO’s advisors were going to recommend the application be rejected.

Visit Kamakura, samurai town, Japan
Visit Kamakura, samurai town, Japan

The governor of Kanagawa, Yuji Kuroiwa, told the Japan Times that he was “shocked and felt as if everything around me became black”.

So much effort had been put into this bid and the city was so confident of success. After all, this is where the samurais had first come from and everyone around the world has a romantic fascination with the ancient Japanese warriors.

But that, at its heart, was the problem with the application. It had relied too much on the connection with the samurai class.

After five days of evaluations on site, and after consulting several independent sources, the conclusion by the international experts was that there just wasn’t enough evidence of that time.

Visit Kamakura, samurai town, Japan
Visit Kamakura, samurai town, Japan

The way the final report put it was, “however remarkable and important the history of the place may be, it is not supported by a sufficiently complete and outstanding heritage testimony”.

In other words, there is no doubt that Kamakura and its samurais are hugely significant in the cultural story of Japan – there just isn’t enough evidence left from those days.

The Japanese authorities have refused to give up, though. They withdrew the application in June before it could be officially turned down by UNESCO.

If the rejection had been formalised then Japan could never have applied again. But by withdrawing it earlier, there’s always the option of trying another year.

Visit Kamakura, samurai town, Japan

Visiting Kamakura

It’s hard to know how Japan would be able to make their bid more attractive, though.

There is a lot to see already in Kamakura – the Hase-dera Temple, the Kotoku-in Buddha, Kencho-ji Temple and the Tsuruoka Hachiman-gu Shrine are just a few of the highlights.

Because the city is only 50 kilometres from Tokyo, it has a steady stream of tourists and the sites are all well-maintained with plenty of historical information available.

Visit Kamakura, samurai town, Japan
Visit Kamakura, samurai town, Japan

The problem is that this collection of temples and shrines is not enough alone to warrant inscription on the World Heritage List. The international advisors said themselves that they don’t compare favourably enough to other temple complexes in Japan.

What would set Kamakura apart is evidence of the samurai culture… but that has mostly been lost and built over.

Visit Kamakura, samurai town, Japan
Visit Kamakura, samurai town, Japan

The report put it like this: “The tangible testimonies of the places of shogunal power, other than the temples, are few in number and are often rather inexplicit. The Medieval city of the plain is absent from the property, and today has been overlain by 20th century urban development.”

“Apart from the remains of the port, which are in a very poor condition, nothing really provides testimony to the way the city of Kamakura functioned economically and socially during the shogunate period.”

Visit Kamakura, samurai town, Japan

From a tourist’s perspective, Kamakura is a beautiful place to visit for a day. It is similar in many respects to visiting Kyoto or Nara because of the range of traditional religious structures spread out over the city.

It is certainly not as impressive as either of those two cities but it is much easier to get to from Tokyo for people who aren’t planning to head further south in Japan.

It would be an enormous source of pride for the Kamakura authorities to get their city listed among Nara and Kyoto (and more than 900 other places around the world). It clearly offends them deeply that they are not given the same recognition.

But if the crowd sizes on the day I visited are anything to go by, there is plenty of interest in the birthplace of the samurai… and hopefully that is enough to satisfy for now.


Although you can visit as a day trip from Tokyo or Yokohama, Kamakura is a great place to stay overnight. Here are my accomodation tips.


For a cool backpacker vibe, I would recommend Iza Kamakura Hostel & Bar.


There is a very comfortable place called Guesthouse Shibafu, which is great value for Kamakura.


If you want more of a standard hotel room, Sotetsu Fresa Inn is an excellent option.


And when it comes to luxury, the Kamakura Park Hotel is lovely and even has water views.

12 thoughts on “Fighting for the samurais”

    • Yeah, it’s tough for places trying to apply to be on the list. You’ve got to have the application perfect otherwise you’ll never get a second chance (unless you pull out like Kamakura did). It’s why most countries wait years until they’re sure their bid will be accepted – and they often don’t put anything forward at all.

    • I’m not sure it’s going to help them in the future but at least it gives them a bit more flexibility. Even though the history is there, there are quite strict rules for being accepted and it can be really difficult.

  1. I can only begin to imagine the extraordinary amount of work that must have gone into preparing the application and the excitement of waiting for the expected change in status to a UNESCO World Heritage site. Based on your article, I can’t help but hope they are able to succeed in the future and am thrilled to know that regardless of whether that wish is ever granted, people from around the world will continue to flock to Kamakura in order to explore it’s extraordinary history and culture.

    • For their sake, I hope they manage to get listed at some point. It’s hard to know if that will be possible, though. Although Kamakura gets quite a few tourists, it’s still not high on the list for most tourists. They definitely would like even more people coming, I imagine.

  2. That definitely sucks for the city of Kamakura. Though I can understand where UNESCO is coming from. Sadly too many historical sites have significant loss from development and/or poor maintenance. Grander temples being kept up while other remnants get cast aside.

    • Exactly. You need to be quite strict with the conditions otherwise there would be lots more places on the list and it would lose it value. In some ways, everywhere has a certain amount of cultural value. The key is making sure the World Heritage List has just the best of the best.

    • It is fascinating – and stunning! But that’s not good enough to get on the World Heritage List. In theory, it also need proven significance. (I say ‘in theory’ because some of the ones on there are probably questionable…)


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