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.