As the Tokyo train nears Kita-Kamakura Station, urban sprawl gradually gives way to gentle, forested hills which provide the backdrop for some of Kamakura’s greatest Zen temples. Chief among these are Kenchō-ji and the wonderfully atmospheric Engaku-ji. It takes over an hour to cover the prime sights, walking south along the main road, the Kamakura-kaidō, to the edge of central Kamakura. With more time, follow the Daibutsu Hiking Course up into the western hills to wash your yen at an alluring temple dedicated to Zeniarai Benten.
Engaku-ji and Tokei-ji
Engaku-ji and Tokei-ji
The second most important – but most satisfying – of Kamakura’s major Zen temples, Engaku-ji (円覚寺) lies buried among ancient cedars just two minutes’ walk east of Kita-Kamakura Station. It was founded in 1282 to honour victims (on both sides) of the ultimately unsuccessful Mongolian invasions in 1274 and 1281. The layout follows a traditional Chinese Zen formula – a pond and bridge (now cut off by the train tracks), followed by a succession of somewhat austere buildings – but the encroaching trees and secretive gardens add a gentler touch.
The first building inside the compound is Engaku-ji’s two-storey main gate, San-mon, a magnificent structure rebuilt in 1783, and beneath which the well-worn flagstones bear witness to generations of pilgrims. Beyond, the modern Butsu-den (Buddha Hall) houses the temple’s primary Buddha image, haloed in soft light, while behind it the charming Shari-den lies tucked off to the left past an oblong pond. This small reliquary, usually closed to visitors, is said to contain a tooth of the Buddha brought here from China in the early thirteenth century. It’s also considered Japan’s finest example of Song-dynasty Zen architecture, albeit a sixteenth-century replica. The main path continues gently uphill to another pretty thatched building, Butsunichi-an, where regent Hōjō Tokimune was buried in 1284; in fine weather green tea is served in its attractive garden. Finally, tiny Ōbai-in enshrines a pale-yellow Kannon statue, but its best attribute is a nicely informal garden with a grove of Japanese apricot.
One minute’s walk along the main road from Engaku-ji, Tōkei-ji (東慶寺) was founded as a nunnery in 1285 by the young widow of Hōjō Tokimune. It’s an intimate temple, with a pleasing cluster of buildings and a profusion of flowers at almost any time of year: Japanese apricot in February, magnolia and peach in late March, followed by peonies and then irises in early June; September is the season for cascades of bush clover.
The greatest of Kamakura’s Zen temples is Kenchō-ji (建長寺), headquarters of the Rinzai sect and Japan’s oldest Zen training monastery. More formal than Engaku-ji and a lot less peaceful, largely because of the neighbouring high school, Kenchō-ji contains several important buildings, most of which have been relocated here from Tokyo and Kyoto to replace those lost since the temple’s foundation in 1253. Again, the design of the layout shows a strong Chinese influence; the founding abbot was another Song Chinese émigré, in this case working under the patronage of Hōjō Tokiyori, the devout fifth regent and father of Engaku-ji’s Tokumine.
The main complex begins with the towering, copper-roofed San-mon, an eighteenth-century reconstruction, to the right of which hangs the original temple bell, cast in 1255 and considered one of Japan’s most beautiful. Beyond San-mon, a grove of gnarled and twisted juniper trees hides the dainty, nicely dilapidated Butsu-den. The main image is, unusually, of Jizō (the guardian deity of children) seated on a lotus throne, his bright, half-closed eyes piercing the gloom. Behind is the Hattō, or lecture hall, one of Japan’s largest wooden Buddhist buildings. The curvaceous Chinese-style gate, Kara-mon, and the Hōjō hall beyond are much more attractive structures. Walk round the latter’s balcony to find a pond-garden generally attributed to a thirteenth-century monk, making it Japan’s oldest-surviving Zen garden, though it’s been spruced up considerably.
Behind the Hōjō, a path heads the up steep steps past Hansōbō, a shrine guarded by statues of long-nosed, mythical tengu. This is the start of the Ten’en Hiking Course (天園ハイキングコース). It takes roughly one and a half hours to complete the five-kilometre trail from Kenchō-ji, which loops round the town’s northeast outskirts to Zuisen-ji; for a shorter walk (2.5km), you can cut down earlier to Kamakura-gū.
From Kenchō-ji it’s only another five minutes through the tunnel and downhill to the side entrance of Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū.
Daibutsu Hiking Course
Daibutsu Hiking Course
Past Tōkei-ji (東慶寺) continuing along the main valley is Jōchi-ji (浄智寺), beside which you’ll find steps which mark the start of the Daibutsu Hiking Course (大仏ハイキングコース). This meandering ridge-path (2.2km) makes an enjoyable approach to Hase’s Great Buddha, but in any case it’s well worth taking a diversion as far as the captivating cave-shrine dedicated to the goddess Zeniarai Benten (銭洗弁天), the “Money-Washing Benten”, an incarnation of the goddess of good fortune, music and water. Follow the somewhat erratic signs for Genjiyama-kōen (源氏山公園) along a trail heading southeast through the park, to a road junction where the main trail turns right. Here, you’ll pick up signs pointing steeply downhill to where a torii and banners mark the shrine entrance. Duck under the tunnel to emerge in a natural amphitheatre filled with a forest of torii wreathed in incense and candle-smoke.
If you’re following the Daibutsu Hiking Course all the way to Hase, then rather than retracing your steps, take the path heading south under a tunnel of tightly packed torii, zigzagging down to the valley bottom. Turn right at a T-junction to find another avenue of vermilion torii leading uphill deep into the cryptomeria forest. At the end lies a simple shrine, Sasuke Inari-jinja (佐助稲荷神社), dating from before the twelfth century and dedicated to the god of harvests. His messenger is the fox; as you head up the steep path behind, to the left of the shrine buildings, climbing over tangled roots, you’ll find fox statues of all shapes and sizes peering out of the surrounding gloom. At the top, turn right and then left at a white signboard to pick up the hiking course for the final 1500m to the Daibutsu.