A visit to Kamakura

by Stefan Chiarantano, Mar 21, 2007 | Destinations: Japan

Kamakura is a quaint and charming town in Kanagawa Prefecture. It's easy to get to from Tokyo Station and well worth the effort if only to see the Daibutsu. On my way to the Daibutsu, I spotted a number of birds of prey flying overhead in the sky.

The Daibutsu is a representation of Buddha Amitabha, the Lord of the Western Pure Land. It's made from a patchwork of bronze pieces, which have then been filed down to a smooth surface. It's magnificent. There's a white curl on its forehead that is said to emit rays of light to illuminate all the worlds of the universe. It is made with pure silver weighing 29.76 pounds of silver.
The sutra says:

The light pervades
All the worlds.
Everyone who sees it
Will be saved by the Buddha.

Here are some factual information about the Diabutsu:

Date of construction 1252 AD

Weight approximately 121 tonnes
Height " " 13.35 meters
Face " " 2.35 meters
Eye " " 1.00 meters
Ear " " 1.90 meters
Mouth " " 0.82 meters
Knee to knee " " 9.10 meters
of Thumb " " 0.85 meters

It's the largest statue of its kind in Japan. The Diabutsu is steeped in history and legend and was a highlight of my visit. Also, for 20 yen, you can go inside and have a peak and examine its construction.

Hase-dera is just down the road from the Daibutsu, which features a magnificent 30 foot 11-faced statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Compassion. The temple is also famous for its thousands of Jizo figures. The grounds are immaculate and beautifully tended. There are ponds filled with goi, waterfalls, and beautiful trees and plants. There's a rinzo, a revolving sutra library containing Buddhist scriptures. If you rotate it, you receive the merit equivalent to reading the entire Buddhist canons. Now ain't that something! There's an exhibition hall which featured a fragment of a scroll dating from the 8th century (Hyakuman to Stupas & Hyakuman-to-Darani - Hyakuman-to Stupas & Scroll of printed Darani) Nara period (8th century) Wood/Print on Paper. There's also the Kannon Sanjusan Ogenshin (Thirty-three Incarnations of Avalokitesvara) Muromachi period, Wood with color, inlaid crystal eyes. There's also a small network of caves on site with Buddhist statues carved out of the rock. You have to scrunch down to go through it. There's also a temple devoted to the God of Fortune, Daikokuten. You are encouraged to give him a rub. It's good luck if you do. From the Hasedera temple, there's a look out point to the bay and the sea beyond. It's breathtaking. There were several sail boats out in the bay. On my way out, I heard chanting and discovered that a service was taking place in one of the smaller buildings on site.

Just further down from the temple is a smaller temple called Shu Genji Temple (Shijo Kingo Yorimoto Born 1224 Died 1996)

This temple was formerly the residence of Shijo Kingo, who was a vassal of Ema Mitsutoki and Sucha. He was a faithful believer of the religion of Nichiren that he made up his mind to kill himself on the death of Nichiren when he was persecuted in 1271. After Shijo Kingo died, his residence was remodelled into a temple as a holy place of Nichiren sect.

To save time, I took the local train back to Kamakura and from there took another train to Kita-Kamakura to visit Engaku-ji, a Zen temple. It's a hop, skip and a jump from the station. It's a complex of buildings nestled against the mountain. It's quite a beautiful and serene place. The silence is broken by the chatter of visitors. I climbed to the very top. There's a cemetery against the side of the mountain. Families were washing down the tomb stones of their deceased love ones. There are Buddha figures placed in the alcoves carved out of the rock.  I could hear the chanting of mantras from the service taking place in the one of buildings nearby.

The temple houses a sacred object, a national treasure, a tooth of the Buddha. The Sariden National Treasure building is closed to the public but you can have a peak at the building through the semi-fenced off gate.

The temple features Hyaku-Kan-Non, one hundred Kannon statues, which are enshrined here. There were many gardens and a pond filled with goi. There's a lovely garden filled with Buddha statues and stupas made from blocks of rock and stone. Closer to the entrance, there was a funeral service taking place.

From Engakuji, I walked over to Meigetsuin which is nearby.

This is also a beautiful temple. It was full of gardens including a zen rock garden, brooks, bridges, and beautiful temples.

The following are descriptions of the temple:

This temple was founded by Uesugi Norikata and it was temple attached to Zenkoji Temple. Saimyoji Temple built by Hojo Tokiyori fell into decay. Later it was rebuilt by Tokimune and given the name of Zenkoji temple. In the precincts, there are tombs of Hojo Tokiyori, the fifth Hojo Regent and Uesugi Norikata, the founder of this temple. This temple is famous for hydrangea.

Founder's Hall (Soyu-do)

Soyu-do was built in Meigetsu-in at the height of Zenkoji's prosperity around 1380 and later designated as Kaisan-do a Founder's Hall. Enshrined here is a wooded sculpture of Zen Master, Misshitsu Shugon (deceased in 1390), founder of Meigetsu-in and fifth generation dharma descendant of Kenchoji Monastery founder Rankei Doryu (Daigaku). To the left of the sculpture are the mortuary tablets of the past resident priests of Saimyoji, Zenkoji and Meigetsu-in.

