The area of Kamakura is not entirely a tourist trap like Asakusa. Nevertheless it is no stranger to the occasional foreign guest. After all, from 1185–1333 the city was the functioning military capital of the nation (though Kyoto area remained the spiritual center). The area does a good job of drawing attention of both Japanese and foreign tourists alike to attractions like the gigantic Buddha statue at Kotoku-in. Despite the constant traffic however, many of its lesser known historical assets go under appreciated even by the locals.
Keeping with the tradition set by its predecessor, Kamakura is situated in a valley that like a natural fortress. Surrounded on the north, east and west by thickly wooded hills with Sagami Bay guarding the south, entering the ancient military capital would have been a daunting task even on peaceful terms. Here hidden among the hilly forests and out of the view of the casual traveler is one of Kamakura’s best secrets; the Mandarado Yagura.
The word yagura means cave-like tombs in Japanese and they serve as the final resting place of both samurai and Buddhist monks alike. While common throughout all of Japan, the topography of the Kamakura Valley mean that there is an abnormally high concentration littered throughout the hills. The Mandarado Yagura site in particular has the most out of any region in Japan and houses over 160 of these haunting crevices.
How to Get There
Reaching the Mandarado Yagura is no simple task. The caves are located deep into the hill that separate Kamakura from neighboring Zushi. Even if one were to get a ride all the way to the base of the the site, it’s a long journey across some pretty treacherous terrain. Be sure to plan and dress accordingly. You’ll be traversing some ancient pathways that were used by merchants and warriors alike to enter into Kamakura.
Our first goal will be the tiny inlet of Kotsubo. While one can take a bus to the start of the trail from any neighboring station, I highly recommend walking from Kamakura along the coast. It’s a beautiful walk and great way to get your legs warmed up. The ocean breeze also makes it refreshing place to have lunch.
Alternatively you can speed up the trek by taking the adorable little Enoden Line to Yuigahama or Hase Stations. This also give you time to hit some other spots such as Hase-dera on the way. Just make sure to stock up on some water and have a meal before attempting the hike. Unlike with Mt. Fuji, there are no vending machines on this millennium-old trade route!
The Trek from Kotsubo
After departing from Kotsubo you’ll be looking to gradually make you way up into the mountains towards a u-shaped fork in the road. Take the right fork and continue until you come to a place where cars exit one tunnel and then duck back into another. If you’ve done everything correctly, there should be a recycled junk dealer nearby and an unassuming staircase winding up over the left hand tunnel (pictured above). This is where the path to the Mandarado Yagura begins. If you get lost, just follow this map to the recycle shop…
Ascend the modern concrete staircase until you come to an overgrown path. This signals the start of the trail. From here on out you’ll be venturing away from all signs of modernity into a word that is untouched from hundreds of years ago. The going can get a little rough so be mindful of your footing. If you take a fall here, it will take a while before anyone notices and reception can be pretty poor should you need to make an emergency call.
The Nagoe Kiridoshi
Once reaching the actual path you’ll be faced with a fork in the road. Taking a left will lead you directly to the Mandarado Yagura site. That said, I highly suggest exploring the pass through the rocks immediately on your right. This narrow slit is actually part of the historically important Nagoe Kiridoshi that connected Kamakura to the Miura Peninsula. To facilitate access into the ancient capital, the Kamakura shogunate had large natural gaps in the rocky slopes widened into passes called kiridoshi. In total, there are seven of these paths into Kamakura with this one being the most famous
Originally written with the Chinese characters meaning “difficult to pass,” the Nagoe Kiridoshi is very steep and less than two meters across. It is just barely wide enough for a sole man on horseback to fit through. While taking in the crevice, try imagining what it might have been to traverse this as a merchant traversing these hills over 800 years ago with all of of your goods in tow (or even more daunting trying to attack a place like Kamakura as a soldier)!
Exploring Kamakura’s Mandarado Yagura
While the right side path continues all the way down into Zushi, our main goal for the day is back in the other direction so after marveling at what it would have taken to dig these pathways during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) with nothing but handheld tools, it’s time to head back towards the fork in the road and the main attraction — the Mandarado Yagura!
Continue down the opposite branch and follow the trail through the thickly wooded hills of Kamakura. If you get confused on which direction to head, refer to the signpost at the fork. Depending on how outdoorsy you are, after about five minutes you should come across an unassuming and overgrown staircase on the right side (pictured above). This should take you up to the entrance to the Mandarado Yagura site.
It can be easy to miss so check the location here if you feel that you missed the turn.
Unfortunately the site was actually closed to the public in 1996 and you can’t officially get in! Previously the Mandarado Yagura drew a fair number of visitors making it a National Important Historical Site. The years have taken their toll however and the tombs have fallen into disarray. This has led to them being closed to the public for all but two months in late fall while a team works to repair them.
