The city of Kamakura offers travelers a break from the bustle of the Japanese capital. Here’s a full-day itinerary that takes in the essential sights and sounds — and involves hopping on and off a charming vintage railway
For almost 150 years Kamakura had it all. Shoguns ruled the land from this wealthy, temple-studded city by the sea in Kanagawa prefecture, until 1333 when the seat of power shifted 55km north to Edo, as Tokyo was called then. This once powerful capital was left to languish. But look at Kamakura today and it still has it all, in a manner of speaking. Its historic temples and shrines have earned it the nickname Kyoto of the East, and its beaches and water sports, hiking trails and food scene mean there are plenty of reasons to spend a day or a weekend exploring the area.
On the right track
One of the highlights of an excursion here is the charming old Enoshima Electric Railway. The little Enoden railroad (as it’s nicknamed) is so quaint that it could be mistaken for the set of a feel-good vintage movie built on a vast studio backlot. It may be more than 100 years old, and may only run on a 10km track, but it makes easy work of seeing the area’s many landscapes and attractions. And in true Japanese spirit, you can set your watch by this train-cum-streetcar. It’s essential that you can because this railroad runs on a single track, and five of its 15 stations have passing loops that let trains heading in the opposite direction pass. And so every 12 minutes, from 6am to 10pm, services head out from both termini to make the 33-minute journey.
And what a pocket-sized epic journey it is — into tunnels and over bridges from historical Kamakura to modern Fujisawa on the edge of the Tokyo commuter belt, passing by temple hot spot Hase and island playground Enoshima along the way. Out the window, you’ll see seaside communities and small-town high streets, backyards and beaches, leafy lanes and tree-shrouded shrines. Sometimes it’s a streetcar running beside shops and townhouses, even stopping by the second-floor of a department store in Fujisawa (it makes sense when you’re there), and at other times it chugs along the coastline of crashing surf, with views across to Enoshima Island and on a clear day all the way to Mount Fuji.
The entire route may just take half an hour, but do get an early-morning start on your exploring. The Enoden connects at both ends to JR’s Yokosuka and Shonan Shinjuku lines, meaning that big-city day-trippers often bring with them the capital’s hurry-scurry, and by the afternoons are blasting through a whistle-stop tour of the key sites and experiences en masse. That’s when it’s time for you to take a break from your wandering: head to the beach, or go hiking into the hills around Kamakura. The joy of staying overnight is that you can simply sidestep the crowds, which reach their peak from about noon to 5pm.
Hase to Kamakura
Hase, in western Kamakura, is best visited in the morning, perhaps even as early as 7.30am, when Kotoku-in temple’s Great Buddha — or Daibutsu, one of the tallest in Japan — is kissed by the morning sun, away from the gaze of too many onlookers. This 13.35m-high bronze statue was originally built inside a great hall, where it sat protected and glistening in gold for almost 250 years until a tsunami washed away the temple’s wooden structures in 1498. Half-a-kilometer’s amble away, Hase-dera temple safeguards an equally precious artifact: its 11-headed Kannon which, reaching 9.18 meters in height, is one of the largest wooden Buddhist effigies in the country, and predates the Daibutsu by 500 years.
After all of that divine artistry, the route back to the Enoden’s Hase station passes a little bit of hipster heaven: perk up with hand-brewed coffee out of the back of a camper van, called Idobata Coffee (check the website for the occasional off day). It’s a good cup of joe that will set you up for the five-minute journey back to central Kamakura.
One of the Enoden’s two termini, Kamakura station is brimming with tourists arriving for a day of excessive snacking on local delicacies, dressing in kimono, taking a rickshaw tour and, in between all of that, squeezing in some of the sights for which Kamakura is rightly famous: its conference of temples, nunneries, shrines and even cemeteries — the grave of sci-fi SFX trailblazer Eiji Tsuburaya, for example, is a rather busy place of pilgrimage.
If you only have the bandwidth for one final temple, then skip Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, the principal religious site here and the focus of festivals almost every month — including yabusame horseback archery each April and September — in favor of quieter Hokoku-ji, where a big draw is its grove of 2,000 bamboos. Pause for a cup of powdered green tea in Kyukoan teahouse that overlooks a cliff-walled corner of it.
For lunch, you could graze your way along Komachi-dori — the long and buzzy lane that leads from the station square to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine — stopping here for a savory bite, or there to satiate that sweet tooth. And don’t forget to head down the numerous side alleys and passages where little restaurants and coffee shops are free of shoulder-to-shoulder tides of sightseers. Try Saryo Inoue restaurant, one minute east of the station, on the second floor above Inoue Kamaboko fish-cake store. The lunchtime options include the excellent Shirasu jyuu set that comes with a lacquered box containing chameshi (rice cooked in Japanese tea) topped with poached baby sardine whitebait, caught daily close to Enoshima. You can’t get more local or delicious than that. The catch is that there are only 20 servings available daily.
Kamakura to Shichirigahama
Once you’re refueled, it’s a coin-flip between some uptime (following a trail into the hills) or downtime (taking it easy down on the beach). Several well-signposted paths span out into the hillside around Kamakura — none are more strenuous than “moderate”, and can last between one and four hours. A good starter, and especially lovely in the fall, the Tenen Hiking Course in the north takes a leisurely two hours (6km). For more details, visit the tourist information office at the station.
Alternatively, hop back on the Enoden to Shichirigahama — which has a Californian flavor about it. People surf and paddleboard here, or walk their dogs along the water’s edge, before stopping off at one of the laid-back eateries and boutique stores along the front, such as the outpost of Australian chef Bill Granger’s restaurant chain Bills. It’s a little pricey perhaps, but has a stunning view if you can get on the balcony — prepare to queue.
From Shichirigahama, you can walk to the island of Enoshima almost entirely by sandy beach (other than a small diversion around Koyurugimisaki Cape midway) finally accessing the island by the 600m-long causeway. The tree-topped island, with its yacht haven, sweeping bays and Mount Fuji to the west, is the sailing venue of the 2020 Olympics.
Big hawks circle overhead, and to get the kind of view they enjoy of the Shonan coast, head to the Enoshima Sea Candle, a lighthouse with an observation deck (last entrance is at 7.30pm). Paths lead up to it in the lofty middle of the island, passing shrines and temples and an assortment of eateries and trinket stalls. It’s all shaded and unhurried, and all you can do is hit a restaurant — perhaps one of the cafés that are perched along the stepped path that descends from the far side of the island down to the shoreline of rock pools and caves — and watch the dusky sky turn the ocean pink and purple, then midnight blue.
This story first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Smile magazine.