Japan // Around Tokyo //


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.

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