In 1185, the Minamoto clan defeated the Taira clan during the Gempei War. Minamoto Yomitoro was appointed as Shogun in 1192 and established the headquarters of his shogunate in Kamakura, on the southern coast of Japan. In 1221, the Hojo regents who ruled from Kamakura defeated the Imperial army in Kyoto, and took control of all Japan. Kamakura was the Japanese capital until 1333, when emperor Go-Daigo was able to regain control, and the seat of power returned to Kyoto.
My husband loves the samurai history of Japan, and when he read about Kamakura in one of his history books, we had a look online and saw that it is a really beautiful place, right on the sea, with lots of things to see and do.
And so, we decided to spend a couple of days at the seaside on our last trip to Japan.
We booked in at the Kamejikan (かめじかん/亀時間) guest house, not far from Zaimokuza Beach, which was the main port for Kamakura in the 13th century. Kamejikan has been refurbished and is run by a Buddhist collective of friends. The name means Turtle Time and the ethos is one of slowing down and enjoying life as it comes. Everything at the ryokan is turtle themed, from the eclectic mix of key rings, to the turtle design stamped onto cushions or pasted onto the paper room dividers.
We travelled to Kamakura from Kyoto, taking the Shinkansen to Shin-Yokohama and then changing to a local train to Yokohama and then another local train to Kamakura. We did well, despite travelling on a Saturday and the Shinkansen being really busy, until we arrived at Yokohama station and started to see the unexpected – train cancellations and delays on the electronic boards above the platforms. We waited on our platform to catch the 13.49 to Kamakura. 30 minutes passed and no train came, and then it was cancelled. The wind was blowing a gale across the platforms and it was difficult to stay upright at times, so we knew the reason for the delays! Apparently a typhoon was blowing in across Tokyo Bay and the lines along the coast were flooded in places. I managed to use my Japanese to ask a station guard when the next train to Kamakura would leave (what I said was “鎌倉に次の電車は何時ですか” – it seemed to work), and he pointed us to a train heading for Zushi. Instead of continuing on, though, it stopped in Ofuna and we had to change again for a train we could have caught at Yokohama if we’d just waited 5 minutes! It was an experience, that’s for sure. Train travel in Japan is easy when nothing goes wrong. Not having good enough Japanese makes it harder when things don’t go to schedule! My repeated asking of “この電車は鎌倉に行きますか” didn’t always get a response. Perhaps it was my accent…
We took the bus to the guest house, and were on the edges of our seats for most of the journey trying to work out from the electronic display how many coins we would need to put into the payment slot at the end of the journey. We had only ridden on the flat fare buses in Kyoto at that point, and watching the changing numbers on the display without understanding what they meant left us a little fraught. We worked it out, though – we were the last stop on the circular route and so we paid the price from the first stop on the route, at the station. When we arrived at Kamejikan, the staff were very concerned that we had been so delayed and worried that we had been caught up in the typhoon. They took us to our room and showed us around the amenities and explained how things worked with the communal area.
The guesthouse is a 3-5 minute walk from Zaimokuza beach, so after we had unpacked, we decided to take a stroll along the shore. The weather was improving, although there were still some dramatic dark clouds over Kamakura town to the west.
We walked along the beach, watching people beach-combing and gazing out to see. There was lots of evidence of surfing being a big thing in the town.
As we walked up from the beach to the roadway, we saw a timely reminder of the events of the previous year in Sendai:
We wandered along the roadway, hoping to see somewhere that we could eat. The only vegetarian place we’d found on Happy Cow was north of the town, at Kita Kamakura, and we didn’t want to make another train journey so soon after arriving. We saw a Japanese style Spanish tapas bar and a German restaurant, but neither of those grabbed us. When we had walked down to the beach near to the guesthouse, we had spotted an Indian restaurant just set back from the sea front. We didn’t really want to go for curry, though, but it turned out that this was the only place available to us while we hadn’t orientated ourselves properly. I wish that I knew what it was called, but I don’t. All I can say is that, if you stay at Kamejikan and walk down to the sea, before you pass under the road, turn left and walk up the steps. The Indian restaurant is a couple of buildings along, set back and raised up, with a sign that features a happy looking naan bread.
We were very glad that we went. The food was great. It was quiet, with only 3 other diners, but still lovely. We had delicious paneer and aubergine dishes, with a massive naan bread, all washed down with a couple of bottles of the local Kamakura ale. Definitely a recommended place to eat. As good as any of the best restaurants along the curry mile in Manchester.
The next day, we were served a breakfast of toast, a boiled egg and vegetable soup with a choice of teas and coffees. We chatted with the woman who was cooking the food. She asked where we were from and revealed that she had spent 2 weeks in Ramsgate at a language college to improve her English, which was very good. She asked about our plans for the day, and we told her that we were heading into town to look at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine and then we were going to spend the afternoon on Enoshima.
First we headed back to the beach, though, and watched the surfers who almost filled the sea along the full length of the coastline.
