The Temple was founded by Motouji Ashikaga (1340-1367), the first governor in Kamakura called Kubo (governor-general) to pray for the repose of his father Takauji (1305-1358), who founded the Ashikaga Shogunate in Kyoto, and assumed the seat of the first Shogun in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573). At its zenith, the Temple had a complete set of seven structures as a full-fledged Zen temple.
Priest Kosen-Ingen, the founding priest, came to Kamakura from Kagoshima Prefecture, southern part of Kyushu island, when he was only eight years old, and entered Engakuji to became a priest. He took the tonsure at age 13 and visited China at 24 for further study of Buddhism staying there for eight years. In 1326, he returned to Kamakura together with a Chinese Zen priest named Seisetsu-Secho (1274-1339), whose hometown is Fuzhou, Fujian, and his Chinese name in alphabet is Qingzhuo Zhengcheng. Priest Seisetsu was then invited to Kenchoji to assume the post of the 22nd chief priest. After serving Kenchoji, Jochiji etc., he was also invited to become the 29th chief priest of Engakuji in 1359 and later the 38th chief priest of Kenchoji. A great Zen priest, he was. Priest Kosen was his favorite disciple, and nominated as the founding priest of the Temple by Motouji Ashikaga.
For the reason that Takauji Ashikaga took control of Japan after rebelling against Emperor Godaigo (1288-1339), the Temple had long to face hostility from the Imperial Court and the loyalist government, particularly after the Imperial Court restored sovereignty in 1868. In the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the Temple was ostracized as the traitor's temple, and anti-Buddhism sentiment further worsened the situation. (Refer to History for details.) At some point in the Meiji Period, there was no priest who volunteered to take care of the Temple, and it was left to near dilapidation. Probably because of this, the Temple had long been keeping a policy not to open it to the public until recently. It changed dramatically in 2007 when new structures including the main hall, Hojo and and a beautiful garden were constructed. (Picture, right: new main hall)
Meanwhile, the name Choju means a long-life or longevity in Japanese.
The hall enshrines a new wooden statue of Shaka Nyorai (Sakyamuni in Sanskrit). To the right of it is a 54.6-centimeter- tall sedentary statue of Takauji Ashikaga, and to the left is a 66-centimeter-tall sedentary statue of Priest Kosen. Takauji's statue wears formal kimono worn by court nobles. Both were fashioned during the Muromachi Period.
Kan'non-do Hall (Picture below)
A standing statue of Sho Kan'non, or Arya-avalokitesvara in Sanskrit, is enshrined in the rather small structure with thatched roofs. A Sho Kan'non statue at NNM.
Gorinto for Takauji
Behind the main hall is a Gorinto for Takauji, in which his hair is said to be kept as a keepsake. Since hair do not decompose, the Japanese like to keep the hair of the departed in their memory. During World War II, many Japanese soldiers going to the front left their hair to the family as their mementos in preparation for death.
Vegetarian diet available
A group of five or more can ask the Temple for vegetarian food called shojin ryori . Reservations are required. It's only for lunch and costs you 4,500-yen per head. A narrow uphill road cornering the Temple is called Kamega-yatsu-zaka, one of the Seven Open-cuts in Kamakura, which leads to the west side of the JR railway tracks, namely to the northwest of Kamakura Station.
At the entrance, there stands a sign post which reads "Taking pictures by compact cameras is permitted, but do not use single-lens reflex." I asked an attendant of the Temple for the reason. He told me that single-lens reflex users don't mind their mannes, changing lenses and using tripod in narrow pathways, which is very embarassing for the Temple and for other visitors as well.
Kamakura City Tourist Association holds a Miss Kamakura beauty contest every spring. In 2010, the 26th contest
took place at the Temple and three college students were named Miss Kamakura
for the year out of 144 applicants. It took place again in 2011, and seems
to be an annual event for the Temple. Todays's temples provide even a catwalk
for models probably to draw tourists' attention. How can one imagine a
zen temple hosting a beauty contest?
(Updated June 2011)