Kamakura: Engaku-ji


Since everything closes for the New Year holiday in Japan, we (the Crew) decided to head out to Kamakura on New Year’s Day. In addition to having been Japan’s capital from 1185 until 1333 (the Kamakura Shogunate), Kamakura is home to several of Japan’s most beautiful and important Zen temples, several Shinto shrines (including Hachiman-gu), an incredible main street lined with cherry trees, and of course, the Daibutsu. The town itself nestles against the sea and is blanketed by hills and forests. It’s only an hour or so from Tokyo, but it feels like a different country.

Our first stop was Engaku-ji, with it’s beautiful entry gate, the San-mon. The temple complex snakes up into the hills and there are several building complexes with ponds — probably meditation halls used by the Rinzai monks who practice here. It was not crowded at all, perhaps partially due to the gloomy weather. At once point it even began to sprinkle, but after we bought umbrellas there wasn’t a drop to be found.

I’ve been to Kamakura once before, during cherry-blossom season in 2001. At that time the sun was shining and trees where blossoming all around Engaku-ji, framing the San-mon and the views of the monks’ quarters.

Although Engaku-ji is known primarily for its giant temple bell (cast in 1301 and the largest in Kamakura), there are several quiet courtyards that contain their own worthwhile sets of sensations and encounters. This lantern is located in one of my favorite courtyards, which also hosts a garden path lined with jizo figures and an elaborately carved wooden gateway.

This jizo figure is lightly covered with green moss and is cradling several yen coins, left as offerings.

An elaborate dragon image from one of the courtyard’s gateways.

This is a view of the monks’ quarters, with its attendant garden and pond.

This is the mausoleum of Tokimune Hojo, and you have to pay something like an extra 150 yen if you want to duck in. There was something appealing to me about this small, enclosed courtyard with its wafting incense and quiet garden, so I decided to enter. According to the pamphlet,

The Mausoleum in which the mortuary tablet of Tokimune Hojo is enshrined is built on his own grave. Here we can see a tablet with the Empress Dowager shoken’s poem dedicated to him. The meaning of the poem is this:

“Noisy waves of foreign forces do not come surging again upon this country because of the god-sent storm originating from the seughing winds among the pine trees of Mt. Kamakura.”

I think this refers to the claim that Engaku-ji was founded (in 1282) so that Zen monks could pray for soldiers who had lost their lives “defending Japan against the second of Kublai Khan’s invasion attempts” (Lonely Planet).

By the time we were ready to leave Engaku-ji, the sun was already starting to come out. Buying umbrellas will do that for you every time.


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