From the beach, we walked up Wakamiya-Oji Dori, the main street into town, to the point where it becomes Dankazura, the cherry tree-lined pedestrian street leading up to Hachimangu shrine.
Hachimangu is Kamakura’s most important shrine, and on the day we visited it was full of people. Lots of them seemed to be families bringing their newborn or very young children to be blessed by the priests. There were also lots of people there to see the just emerging cherry blossoms, and one tree in particular was gaining a lot of attention.
After looking round the shrine, we headed into town and wandered along some of the shopping streets. Kamakura is known for its wooden goods, and plenty of the shops sell trinkets and more substantial goods carved from the local wood. We also found a shop that sold the beer we had tried at the Indian restaurant – made by the Kamakura Beer Co. We bought bottles of Kamakura Moon and Kamakura Star. Moon is an ale with lovely hoppy tones and a hint of the sea about it. Star is a lager, which R drank. I wish we could buy it in the UK, it’s so good.
After a lunch of zaru soba in a restaurant halfway between the shrine and the train station, we caught the Enoden electric train from behind Kamakura station to Enoshima. Enoshima is an island connected by a large road and foot bridge to the mainland, and is packed full of things to see and do. The 23 minute journey along the coast was very pretty, if crowded. We bought a day pass for 580円, with the plan that we would get off at some other tourist spots on the way back. From the station, it is a short stroll along a small shopping street to the seafront, and then a longer walk across the bridge. Almost instantly, you begin to climb up the street to the Benzeiten Shrine. It is pretty steep! At the shrine, we decided to take the escalator up to the top of the island and then walk back down, visiting the sights on our way down. It was a good move!
The island has stunning views from the top, but if you want even more spectacular panoramic views, go up the Sea Candle Lighthouse near to the Samuel Cocking Garden. The ticket is a combined ticket, but is worth it for the Sea Candle experience alone, if you’re not keen on formal gardens. It was a windy day, so we weren’t allowed out onto the very top platform, but the views from the glass-enclosed viewing area was good enough.
Enoshima has a link to Kamakura in the torii gate given to the island by Minamoto Yoritomo when his prayer to win the war against the Fujiwara clan was granted. The torii sits among a collection of shrine buildings at the top of the island.
There was too much for us to see and do in just an afternoon, and so we made a plan to return the next time we are in Japan, and started to make our way down off the island to catch the train to Hase and the Dai Butsu statue at Kotokuin Temple.
Sadly, we arrived just 5 minutes after the gates had closed, so all we could see was the Buddha peeping over the gate! We weren’t the only ones not to have checked the opening hours for the temple, though.
We hopped back on the train to Kamakura and then transferred to the JR line, bound for Kita Kamakura and the Hachinoki restaurant that we’d seen on Happy Cow. After a short walk in the gathering gloom of the evening, we managed to find the restaurant and, seeing through the windows that it was empty, we walked up the path to the door. A man emerged from the building, so we asked whether we could eat. He gruffly told us “Reservations only” and began taking in one of the signs outside the door. Now, the restaurant was clearly empty, so a reservation shouldn’t have been necessary. Perhaps he wanted to tell us that they were closing (at 5 p.m.?) but didn’t know the English. Perhaps he just didn’t like the look of us. Whatever it was, we didn’t get to try out their shojin ryori fare, but turned around for the station again and headed back to the Indian restaurant in Kamakura. Disppointing in a sense, but we were welcomed back at the Indian restaurant as though we were regulars, and had another feast. So definitely try it out if you’re ever in Kamakura!
We headed back to Kamejikan for our last night’s sleep in Kamakura. We had been moved into a larger room for our second night, which was in what would have been the main reception room of the house when it was a private residence. It was a fantastic space, with an alcove containing a scroll and flower arrangement, and wall supports carved from tree branches. All had been lovingly restored by the new owners, and the amount of space we had was luxurious.
In the morning, the light through the shutters was beautiful.
Before we took our leave, we gave our luggage to the guesthouse owner for safe-keeping and took a last walk down to the beach. It being a Monday, there weren’t any surfers this time, just people combing the beach for things to recycle.
We picked up our luggage from the guesthouse and caught the bus back to the train station, then set off for Kawaguchiko.
Kamakura is a beautiful place, with loads to see and do. We only gave ourselves a day and a half, really, what with travelling to and fro, which wasn’t long enough. You can visit it in a day from Tokyo, and many people who live in the capital do, making it really busy on the weekend. I would recommend going to stay for 3 or 4 days, and trying to include some weekdays as well as (or instead of) the weekend. If you visit in April, try to time your stay with the Kamakura Festival, which looks great. We were a week early, so didn’t get to experience it!
Kamejikan comes highly recommended as well. Not only is the accommodation lovely, but the people who run it are super friendly and helpful. They also run occasional fund raising events and invite guest speakers on a topic, and in the summer they open up the dining area as a café. It is a little out of the way from the town centre, but only a short bus ride away and you are right at the beach too. I can’t wait to go back.