Eishoji (Convent)

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eishoMHThis is the only convent extant in today's Kamakura and relatively new, erected in the early Edo Period (1603-1868). To better understand the Convent, we need to look into the family of the Tokugawa Shogunate founded by Ieyasu Tokugawa (1542-1616), one of the most prominent heroes in Japanese history. Shortly after Ieyasu unified Japan in 1603, he separated his immediate family members to three domains in a move to establish the feudal system across the nation; one in Mito {me-toh} in Ibaraki Prefecture, one in Nagoya and the other in Wakayama Prefecture. Those three branches of Tokugawa families enjoyed the most important and powerful position among many feudal lords, and once in a while inherited the seat of the Shogun in case the head Tokugawa family in Tokyo did not have heirs apparent.

Among the court ladies who served Ieyasu was a woman called Okatsu. (Back then, feudal lords had as many concubines as they wished, and one of the Shogun gave birth to more than 60 children). Whenever Ieyasu was with Okatsu, he could win all battles, and therefore, she was greatly favored by him. In fact, Katsu denotes 'win' in Japanese, and a good omen. (O is a prefixal honorific). Okatsu gave birth to a baby boy, but he died young.

When Ieyasu ordered Yorifusa Tokugawa (1603-1661), Ieyasu's 11th son, to assume the first lord of Mito, Okatsu was told to accompany him as his foster mother since Yorifusa was only 3-year-old. At the demise of Ieyasu ten years later in 1616, however, Okatsu made up her mind to enter nunhood and pray for the repose of her lover's soul. She looked for a site to build a convent. Fortunately, Okatsu's ancestor five generations back was a samurai called Dokan Ota (1432-1486), and had lived in Kamakura as a key retainer of the Vice Governor in Kamakura. Getting support from Iemitsu Tokugawa (1604-1651), then the Third Shogun, Okatsu built the Convent exactly at the site where Ota had lived 150 years earlier, nominating Gyokuho-Sei-in, Yorifusa's daughter, as the founding nun. At the same time, the Convent was named 'Eishoji' following her nun name 'Eisho-in'. Tokugawa family in Tokyo being closely associated with Zojoji, the mother temple of Jodo sect Buddhism located in Minato ward, Tokyo, Okatsu chose the same tenet. At some point of the Edo Period , the Convent was even larger than Kenchoji thanks to the patronage given by the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate.

yamabukiDokan Ota is well known to the Japanese because he built a castle in Tokyo in 1454, which was the prototype of the Edo Castle for the Tokugawa Shogunate and the current Imperial Palace, where Emperor Akihito (1933-) lives. At the lobby of the Glass Hall in Tokyo International Forum near Tokyo Station is a bronze statue of Ota wearing ancient costumes. (Note: The IMF and World Bank's annual meetings took place at this Forum in October 2012.)

Another famous episode on him refers to Tanka, or 31-syllable Japanese verse. He was a distinguished samurai warrior as well as a scholar studying Buddhism at the Five Zen Temples in Kamakura. One day, he went out for a stroll. Before long, it began to rain. To borrow a straw raincoat, he stopped by a farmer's house replete with beautiful flowers of Japanese rose, or Kerria japonica (a deciduous shrub of the rose family. Picture; right). As a young woman came out, he asked her if he could borrow a straw raincoat. She went inside and a bit later appeared with a strip of paper on which a beautiful tanka (one of waka group) was written. She cordially presented it to Ota. What she meant by the 31-syllable verse was that though Japanese roses in her garden were in full bloom and her house may have seemed rich, the roses bear no fruits at all. Likewise her family could not afford even a straw raincoat, and she felt sorry for being unable to help him. It reads:

Nah-nah-a-yah-a (5 syllables )
Hah-nah-wah-sah-keh-doh-mo (7)
Yah-mah-boo-key-no (5)
Me-no-he-toh-ts-dah-nee (7)
Nah-key-zo-kah-nah-she-key (7).

In this particular case, "me no" are key words, which means both fruit of flower and straw raincoat. Tanka as well as haiku (5-7-5 syllables) emphasize the rhythm created by those syllables like English rhyme. (See note below.)

In the garden of the Convent, there are Japanese roses planted as if to remind visitors of this well-known tale.

From its founding, the Mito clan continued to back up the Convent sending their family members as chief nuns, whereby the Convent was dubbed "The Mito Palace in Kamakura". Although the Convent had long been closed to the public, it began to accept sightseers in spring 1995.

In today's Convent grounds, there are Somon gate, Sanmon gate, Butsuden, or the main hall, Karamon gate, Shido {she-doh} (a hall is dedicated to the ancestors' souls), bell, Kuri {koo-re} (Nuns' living quarters), etc.

