Peek into the past with a cultural exploration of Kanagawa

With its ancient traditions and pristine nature, Kanagawa prefecture is poles apart from nearby Tokyo. Here’s how you can really embrace its culture…

Rebecca Hallett
01 November 2023

Main image credit: Alexander O. Smith

With its prime location on Tōkyō’s doorstep, it’s easy to immerse yourself in Kanagawa’s Japanese culture, picturesque scenery and long history. When you’re there, you can visit coastal Kamakura for fine beaches and Zen temples, or head into the mountains for hot springs and Fuji views in Hakone – or, better still, see both. Working with Audley’s Japan specialists, it’s easy to create a trip which takes in the very best of this prefecture…

Spy ancient culture in Kamakura

The Daibutsu of Kamakura (Shutterstock)

Barely an hour by train from Tōkyō, coastal Kamakura is the perfect place to step away from the frenetic pace of the capital and back through the centuries. It was once the capital itself, from 1185 to 1333, and dramatic tales about the ruling Minamoto clan are still popular subjects for kabuki and nōh plays and classical dances.

Kamakura’s role as a hub of Zen Buddhist culture dates back at least as far, and the pretty seaside town has more than its fair share of temples. You can easily spend a day visiting their abundant gardens and incense-wreathed halls – not to mention the Daibutsu, a 13m-tall Buddha statue which has survived earthquakes, tsunamis and over 750 years of political change.

Ancient crafts and cultural practices are well-preserved in Kamakura. Locals and tourists alike turn out for spring blossom-viewing and autumn leaf-viewing, seasonal festivals, and events like yabusame (horseback archery) and torchlit nōh performances. Everything from Zazen meditation to ikebana flower-arranging classes are available, and you can pick up handcrafted pieces of Kamakura-bori lacquerware from local artisans.

Given its access to the Pacific, many of the local specialities feature fish, like delicate shirasu (whitebait) on rice. Due to the concentration of temples, you’ll also spot plenty of places serving shōjin-ryōri: Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. This ranges from simple dishes to elaborate, multi-course meals, all prepared in line with Buddhist principles like non-violence and non-stimulation of desires.

Must-do experiences

Private tour of Kamakura’s gardens

Kamakura is great for walking, whether strolling along its beach, exploring the meandering paths on the sacred island of Enoshima, or hiking between temples in the forested hills.

You can even set out on a private tour of various temples’ grounds with a local gardening expert. They’ll know which places to visit at which time – when Meigetsu-in’s hydrangeas are at their peak, or when the plum blossoms have given way to peach and magnolia at Tōkei-ji. They can also explain the meanings behind each carefully manicured garden, which you might miss without an expert’s guidance.

Kamakura’s gardens (Alexander O. Smith)

Attend a tea ceremony

Immerse yourself further in traditional Japanese culture by attending a tea ceremony, a practice which began to emerge in the Kamakura period. Ritual tea drinking was imported into Japan by monks who learned the practice in China, and was embraced and developed by both Buddhist monks and the samurai class. Kamakura today has several beautiful tea houses where you can experience the ceremony, which involves drinking hand-prepared matcha, eating Japanese sweets and admiring the elegance of both the preparation and the tea bowl.

Matcha green tea (Shutterstock)

Overnight stay

Modern Ryokan kishi-ke (Hitomi Kishi)

Modern Ryokan kishi-ke

Staying overnight in Kamakura gives you a chance to experience its tranquil atmosphere and explore its sights at a leisurely pace. Modern Ryokan kishi-ke seamlessly blends Kamakura’s traditional aesthetics with modern design, with hinoki-wood bathtubs, luxury toiletries and perfectly framed views of the sea and garden. Kishi-ke also offers cultural experiences such as meditation, Zen gardening, traditional tea ceremonies and even katana (sword) practice.

Reset in the natural surroundings of Hakone

The Mount Komagatake Ropeway (Shutterstock)

With its steaming hot springs, refreshing mountain air and Fuji views, Hakone has long been a popular escape from the city. For centuries it was a stop on the Tōkaidō road between Kyōto and Edo (now Tōkyō), but when its role as a security checkpoint faded, its scenic location, abundance of hot springs and well-established inns made it a natural tourism destination.

There are still vestiges of that time dotted around, from cobbled sections of the old road to a reconstruction of the checkpoint (sekisho). You can even visit businesses which date back to the feudal period – Amazake-chaya has been serving hot, sweet amazake (a rice drink) and mochi to weary travellers for 13 generations. Under a mile further along the Tōkaidō is Hatajuku, the village where artisans developed Hakone’s famous yosegi-zaiku (wood mosaics). Visit Hatajuku Yosegi Hall to learn more about this intricate marquetry, and pick up a couple of pieces as souvenirs.

Unlike travellers on the Edo period (1603-1867) Tōkaidō, you’re free to wander as far off the path as you’d like for a taste of authentic Hakone. Follow the footpath around the west side of Ashino-ko for quiet lakeside trails; take the cable car up to Komagatake for dramatic views of Mount Fuji; or get local tips on the best restaurants for soba noodles, which are apparently extra delicious in Hakone due to its pure water.

Must-do experiences

Go hiking in Hakone

The valleys and mountainsides of Hakone are criss-crossed with hiking routes which link together shrines, villages and hot springs. There are short loop trails from cable-car stops and stations on the Hakone-Tozan Railway, but it’s on the longer ones that you can really immerse yourself in nature.

The route from Kowakudani station to Hatajuku takes you past two scenic waterfalls and over the summit of Mount Sengen. On the trail between Komagatake and the Owakudani and Ubako cable-car stops, you’ll experience mountain shrines, Fuji views and hot springs. You can either soothe your muscles in these naturally heated baths, or refuel with kuro-tamago – eggs boiled in the sulphur-rich waters.

Hakone has many wild hikes to take (Kanagawa Prefectural Government)

Private tour of the Enoura Observatory

But Hakone’s charms aren’t limited to its natural setting and long history. It also has several excellent places to see art, from the Pola Museum’s collection of French Impressionists to the diverse sculptures of the Hakone Open-Air Museum.

Six stops along the train line from Hakone-Yumoto, the Enoura Observatory (a 10-minute shuttle bus from Odawara’s Nebukawa train station) combines art and architecture to stunning effect. Visit on a private tour with the museum’s director to discover more about the inspiration behind the site, where centuries-old Japanese stonework sits alongside sleek modern structures, and the wabi-sabi aesthetic is reimagined in a tea house with wattle-and-daub walls and a reclaimed corrugated iron roof.

The Enoura Observatory (©Odawara Art Foundation)

Overnight stay

Gora Kadan at night (Gora Kadan; unauthorised distribution of this image is prohibited)

Gora Kadan

After a day in the mountains, there’s no better way to unwind than soaking in a natural hot spring. At Gōra Kadan, a beautifully renovated former residence of the Imperial Family, you can relax in mineral-rich waters overlooking the impeccably landscaped gardens and wooded mountainside. Follow up with an exquisite kaiseki meal, focusing on the scents and flavours of Hakone as your day comes to an end.

About the experts

For over 25 years, Audley has been working with local experts to create unique trips which reflect your specific interests. They can help you discover Kanagawa prefecture’s secret side and delve deep into its character – as either the focus of your trip or part of a larger tour of Japan like its 23-day Deluxe Grand Tour of Japan. It’s also a certified B Corp, so you’re safe in the knowledge Audley is committed to responsible, sustainable travel during your adventure in Kanagawa.

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