Kamakura | a day with trees, shrines and temples

To get a break from the big city of Tokyo, a day trip to Kamakura – just an hour away by train – is the ideal destination. In hindsight, we consider this one of the highlights of our journey to Japan as it perfectly summarizes its extensive culture and offers a nice hike in the woods. Are you ready for some temples and Buddha’s? Kamakura is also being called ‘Small Kyoto’ and it surely lives up to this name.

As Kamakura has a lot to offer, we take an early train from Tokyo, right in the middle of the morning peak hour. With our backpacks filled with bento boxes, we head for our train to Kamakura. Only after leaving Yokohama station there are finally enough seats for all passengers. Although Yokohama is a city of more than 3.7 million inhabitants, it feels like we never left the never-ending suburbs of Tokyo. Only after a while the cityscape is finally replaced with a more rural setting. When we get off at Kita-Kamakura station the speed of life seems to have slowed down a couple of gears.


Even though it’s September, Kamakura is still lushly green and tropically hot. Luckily the omnipresent trees provide sufficient shade. As we climb the stairs towards Engaku-ji, it’s clear that our bodies have yet to adjust to the climate. The advantage of rising early is made clear again when we reach the entrance of the complex and are admitted as the first visitors of the day. This gives us the opportunity to enjoy the place in silence and contemplation.

Sanmon Engaku-ji

Engaku-ji was built in 1282 in honour of the victims of the two Mongolian invasions some time earlier. It lies beautifully on the slope of a hill surrounded by ancient cedar trees. The first building we pass is the Sanmon, the big entrance gate. The rest of the buildings lay scattered around the hill, housing relics, hidden gardens and ponds. On our way out, we climb some steep stairs to the highest point to look at Ōgane, the biggest bell in Kamakura and a national treasure. The bell is 2.5 meters tall and more than 700 years old. Through the overgrowth, we have a nice view of the surrounding area and the neighbouring temple.

Daibutsu hiking trail

We skip the neighbouring temple and start our hike on the Daibutsu hiking trail to Hase and the giant Buddha statue. The paths are mostly well kept, but it’s still advisable to wear good hiking shoes. The path starts out as a road but quickly turns into an unpaved path going ever steeper upwards and through thick groves of trees and bushes. It’s hard work in the head and humidity, but overcoming this now will hasten our adjustment to the tropical circumstances.


As we reach the top of the first hill we come upon Kuzuharaoka shrine. Our first Shinto shrine of the day. Pictures explain us how to wash our hands before approaching the shrine and how to pay our proper respects. The turtles swimming in a little pond, a bench and a soda machine make this a good place for our first break to regain our breath.

Zeniarai Benzaiten

Reenergized, we continue our walk, but only for a short time. Because we have already arrived at our next stop. Hidden behind a small long tunnel lies Zeniarai Benzaiten, one of the most charming Shinto shrines. The shrine lies in pit-like area surrounded by natural walls on all sides with a waterfall flowing into a pond. The main attraction is a cave with a little stream inside. This is the shrine of Zeniarai Benzaiten, the money washing goddess of luck and fortune. It is said that all money which is washed in the stream will be doubled. We’re always in need of some extra pocket money, so we put our bills and coins in a basket and wash them copying the ritual from the Japanese.

Sasuke Inari shrine

Satisfied with this turn of our fortune, we leave via the back exit to visit another Shinto shrine. After some steep climbing, we come upon a path of red torii and banners which guide us ever upwards toward Sasuke Inari shrine. This is also the site of the hidden village of Kamakura, from where the predecessors of the Ninjas worked to eliminate the enemies of the Kamakura Shogunate.

Sasuke Inari shrine
Sasuke Inari shrine

Inari is the ‘kami’ of foxes, rice and agriculture. Which is made obvious since we’re surrounded by thousands of little statues of white foxes. Many of them covered in moss. Because this shrine is off the beaten path it retains its reclusive nature and feels in touch with its natural surroundings. We continue into the dark forest and further up the hill on our way to the Daibutsu. As we clear the forest and the hill we have a splendid view of the sea in the distance and know that our destination lies somewhere in-between.

As we say goodbye to the forest, we walk toward the rural town of Hase. Coming from the opposite direction than most tourist, we are harshly reminded of the fact that we’re not alone in wanting to see the Buddha as we come upon the stream of tourist making their way to the entrance.

Kamakura Daibutsu

Kamakura Daibutsu

As we enter the Kōtoku-in temple complex, we already see the grand Buddha in the distance. Work on the construction of the statue known as Kamakura Daibutsu began in 1252 and has since been repaired many times. It has been hit by Typhoons, earthquakes, fire and tsunami’s, but it still survives. It’s slightly smaller than the Daibutsu in Nara, but it packs more of a visual punch. Mainly because it’s out in the open and visible from all sides. There is no temple building surrounding it since they kept being destroyed and thereby damaging and endangering the statue itself.


On our way to the train station of Hase, we visit Hase-dera, another temple complex with a big statue. This temple is known for its biggest wooden Kannon statue. Legend tells that it was carved in the original town of Hase near Nara, together with another statue from the same tree. The statue was then pushed into the sea and washed ashore here. After which a temple was built on that site to house the statue. The main building is on a platform overlooking Kamakura and its bay.


After our fair share of walking, we took the train from Hase station back to the central station of Kamakura to make our way to Hachimangū from there. Next to the main approach of the temple is Komachi street, lined with shops and eateries, so we took that street instead to enjoy some local ice-cream.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū is the Miamoto’s clan guardian shrine and dates back to 1063. As we walk in we cross Genpei pond, filled with water lilies. It’s a favourite spot for romantic pictures. The complex also houses the Kamakura Museum of National Treasures which has some altering National treasures from its collection on display.


