Explore Engakuji: One of Kamakura’s great Zen temples

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By Vicki L Beyer

Engakuji is a complex of temples filling a scenic valley above the JR train tracks near Kita-Kamakura Station. The tracks actually cut through the traditional approach to the temple, leaving the two small ponds in front of the temple on the “wrong side.”

Engakuji ranks second of the gozan, five great Zen temples of Kamakura.

The temple was founded in 1282 by then-regent Hojo Tokimune, who sent architects and builders to China to learn the building methods needed to construct the various buildings of the complex. The temple, which was built on the site of Tokimune’s hermitage, was intended to put to rest the souls of the Japanese and Mongol warriors who died in Japan’s successful repulsion of the attempted Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281.

To enter the temple grounds, climb the broad stairs from the train tracks and pass through the Somon, outer gate. Follow the walkway up the stairs to the Sanmon, the two-storied inner gate. Note the beautiful scrolling patterns carved into its enormous cross beams. The large threshold in the middle of the gate is there to keep evil from rolling in.

The Butsuden, the main hall, sits directly behind the Sanmon and is fronted by beautiful and ancient juniper trees. The 2.6-meter Buddha image inside dates from the first half of the 14th century, but the building is relatively modern, built in 1964 to replace the Butsuden destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (most of the structures in this complex were destroyed or badly damaged by that quake). The ceiling of the Butsuden is covered with a “clouds and dragon” painting, a popular ceiling decoration in large Zen halls. Dragons bring rain and, in this context, the “rain” sent by the dragon is Buddhist teaching, falling on worshipers as they sit in the hall.

Zen meditations are held here every Sunday morning (5:30-6:30 a.m., April through October and 6 a.m.-7 a.m., November through March) and Zen lectures are held on the second and fourth Sundays of every month from 9 a.m.

Descending the stairs of the Butsuden after your peak inside, turn right. Ahead of you is the Senbutsujo (選仏場), literally the hall where Buddhas are selected. This thatched roof structure was once used to ordain priests and is now occasionally used as a Zen meditation hall. To the right of the Senbutsujo and set back behind a thatched-roofed gate is the Kojirin, once a fencing practice hall and now regularly used for Zen meditation that is open to the public on Saturdays.

Follow the laneway up the valley, passing several private houses on the left. After a few dozen meters you will see a pond on the left surrounded by a well-tended garden. Particularly striking is the large boulder on the opposite side of the pond topped by a large residence said to belong to the chief priest. The pond is called Myokochi, the pond of the sacred fragrance, and the boulder is known as Tiger’s Head Rock.

Turn left above the pond and walk up to the gateway leading to the Shariden, the oldest structure in the Engakuji complex and the only building in Kamakura designated as a National Treasure. It is said that among the treasures housed in the Shariden is one of Buddha’s teeth. Usually it is not possible to pass beyond the gate, but even if viewed only from the gate, the well-tended garden leading to the Shariden makes a lovely scene well worth a photo.

Ahead of you as you walk back to the laneway that leads up the valley, you’ll see a flight of stairs leading to a small temple dedicated to the 36th chief priest of Engakuji, who died in 1369. Instead of going up these stairs, turn left and continue walking up the valley.

On the left is Butsunichi-an (佛日庵), the former hermitage of Hojo Tokimune, now his memorial hall. There is an extra charge of 100 yen to enter this garden, for which you will receive a lighted incense stick to place in the receptacle in front of the hall. You can also purchase tea ceremony green tea here and sit on red felt-covered benches while enjoying it and admiring the garden. Perched above the garden is a small yellow tea house that was featured in Nobel Prize-winning author Kawabata Yasunari’s novel “A Thousand Cranes.” While you cannot enter the tea house, usually the door is open and you can look inside.

If you don’t want to pay to enter Butsunichi-an, you can still look inside at the memorial hall through its central gate. Across from this gate and a little further up the valley you’ll see Byakurokudo, the White Deer Cave, a very small indentation in the rock face. The name derives from a legend that several white deer paused here to listen to the founder of the temple preach.

Nestled at the back of the valley is Obai-in (黄梅院), a temple said to contain a statue of a thousand-armed Kannon, the goddess of mercy. While this statue is not available for viewing, at the very back of the grounds is a charming small shrine containing a small Kannon statue.

Return back down the valley. Just after you pass the Myokochi pond on your right, on the left you’ll have glimpses of the austere Zen garden that sits behind the hojo, a large structure originally used as living quarters for the chief priest and now used to house special guests. Go through the gate in the wall to reach the front courtyard of this structure.

To the right as you enter, you’ll find a collection of sculptures of Kannon. There were originally 100 sculptures collected here, only about 70 remain. A number show scars and repair marks from damage suffered during the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.

After viewing the “100 Kannon”, exit from the gate to the left of the front gate to the Hojo and make your way down the hill until you see on the left a cemetery and signs pointing the way to the temple bell, which dates from 1301. The belfry sits high atop a hill, guarded by a Shinto shrine dedicated to Benten, the only female of Japan’s seven lucky gods. There is also a small tea house where you can enjoy refreshments while overlooking the valley below. On a clear day, there are even views of Mt Fuji in the distance.

(This article is excerpted from “10 Temples on 2 Wheels: Exploring Kamakura by Bicycle or on Foot”.)

Getting there:

Kita-kamakura Station is less than an hour on the JR Yokosuka line from Tokyo, Shimbashi or Shinagawa stations. Engakuji is only 2 minutes’ walk from the station.

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One of my favorites. After Engakuji, I like to go to nearby Tokeiji, where there is some new construction going on in the upper terraces.

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