Much progress has been made since first closing the site but there still remains some work to be done. Nevertheless, those visiting Japan during the period when the Mandarado Yagura are might consider putting it on their agenda. The tombs are an eerie experience you won’t get another chance to have otherwise throughout your travels in Japan.
The Mandarado Yagura location is the highest concentrations of yagura in all of Japan but tombs like these can be found all throughout the hills of Kamakura. If you follow my suggestions below and spend the rest of the day on the trails, you’ll have plenty of chances to see some more. These hills are littered with history and even experts are still unaware of the meaning behind some location.
For those who are not scared of being cursed for all eternity, there is an easy way to slip past the fence and get in for a peek. While I would never publicly condone this, there is a spot on the right-hand side of the gate that anyone should be able to scale. Just hop over the fence and you’re in…
Should you happen to channel your inner Lara Croft, I would be sure not too stay long. Though there are no security cameras, there is an occasional hiker that passes by on the trail below. You don’t want anyone alerting the authorities and the “I got lost” excuse isn’t going to cut it here!
Note: From what I can gather, it seems that the Mandarado Yagura have now actually been partially reopened since my initial visit in 2016. As of this update, they are open on Sunday and Monday during the spring and fall between 10 AM and 4 PM.
Kamakura’s Hiking Trails
After taking in the spookiness of the tombs, it’s time to head back down to to the path and explore more of the hills of Kamakura. Continuing on the ancient road into the old capital, you’ll soon come across another fork. One of the paths will take you back towards Kamakura Station in short measure. The other one will take you deeper down the historical trail. If you’re itching to get back to civilization, continue straight on the path. Alternatively if you’re like me and want to explore more lost history, be sure to veer upwards.
If you chose the upper path, you’ll be spending the better part of the day on these hiking trails. There’s a lot more to see than I am going to go into detail here I don’t want to spoil everything. That said, here are a few things to keep an eye out for on the trail…
- An ominously misplaced mansion that has been famous for inspiring ghost stories for over thirty years
- A quarry from the 14th and 15th century that was a popular sightseeing spot (pictured above)
- A hidden Buddhist temple that it has been all but forgotten by the world
- A observation deck with a 360 degree view of the surrounding ocean and mountains
There are several places to hop off the hiking trail should you get tired. Nevertheless I highly encourage you to continue on to Hokoku-ji for a real treat that we will cover more in the next section.
Heading Back to Kamakura
Continue on the path until you reach a small clearing with some picnic tables. From here on out you’ll be heading back into the deep forest. If you need a break now would be a good time to take one while there’s a place to sit. The going gets pretty tough from here on out and having your legs give out risks serious injury injury. Luckily there are no forks or branches on the way to Hokoku-ji. Just you and a centuries old path that has remained largely the same since the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Look at the “stairs” if you dare! They almost seem as if they have been worn into the very rock itself by countless footsteps!
After about 20 minutes of traversing these hiking trails you’ll come across the Buddha pictured above. The statue was carved directly into the hillside centuries ago. Also be sure to also look around this same area for some hidden yagura. It’s a much wilder vibe than the ones at the Mandarado Yagura which have been far better maintained and taken care of. From here on out it’s just a short trek down an extremely narrow path before you’re back in civilization.
Hokoku-ji’s Bamboo Forest
Before heading back to the central area of Kamakura however, I highly suggest you pop into Hokoku-ji. This is especially true for those of you who are visiting Japan. Unbeknownst to most travelers, Kamakura actually has its own bamboo grove that rivals that of Arashiyama. If you’re not going to visit Kyoto this should be a must. Since the temple is a good walk from the station it’s a great place to end the day’s journey
Be sure to remember to get the green tea ticket for 700 yen. With one you can enjoy a hot cup of matcha while gazing lazily out at the bamboo forest. It’s a therapeutic experience after the ordeal you’ve gone through to reach here. If you haven’t already had your fill, there’s also a beautifully preserved yagura on the far side of the bamboo forest.
There’s Still More to Do
At this point you can congratulate yourself! You have successfully entered the city via the ancient mountain pass from the Miura Peninsula. If there is still time after you’ve finished your tea, there are a few more places around. Personally I would hit up Tsurugaoka Hachimangu before heading back to the station. Alternatively on the way back is also the tomb of the first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate, Minamoto Yoritomo. Even if you have seen enough tombs for the day, it is worth checking out. The small stupa stands as a solemn reminder that we are all equal in the grave.
If you want to learn more about what’s on offer in Kamakura, be sure to check out my epic area guide. I’ve come up with several half-day module that can be combined with a visit to the Mandarado Yagura.
Until next time travelers…