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Kamakura Rediscovered - Jomyoji

A quiet neighborhood steeped in samurai history

For the fourth part in my series exploring the city of Kamakura, this week I spent a hugely enjoyable few hours exploring Jomyoji, a quiet area centred around the temple complex of the same name, located about a kilometer northeast of Kamakura Station.

In the absence of chic cafes or open, scenic spaces, it's an area that can seem a little, well, nondescript. Dig a little deeper behind its unassuming exterior however, and you'll soon find that it has a great deal to offer, especially for fans of the area's history as the country's former samurai capital.

Making my way eastward from Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, I begin with a quick detour across the Nameri river to the former site of Toshoji Temple. Now an empty and overgrown plot of land, this is the precise spot where the Kamakura Period reached its bloody conclusion.

For most of the Kamakura Period, Japan had been ruled by the Hojo family, who dominated the military government through the hereditary position of regent. By the early years of the 14th century however, already greatly weakened from repelling the Mongol invasion, they now faced a growing coalition led by Emperor Go-Daigo in what would later be known as the Genko War.

By summer of 1333, the Hojo had sent a large force to attack the enemy in what is now Osaka Prefecture. With Kamakura only lightly guarded, the powerful general Nitta Yoshisada chose this moment to switch sides, launching a rapid campaign from his base in Kozuke, today Gunma Prefecture. With enemy troops pouring into the city, the Hojo withdrew to Toshoji, their family temple, committing mass suicide in their hundreds as the city burned around them.

A little further uphill, a short trail leads through the woods to a cave burial or yagura, marked by a stone tablet as the resting place of the last Hojo regent, Takatoki.

Doubling back across the river, I make my way northeast along a main road. One of the first places I pass by is Hokaiji, a small temple of the Tendai school founded in 1335 on the orders of Go-Daigo. Legend has it that having experienced so much bloodshed, the area was soon plagued by ghostly visitations, and so the temple was built here on the site of a former family residence to appease the dead.

Continuing along the road to the east I happen to pass by Mon Peche Mignon, a bakery popular with local foodies and chefs. In a city well-known for European-style bakeries, this one boasts a unique pedigree - its owner having been a protege of Philippe Bigot, the legendary baker credited with introducing the baguette to Japan.

A few hundred meters further along I arrive at a large torii marking the entrance to Kamakura-Gu, a shrine built in 1869 and dedicated to Prince Morinaga - the son of Go-Daigo and another important figure from the Genko War.

Following the violent overthrow of the Hojo, Go-Daigo was able to retake his throne in what became known as the Kemmu Restoration - but the peace would not last for long. Fixated on restoring the political power of the Imperial Court, the emperor began to elevate members of the nobility while sidelining Ashikaga Takauji and Nitta Yoshisada - the two powerful samurai who had been his allies. Matters came to a head when he announced that Morinaga was to be made shogun, enfuriating both of the two rivals and setting a three-way power struggle into motion.

On the pretext of treason, Takauji seized the prince and brought him to Kamakura where he was imprisoned and later beheaded at the site where the shrine now stands. The entrance to the cave where he spent his final days has been preserved and can still be seen behind the main building.

Starting to feel a bit hungry, I make a stop for lunch at Warashibechocha - a little family-owned restaurant located just across from the shrine entrance.

Settling down to a table in the cosy interior, I order a pork katsu curry from the elderly owner and am delighted to receive a hearty portion together with miso soup, salad and orange slices - all for just 900 yen!

After my lunch, I retrace my steps to the Nameri river and follow it to the southeast until I arrive at Hokokuji - a temple of the Rinzai Zen school built by the Ashikaga family in 1334. Passing through the main gate, I follow a stone pathway through an understated garden of moss, gravel and weathered stones. Behind the usual precise geometry, there's a hint of something wilder and overgrown, perhaps reflecting the surrounding landscape of steep hills and thick forest.

Continuing up a flight of stone steps, I arrive at abbot's hall and main building. Like many temples of its period, the original structure was once known for its elegant thatched roof. While this was sadly destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the belltower just to the left has survived with its original roof intact.

To one side of the main building, a narrow path winds its way around a beautiful landscape garden, taking in a bed of pristine white gravel, cave tombs where Ashikaga family members are interred, and finally the bamboo grove that is the temple's most popular draw.

From Hokokuji, I take a right and make my way a little further uphill to the Kachomiya Residence, a rare western-style stately home built in 1929 for the Marquis Kacho Hiranobu, a relative of the imperial family. Although the house itself is currently closed, the grounds are free to enter offering some pleasant views of the distinctive timber-clad facade.

At the southern end of a manicured lawn lined with rose bushes, a wooden gate resembling the entrance to a temple leads to a private teahouse known as Mudan-an. Both gate and teahouse predate the mansion by some years and were relocated from Kamiosaki, Tokyo in 1971.

Making my way back downhill to the river, I take a right and follow the main road 200 meters to my second-to-last stop of the day at the Ichijo Ekan Sanso. Built in refined style for a 17th century court noble, the sanso or mountain retreat was originally located within a vast Kyoto estate. Shortly after the Second World War, the property was painstakingly relocated to its present site, together with its original dry stone gardens and paving stones.

After making my way around a shaded strolling path, I make a stop at a little teahouse where I enjoy a bowl of matcha paired with a namagashi or traditional sweet colored to resemble the hydrangeas just now beginning to bloom.

By now my time in Jomyoji is coming to an end, but as I begin to thread my back towards the station I spot a sign pointing to a walking trail, and can't resist a last quick detour.

Many of Kamakura's hiking trails remain in poor shape since a powerful tornado in October of 2019, so as I take a left turn across the river I'm not entirely sure if the route will prove passable. Luck is with me, however, and in moments I find myself in woodland so dense I can hardly believe I'm still in a city.

Still expecting the path to give out, I press on through thick undergrowth and emerge just a few minutes later at the Kinubariyama Viewpoint to another spectacular view of the city and the Sagami Bay beyond - a perfect and quite unexpected end to my day.