Meigetsu-in Yaguara (Arhat Cave)

The term yagura refers to the cave toms (sic) built commonly in medieval Kamakura. Seven meters in width, three in height and six in depth, the Meigetsu-in Yagura is one of the largest remaining in the city. Figures of Shaka Nyorai (Shakyamuni), Taho Nyorai and the 16 Arhats are carved in relief on the walls, and at the center is a hogyointo gravestone belonging to Uesugi Norikata, restorer of Meigetsu-in. In front of the gravestone is an incense burner of the Zen Buddhist style. Legend has it that the yagura was built in 1160 by Yamanouchi Tunetoshi as a tomb for his father Toshimichi who died in Kyoto during the Battle of Heiji, and the Uesugi Norikata erected his own gravestone here some 220 years later. but time has erased the inscriptions in the yagura and so the exact circumstances of construction remain a mystery. Noritaka was a great-grandson of Uesugi Shigefusa and an ancestor of the Yamanouchi-Uesugi clan. Defeated in Battle of Hojosoun, his descendant Norimasa gave the family name to Nagao Kagetora of present-day Niigata Prefecture. Kagetora thus became Uesugi Kenshin, the famous military leader of medieval Japan.

Grave of Hojo Tokiyori
The gravestone consists of elements of hgyointo, gorinto and other traditional gravestones placed on a base of sone construction. The vicinty is the site of Saimyoji, Temple where Tokiyori lived in retirement.

Tokiyori was born in 1227 as the second Son Hojo Tokiuji. His mother, who later became Zen nun Matsushita and appeared in the book Tsurezurekusa (184th passage), was the daughter of Adachi Kagemori and, it is said, a wise mother. At the age of 19, Tokiyori succeeded his grandfather Yasutoki and became fifth generation regent of Kamakura bakufu. While raising the Hojo administration to the peak of its prosperity, Tokiyori took a burning interest in Zen. In 1253 he founded Kenchoji, Japan's first monastery devoted to Zen training and welcomed the Chinese Zen master Daigaku as abbot. In 1256 Daigaku ordained Tokiyori a priest at Saimyoji. Tokiyori toot the name of Kakuryodo dosu and handed over the terms of political control to Nagatoki. He died in 1263 at the age of 37.

After visiting Meigetsuin, I walked back to town and passed many interesting temples. They all looked so interesting but I was starving and wanting to get something to eat. Along the way, I came across a massive Shinto Shrine complex, which I learned was built by Emperor Meiji. There was a Shinto wedding taking place which caught the attention of nearly all passersby including me. I grabbed a quick bite to eat at a local eatery and then made my way to visit the temples belonging to the Nichiren sect.

My first visit was to Myohonji Temple. Here's the description of the temple.

This temple was founded by the Holy Priest Nichiren and established in 1260 by Hiki Yoshimoto, who was a son of Hiki Yoshikuzu. The Hiki clan lived around here in the Kamakura Period. Myohohonji Temple is the oldest among the temples of the Nichiren sect in Japan.

Myohonji Temple was also a complex of buildings, many quite big giving the place a majestic feel. It too was also serene and peaceful.

Along the way to next Nichiren temple, I came across Joeiji Temple, which is a very small temple. On view was a Japanese painting of Nichiren's execution. The executioner is just about to chop off his head when a bolt of lightening strikes his sword breaking it into several pieces. Nichiren is kneeling on a mat. His hands are placed together in gassho. His robes are black. He looks serene and unperturbed.

Ankokuronji Temple

This temple was founded by Nichiren in 1253 AD which is sacred to the memory of him. He lived here for twenty years and propagated Daimoku "Nam-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo." The name of this temple originates from his book entitled Rissho Ankoku ron, which means, "Establish the Right Law and Save Our Country."

The temple was beautifully landscaped. There's a look out at the top of the mountain that gives a view of the bay.


This temple is called Matsubaga-yatsu Ryogonzan myohoji. Nichiren built a small hermitage here and preached Shakamuni buddhism as based on the concept of Hokekyo the Lotus Sutra) to people. The father of the 5th chief priest of this temple Nichiei was Imperial Prince Morinaga, and the grandfather was Godaigo, the 96th emperor. If you climb up to the top of the mountain you can see the gravestone of Imperial Prince Morinaga.

Myohoji was just closing as I arrived. The attendant let me have a quick peak and on my way out I ran across the resident priest. He was 91 years old and looked fit as a fiddle, and he spoke English to bout. Nichiren was reputed to have resided here too.

So, I decided to make my way down to the bay to listen to the tides. It took me about one half hour to get there on foot and was well worth the effort. By now, my feet were aching and I was hungry again so I dropped into Skylark which is located right by the bay. It was great. I had a view of the bay while enjoying my hot chocolate and dinner.

My trip to Kamakura has become one of the highlights of my stay in Japan. I very much recommend a visit.