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Japan's First Shogunate, Kamakura

Surf’s up in Kamakura. This trendy little town on the Pacific coast is a comfortable day trip from Tokyo. Nice beaches and a relaxed atmosphere have made it a popular spot for refugees from the big smoke. Dainty little art and craft shops cum cafes abound.

Kamakura though has a far more serious role in Japan’s history than its modern façade might suggest. Kamakura, and neighboring Tokyo, are bookends for Japan’s 700 years of Shogunate rule. Tokyo (at the time Edo) was headquarters for Japan’s final Tokugawa Shogunate, concluding in the mid 19th century with the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor to the primary seat of control. Kamakura was the capital at the beginning of Shogun power in the 12th century.

Minamoto Yoritomo was the legend who established Japan’s first Shogunate at Kamakura. Towards the close of the Heian Period, two rival clans, Hekei and Genji, clashed violently for power in Japan’s then capital of Kyoto. Hekei’s dynamic leader Taira Kiyomori was victorious in this battle, defeating and executing rival Genji leader Minamoto Yoshitomo.

Pond dedicated to Yoritomo's defeated rivals Hekei at Hachimangu Shrine

Yoshitomo had many children by various wives, one being Yoritomo. Kiyomori was compassionate in victory and rather than execute the adolescent Yoritomo, he exiled him to Izu, which was the Heian equivalent of sending someone to Siberia. The Hekei clan paid dearly for this benevolence however after Kiyomori’s death from malaria. Yoritomo grew up to establish a strong power base in eastern Japan, and eventually with half-brother Yoshitsune eliminated Kiyomori’s heir, ending the Heian Period. To be on the safe side Yoritomo had Yoshitsune executed as well, and moved from Izu to nearby Kamakura to set up his new capital and political system with himself, rather than the Emperor, as the ultimate power.

Kamakura has lots of historical goodies to share with today’s visitor that give a sense of its medieval drama. High on any visitor’s list will be the National Treasure Big Budha, made of bronze in 1252 and standing 13.3m tall. It must have made a big impression on 13th century worshippers. The statue is hollow so you can even step inside to check out the reinforcement work carried out over the centuries.

Big Budha was constructed from bronze in 1252

Even way more ancient than the Kamakura capital established by Yoritomo is the wooden statue of the Budhist goddess of mercy Kannon (Guanyin in Chinese) which can be seen at Hasedera Temple, a few minutes’ walk from the Kamakura Great Buddha. It is said that in the 8th century a monk at Nara’s Hasedera Temple carved two statues of Kannon from the same tree. One of those statues still stands at the Nara Temple. The other was thrown into the Inland Sea near Nara and washed up 15 years later at Kamakura. A second Hasedera Temple was then built at Kamakura to house this statue. At the base of the stairs leading up to the main Hasedera building which houses the Kannon is a small cave with an eerie spiritual feeling.

Very impressive also is the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, moved to Kamakura by Yoritomo. Tsuru means crane in Japanese, so crane logos can be seen in the tiled roofs of some of the temple buildings. A small museum just to the rear of the main shrine building displays some artifacts from Yoritomo’s time. At the base of the staircase that leads up to the main building stands the Maiden, a popular venue for weddings.

Tsugaoka Hachimangu Shrine's Maiden is a popular venue for weddings

My favorite spot in Kamakura is about 15 minutes’ walk from Hachimangu Shrine. On an unassuming small terrace on the side of a tree-clad hill lies Yoritomo’s grave. Resting here in peace is the youth beaten and banished from the then center of Japanese civilization, Kyoto, who later rose up to change Japan enormously. One of the cool stories of greatness from adversity.

Unassuming staircase leads up to the gave of Japan's first Shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo

Kamakura hosts a number of other temples, including 5 great Zen temples, of which Engakuji and Kenchoji are perhaps the most famous.

When you’ve had enough of temples and shrines, how about a stroll along one of Kamakura’s beaches? If you look carefully, you might even find small fragments of pottery dating back to the Kamakura capital rolling around in the sand. Happy reminders of the beginnings of eastern Japan as the nations’ power base, nearly a millennium ago.

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