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Kamakura, about 40 km (25 mi) southwest of Tokyo, is an object lesson in what happens when you set the fox to guard the henhouse.
For the aristocrats of the Heian-era Japan (794-1185), life was defined by the imperial court in Kyoto. Who in their right mind would venture elsewhere? In Kyoto there was grace and beauty and poignant affairs of the heart; everything beyond was howling wilderness. Unfortunately, it was the howling wilderness that had all the estates: the large grants of land, called shoen, without which there would be no income to pay for all that grace and beauty.
By the 12th century two clans—the Taira (ta-ee-ra) and the Minamoto, themselves both offshoots of the imperial line—had come to dominate the affairs of the Heian court and were at each other's throats in a struggle for supremacy. In 1160 the Taira won a major battle that should have secured their absolute control over Japan, but in the process they made one serious mistake: having killed the Minamoto leader Yoshitomo (1123–60), they spared his 13-year-old son, Yoritomo (1147–99), and sent him into exile. In 1180 he launched a rebellion and chose Kamakura—a superb natural fortress, surrounded on three sides by hills and guarded on the fourth by the sea—as his base of operations.
The rivalry between the two clans became an all-out war. By 1185 Yoritomo and his half brother, Yoshitsune (1159–89), had destroyed the Taira utterly, and the Minamoto were masters of all Japan. In 1192 Yoritomo forced the imperial court to name him shogun; he was now de facto and de jure the military head of state. The emperor was left as a figurehead in Kyoto, and the little fishing village of Kamakura became—and for 141 years remained—the seat of Japan's first shogunal government.
The Minamoto line came to an end when Yoritomo's two sons were assassinated. Power passed to the Hojo family, who remained in control, often as regents for figurehead shoguns, for the next 100 years. In 1274 and again in 1281 Japan was invaded by the Mongol armies of China's Yuan dynasty. On both occasions typhoons—the original kamikaze (literally, "divine wind")—destroyed the Mongol fleets, but the Hojo family was still obliged to reward the various clans that had rallied to the defense of the realm. A number of these clans were unhappy with their portions—and with Hojo rule in general. The end came suddenly, in 1333, when two vassals assigned to put down a revolt switched sides. The Hojo regent committed suicide, and the center of power returned to Kyoto.
Kamakura reverted to being a sleepy backwater town on the edge of the sea, but after World War II, it began to develop as a residential area for the well-to-do. Nothing secular survives from the days of the Minamoto and Hojo; there wasn't much there to begin with. The warriors of Kamakura had little use for courtiers, or their palaces and gardened villas; the shogunate's name for itself, in fact, was the Bakufu—literally, the "tent government." As a religious center, however, the town presents an extraordinary legacy. Most of those temples and shrines are in settings of remarkable beauty; many are designated National Treasures. If you can afford the time for only one day trip from Tokyo, you should probably spend it here.
Kamakura at a Glance
- Engaku-ji (Engaku Temple)
- Enno-ji (Enno Temple)
- Hokoku-ji (Hokoku Temple)
- Jochi-ji (Jochi Temple)
- Jomyo-ji (Jomyo Temple)
- Kamakura Great Buddha (Kamakura Daibutsu)
- Kamakura Treasure Museum (Kamakura Kokuhokan)
Elsewhere in Tokyo
- Akihabara and Jimbo-cho
- Aoyama, Harajuku, and Shibuya
- Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park
- Greater Tokyo
- Imperial Palace and Government District
- Nihombashi, Ginza, and Yuraku-cho
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