Butsuden, or Main Hall (Picture; top)

At the entrance near the nuns' living quarters, visitors have to pay a fee of 300-yen for admission. Butsuden is standing on the left-hand side. What can be seen from here is the rear side. To go to the facade, visitors have to go around it.

Originally built in 1636, this hall is reminiscent of Zen temples in its eaves and looks somewhat like that of Shariden of Engakuji. Enthroned on the altar are statues of Amida trinity, namely Amida statue in the center flanked by Kan'non Bosatsu (Avalokitesvara in Skt.) at its left and Seishi Bosatsu (Mahasthama-prapta in Skt.) at its right. The Convent claims that the trinity were chiseled by famous sculptor Unkei (?-1224), a Japanese Michelangelo, and donated by the third Shogun Iemitsu. With no evidence or certification, however, the statues are not on the list of ICAs of any authorities. It is certain that they were made during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333).

An Amida Nyorai statue at e-Museum.

Another statue enshrined in this hall is that of Tora (tiger) Yakushi (Bhaisajya-guru in Skt.), only one of its kind in Kamakura. A 47-centimeter-tall statue of Yakushi Nyorai sits on a tiger, and the namesake of Tora Yakushi.

This Butsuden employed Zen style in architectural design and is called Hoju-den. Hoju means mani in Skt., a peach-shaped Buddhist fitting often placed on top of temple's roof, like that of Tokeiji main hall. Unfortunately, occasional visitors are not allowed go inside the hall. In addition, it is too dark inside and statues are rarely made out.

Unique are wooden animal reliefs appearing under the eaves of the hall with each side having three, which are 12 zodiac signs and point to the direction starting from rat (north) and ending with bore (north-northwest). For details on 12 zodiac signs, refer to Eto of Kamakura Terminology.

Sanmon or Inner Gate.

The original one built in 1643 collapsed at the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Main buildings of the collapsed structures were saved by a volunteer in the neighborhood. The Convent started reconstruction in 2007 using the saved members, and completed it at long last 88 years after the collapse. In May 2011, the inauguration ceremony took place at the Convent with Buddhist rites. The rebuilt Sanmon one can be seen here.

Shido (she-doh)

EishoShidoOn the west side mound of the Butsuden is a hall called shido, in which a mortuary tablet of Okatsu is apotheosized. The structure, though can be seen only through the window, is unique in that it was ornamented with black lacquer and gilding, and somehow bear similarity to that of Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, the mausoleum of Ieyasu Tokugawa.

Oval tombstones
In the southwest corner of the convent, there are six tombstones in a row, which are for those of the chief nuns. As the largest part of each tomb is egg-shaped, this type of tomb or cenotaph is called ran-toh (egg-tower) in Japanese.

Somon and belfry
Somon gate is located at the south end of the courtyard. In the Edo Period, it served as the main gate. Today, it is always shut and stands like a monument. Near the somon is a bell which was cast in 1643.

Butsuden, Karamon, Shido and the bell are ICAs designated by Kanagawa Prefecture, all of which retain their original model.

Unlike English and French, Japanese language has only five vowels and Japanese whose mother tongue is Japanese don't do well with English words having "l", "r", "t", "v" and "th", and therefore, few Japanese can call, for example, "Hillary Clinton" or "thrilling" correctly. Even "Panda" and "Park" are difficult to pronounce. Vancouver is Bancouber, London sounds like Rondon and Las Veags like Ras Begas. Rice and lice are same. Smith is Smis. During the Pacific War, the Japanese military forces described President F. D. Roosevelt as "Loose-belt" in kanji characters to show hostility. However, young children whose mothers are Japanese can get along quickly. When I was stationed in New York in the 1970s, I brought my wife and two kids, 5 and 8, with me. Our kids had never heard foreign languages before. We let them go to a local school. Several days later, the elder kid said to us parents his classmates often asked him something saying like "Wah-rooy-deh-soo" (it's wrong). Later, it turned out that they were asking him "What is this?" Within six months, our kids were somehow able to communicate with classmates. In a year or so, they were perfectly bilingual. But, their parents weren't. Our kids often laughed at us saying our English sounds funny.

Japanese words and names, when spelled in alphabet, end with vowels like Italian. Among the Japanese travellers, there is a well known episode of being cheated or even robbed at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The cheaters identify incoming Japanese by name tag attached to suitcases. They approach one of those who appear easy to get reamed, and say in friendly manner "Hi, Mr.----. Nice to meet you. My boss told me to take care of you. I have a car for you here."

For Japanese, English words ending with "t" and "p" are quite difficult to pronounce. English media like Financial Times, Economist, Times, Newsweek, etc, make fun of Japanese quoting as saying, to name a few among many, momento, stoppu, steppu, just like they call Chinese Chinglish and Singaporean Singlish. It is regrettable that people are fooled simply because they can't speak foreign language correctly. A sort of racial discrimination, it is.

(Updated August 2013)