I first went to Kamakura to get away from Tokyo. I had landed in the sprawling metropolis a few weeks earlier and the congestion and sweltering heat was making me second guess my decision to move to the Far East. I didn’t know much about the town, other than it had been Japan’s capital centuries ago and it had ties to the Zen Buddhism and Shinto religions. It didn’t matter really. At that point in my life my primary interest was not religion or politics; it was Kamakura’s beach – a refuge I hoped from Tokyo’s chaos.
It was walking along that beach where I made the decision to move to Kamakura. The beach itself actually wasn’t much to look at, but the town was fascinating. Laid back, drenched in history, and tastefully preserved it was the antidote I needed if my move to Japan was going to have any staying power. And it worked. I stayed for six years, launched a writing career, got married, and enjoyed one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Kamakura has a great story to tell. It briefly held center stage in Japan, serving as capital from 1185 to 1333. As capital, the town attracted Zen and Shinto leaders, and was the birthplace of Nichiren, an entirely new sect of Buddhism. At its peak, Kamakura was the fourth largest city in the world
But for the visitor that is old news, literally. The great thing about spending time in Kamakura is that it doesn’t really matter whether you are in the fourth of Japan’s five great Zen temples, or whether the beautifully ornate shrine you visited was built with the express intent of giving its patron the upper hand in massacring his rivals. The temples and shrines are so ubiquitous and well-preserved that the aesthetics alone are enough to make the 40-minute train ride from Tokyo worthwhile.
And for those adventurous enough to go beyond the main tourist attractions, stumbling across a remote shrine or temple can be as rewarding as visiting sites like the popular Hachiman Shrine (built to garner divine support for Kamakura’s military objectives) and the iconic Daibutsu (Big Buddha), one of the largest bronze statues in the world.
If you time it right, Kamakura also plays host to some great festivals. These include Kamakura Matsuri, a week-long April celebration of the history of the town. Kamakura is also a popular place for the rite of passage festival Shichi-Go-San, a November event celebrating children successfully reaching the ages of 7, 5, and 3 years.
But as with many interesting travel destinations, Kamakura is best at its quietest, when there is nothing particularly going on. That’s then when you can most appreciate its antique religious monuments and the skills and passions that formed them. That is what drew me into the town and kept me there for than half a decade.