An hour south of Tokyo lies the seaside town of Kamakura, which is a popular side trip for visitors to Japan thanks to its “Daibutsu” Great Buddha of Kamakura statue and gorgeous Kotokuin Temple, among other things. In this post, we’ll share some thoughts and photos from our visit to Kamakura (namely, these two sites).
We visited Kamakura on a summer trip to Japan, as the allure of a beach was fascinating to us, and Kamakura was billed to us as an interesting coastal town with sand beaches that made it a popular destination during the warmer months. While it definitely was not what we expected in that department, we found Kamakura to be a charming town with temples, shrines, monuments, and a variety of tourist-y shops and restaurants.
Due to its many historical and cultural landmarks, Kamakura is sometimes referred to as the Kyoto of Eastern Japan. Honestly, it reminded us a lot more of a place like Himeji than Kyoto, but we can understand the basis of the comparison. In any case, we really enjoyed our visit to Kamakura, particularly Kotokuin Temple…
However, this isn’t a Kamakura guide so much as it is info and tips for the Great Buddha and Kotokuin Temple, so let’s turn our discussion to those points of interest. The Great Buddha (or Daibutsu) of Kamakura is one of Japan’s most famous historical landmarks, dating back to 1252.
The giant statue is made of bronze, and is a representation of Amida Buddha. Technically, it’s part of Kotokuin Temple (so our “and” isn’t entirely apt). Originally, this Great Buddha was gold-plated and located inside of a temple building. The original building was destroyed by tsunami in 1492, and the statue has stood in the open air since.
Only traces of gold-leaf remain around the ears of the Daibutsu of Kamakura, which is the second largest Buddha in Japan, after the one at Todaiji Temple in Nara. As Great Buddha enthusiasts (not really), we’ve also visited the one in Nara as well as the one in Hong Kong, and can confirm: they’re all big and/or great. (Sorry, I don’t know what else to say.)
The Daibutsu of Kamakura weighs 93 tons and is over 40 feet tall. This Great Buddha is hollow, and you can actually go inside the sacred monument for a nominal fee. While the above photo may not really look like anything, it’s a fisheye shot I took upward of this interior. In person, this is fairly fascinating, as you can see how the statue was cast and assembled.
Personally, I think there’s a lot of beauty to Kotokuin Temple aside from the Great Buddha, but it’s definitely overshadowed by the giant statue. There are also some poetic stone monuments, smaller details, and some pretty landscaping. Definitely nothing grandiose, but enough to provide a minor temple experience so it’s not just a matter of commuting an hour-plus from Tokyo, walking up, gazing at the Great Buddha for a few minutes, and then going back to Tokyo.
Speaking of visitors coming from Tokyo, it’s about a 10-minute bus ride to Kotokuin Temple from Kamakura Station or around a 25-minute walk. We’d recommend the walk, as it takes you throw an area of town that features a lot of open-air shopping (on the weekend when we visited, this was basically a large marketplace). There were plenty of interesting things to see along the way, and Kotokuin Temple was incredibly easy to find. (You can see the Great Buddha as you approach.)
At a price of only 200 yen, we think Kotokuin Temple is worth the money. The question remains as to whether Kamakura and Kotokuin Temple are worth your time. If this is your first visit to Japan, I’d say it’s not worth it. I think people tend to overestimate the impact of seeing one of these giant Buddha statues; to be sure, they’re cool, but none of them are day-trip material on a first visit to Tokyo.
That’s what you’re looking at with a visit to Kamakura, and you’ll easily lose 3 hours just in the round-trip commute time. That plus spending time at the temple, visiting a couple of other shrines & temples, having a meal or two, and suddenly this visit to Kamakura is an all-day affair. That’s a pretty steep opportunity cost, and you could see numerous things in Tokyo during that time.
In fairness, there is enough in Kamakura to make this an day-trip worthy destination, but if you haven’t already experienced Tokyo for a week or longer, it’s a tough sell. The best justification for a first-time visitor to Japan is probably a desire to see more culturally-significant temples, but that only works if you’re not visiting Kyoto.
If you are also visiting Kyoto and are jonesing for a Great Buddha fix, I would recommend Nara over Kamakura. Not just because Todaiji Temple is superior to Kotokuin Temple (it is), but also because Nara as a destination is better than Kamakura. That’s no knock on Kamakura–it’s just that Nara is incredibly unique (seeing the ‘devious deer’ that roam Nara is worth it alone) and fascinating.
Overall, Kamakura is a neat place with an enjoyable atmosphere that makes it distinct from Tokyo, and Kotokuin Temple with its Great Buddha is an exceptional point of interest. If you’ve been to Japan on a prior trip or have several weeks, it very well might be worth your adding to your itinerary. In no way do we regret visiting Kamakura, but we also did it on our 5th trip to Japan.
Have you visited Kotokuin Temple in Kamakura? Did you think seeing the Great Buddha was worth your time, or was it a “that’s it?” experience for you? Would you recommend the side trip to Kamakura, or would you recommend skipping it? Any insight into this temple or tips for visiting beyond what we’ve shared here? Any questions? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!