Zen garden

We take the side exit towards Kenchō-ji, our last temple of the day. Kenchō-ji is the headquarter of the Buddhist Rinzai sect and the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan. There are several nice buildings in the complex. We go into the Hōjō hall and walk the outer balconies on our socks. This brings us to the backend Zen garden, the oldest remaining in Japan. At the far end of the complex lies Hansōbō, a gold guilded shrine. This is a nice place to end this busy temple and shrine tour.

As we walk back towards the station we are joined by hundreds of uniformed Japanese high school students who have also finished their day. Time for us to get back to Tokyo! Read the rest of our series for more tips on what to do in Tokyo.

Kamakura day trip

Religious Japan

There are two big religious traditions in Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism. Shinto is Japan’s traditional religion. Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century from Korea. A majority of the Japanese doesn’t belong to any of the organised versions of these religions. But over 80% do partake in religious traditions and ceremonies. Travelling to Koyasan provides a better understanding of the organised side of religion in Japan. Walking the Kumano Kodo is a more individual experience.


Koyasan is the center of Shingon Buddhism. Kobo Daishi introduced this Buddhist sect in 805. In 826, Kobo Daishi started to build his temple headquarters in Koyasan. Since then the mountain has been filled with temples. This makes Koyasan the ideal place to sleep in a temple and experience the morning rituals of the monks.

Travelling to Koyasan

While travelling from Osaka to Koyasan, the landscape slowly transforms around us. From the urban and suburban sprawls of Osaka, to the surrounding country side with its rice fields. In turn the flat landscape is almost instantly replaced, this time by the rising hills and mountains. The train crosses rivers and gorges and starts to climb more and more until we arrive at Gokuraku-bashi. Koyasan is now a dramatic climb by cable car away. The climb provides ever wider vistas of the surrounding area. Then the trees start closing us in and we have arrived at the mountain.

A bus brings us to the temples in the town. The temples lay scattered along the main road through the village. Staying the night in one of them is a great way to explore the religious side of Japan. The young Buddhist monks in training will tend to our needs. They are quite well versed in English and willing to converse about their training and Buddhism in general. As we settle into our room, the young monk serves our tea. We enjoy it with open screen doors looking out over the inner garden.

Okunoin cemetery

Our temple is at the edge of the town and a short walk away from Okunoin cemetery. As we walk along the path the sun rays shine through the forest roof lighting singular tombstones. Moss covers most tombstones which enhances the ancient feeling of the place. Silently we make our way to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi.

It’s said that Kobo Daishi is in eternal meditation in this place. He will return as Miroku, the Future Buddha at which time he will lead the faithful to salvation. This is the reason why this is the biggest cemetery in Japan. As we make our way back to our temple, we marvel at all the different tombstones. Some are for people others are for entire companies. Those tombstones are in the shape of the logo or product of the company, for example a big rocket.

Temple lodging
Diner in a temple

Back in the temple, we’re served a great vegan meal, tofu has never tasted this good before. It’s a good opportunity to taste some completely different flavours since the meal is also prepared without garlic. After dinner, we head back to Okunoin cemetery to experience it in the darkness. Lanterns light the path and the tombstones closest to it. The eerie silence combined with the darkness makes the place far spookier than during the day. You can go on a guided tour, which gives more information about the different tombstones and myths surrounding the cemetery. But it takes away from the solemn feeling when exploring on your own.

Konpon Daitō
Konpon Daitō

Morning ceremony

At six a.m., we join the monks in their morning ceremony together with the other guests. The head monk leads us in prayer. A younger monk plays the drum and cymbals to guide the prayer and help us reach a trance-like state. At the end, the head monk asks us to light some incense and ring a bell to honour our ancestors. After the ceremony, he guides us to another part of the temple for a fire ceremony. This purification ritual is more spectacular and explains why many temples have burned down. Our stay in the temple ends with a vegan breakfast and we head to the centre of town to visit the main temple complexes. We head up to the top of the mountain to get some spectacular views. We see the sea in the distance and say our goodbyes to this special place.

Kumano Kodo

A good starting base for the Kumano Kodo is Tanabe at the coast. This sleepy provincial town has affordable accommodation and plenty of good food options. Buses leave from the JR station to different stages of the walking route.

Walking in the rain

If you are pressed for time and have only a day to walk, Yunomine Onsen is a great place to start your walk from. It has the only UNESCO World Heritage onsen. Get a ticket at the nearby shop if you want to take a unique soak in this natural hot spring.

Our walk

Our walk started across the road and immediately devolved into a steep climb. We were there when the front of a tropical storm was passing the peninsula, so the paths turned into rivers and the views were misty and moody. The forest was alive with amphibious lifeforms. Hundreds of tiny land crabs were crawling on the ground and frogs were jumping around. Soon we were completely soaked, our shoes splashing with every step. Suddenly a giant toad blocked our path. It’s these kinds of meetings that gives understanding to the origins of fairy tales and fables.

Tim on trail
Hiking in the rain

We continued climbing the hills through the dark forest and felt the silence and emptiness around us. It’s at these moments that you can easily imagine a world without men. Which in turn gives a certain perspective to man’s place in the universe. As we came upon the main route, the path became wider and the forest receded and made place for some open spaces. The cloudy misty views over the hilltops and the valleys made us appreciate skies which aren’t clear blue all the time. After a good day’s walk, we reached Kumano Hongu Taisha. This is one of the three Kumano Grand Shrines and the end of our little pilgrimage.

Hongu Taisha
Hongu Taisha

Hongu Taisha

Cliches like “it’s the route, not the destination” come to mind when talking about travel. Kumano Hongu Taisha isn’t an impressive complex. But getting there with all the other pilgrims still provided us with a human connection and a sense of achievement. So, in the end there certainly is value in the destination.

Religious Jaopan