Visitors to Kamakura are spoiled for choice. There are more than 1,000 religious structures -- many with historical roots in the 13th and 14th centuries when Kamakura was the political capital of Japan -- museums, Meiji-period buildings, boutiques, restaurants, beaches and green, hilly hiking trails. These attractions and Kamakura’s convenience to Tokyo make it an extremely popular destination for day-trippers.
As popular as Kamakura is, there is always something new to explore and opportunities to avoid crowds. On Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays through March 23, avid explorers can enjoy a bit of Kamakura history not usually available: the Mandarado Yagura.
“Yagura” are caves that contain the remains of samurai warriors, Buddhist monks and sometimes wealthy merchants. They can be found across Japan, but history and topography have resulted in large numbers of “yagura” in Kamakura. The Mandarado Yagura, which is comprised of more than 160 caves in three tiers on a 10-meter cliff, is the largest known collection of “yagura” in Japan. As a gravesite, it has so far been dated only to the 15th century. It was surveyed and restored by volunteers and re-opened to the public on a limited basis from 2014, making this a rare opportunity to visit the site.
Mandarado Yagura sits atop the hill that separates Zushi from Kamakura. Although in our modern age both cars and trains whiz along tunnels through the hill, historical travellers as long ago as the early 13th century used a footpath over the hill, passing just below the Mandarado Yagura. This ancient footpath is now a popular hiking trail that passes through three cuttings known as the Nagoe Kiridoshi. Even without a stop at the yagura, this trail, with its dramatically high, narrow cuttings, is a scenic respite from urban life.
I recommend taking a bus to the base of the hill (details below), exploring the “kiridoshi” and the “yagura,” and then walking to Kamakura Station with stops at a number of other historical sites as well.
When you get off the bus, look up the road for the spot where cars emerge from one tunnel and then enter another. On the right hand side is a junk shop and on the left hand side you will see a modern stairway leading up the hill above one of the tunnel entrances. This stairway leads to a trail that continues upward to the main trail. At the main trail, you need to go left (in the direction of Kamakura) to reach the Mandarado yagura. But first, take a few minutes to explore the #1 Nagoe Kiridoshi cutting which is just on the right (in the direction of Zushi).
You can quickly see how “kiridoshi” could facilitate traffic while also serving as defensive positions against invading troops. The steep, narrow passes forced invaders to slow down and spread out, making them vulnerable to attacks by defenders high above them. Of Kamakura's seven major “kiridoshi,” this one is the most remarkable.
Starting back to the left, you will pass through the #2 cutting shortly before reaching the entrance to Mandarado Yagura. Even after its restoration, there is a lost world feeling here. On the far south end of the site you can climb to a viewing area looking out over Zushi and Sagami Bay, but also looking back over the most spectacular section of Mandarado. Take your time and soak up the atmosphere.
Heading back in the direction of Kamakura, the trail forks just after passing through the #3 cutting. If you prefer to spend the day predominately on hiking trails, the right hand trail will lead you, eventually, to Hokokuji (the bamboo temple) in northeastern Kamakura. Take the left fork for a short hike into the Omachi residential area. Cross the train tracks, follow them in the direction of Kamakura and cross them again.
At the koban, take the right fork and you will soon come to Ankokuronji, a Buddhist temple founded in 1274 on the site where the militant priest Nichiren wrote his famous treatise known as “Rissho Ankokuron” (The Establishment of the Legitimate Teaching for the Security of the Country), which he published in 1260. The temple grounds are surrounded on three sides by steep hills. Mt Fuji can often be seen from the top of the hill, especially this time of year.
To the left behind Ankokuronji's cemetery is a cave where, according to legend, Nichiren escaped persecutors in 1260. The monkey statue inside the cave commemorates the white monkeys that supposedly warned Nichiren and led him to safety here. When you exit Ankokuronji, follow the narrow road that seems to lead straight out of the temple entrance. Above the road, beyond the Lawsons, is Anyo-in, a temple founded in 1225 by Hojo Masako, widow of Minamoto Yoritomo. Famed movie director Akira Kurosawa is buried here; unfortunately the temple's cemetery is not open to the public.
Turn right at an intersection about 25 meters before the traffic light. On this narrow road you'll find Yagumo Jinja, one of Kamakura's oldest shrines. Standing in the center of the shrine yard is a tall tree adorned with sacred twine and purifying paper. At the foot of the tree are two large rounded stones, known as Shinra Saburo’s marbles. Shinra Saburo was a common alias for Minamoto Yoshimitsu, the shrine's founder. Yoshimitsu was known as a man of enormous physical strength, as demonstrated by the fact that these “marbles” were his playthings.
At the top end of the narrow road, turn left to reach Hongaku-ji, the grounds of which are a popular local shortcut to Kamakura Station. A two-meter stone monument stands near the main temple in honor of Masamune, Japan's most famous sword maker (fans of the cult movie “Highlander” may recognize the name). Masamune, who lived in the early 14th century, lies in a grave just on the other side of the catwalk connecting two temple buildings.
To the right behind the main temple is a hall containing the ashes of Saint Nichiren. Just to the right of this is the side gate to the temple which will take you back to Kamakura Station.
How to get there
The bus to the trail to Mandarado Yagura (in all cases, get off at Midorigaoka Iriguchi)
From JR Kamakura Station East Exit: At Terminal No. 3, take a bus bound for Zushi Station or Midorigaoka Iriguchi. From JR Zushi Station: At Terminal No. 6 or 7, take a bus bound for Kamegaoka Danchi Jyunkan or Kamakura Station. From From Keikyu Shin-Zushi Station: At Terminal No. 3 or 4, take a bus bound for Kamegaoka Danchi Jyunkan or Kamakura Station.© Japan Today