Naturally, the Temple is closely associated with Priest Nichiren (1222-1282), the founder of Nichiren sect Buddhism. Though he was an excellent priest, his sharp criticism against other Buddhist sects invited strong oppositions. In fact, he encountered persecutions four times during his lifetime. In the last case, he narrowly escaped death-penalty, and was deported instead to an island called Sado off the Japan Sea coast in 1271. Three years later, he was pardoned and came back to Kamakura. With nowhere to stay, he sojourned at the Ebisudo Hall, which was situated right here at the present Hongakuji. It was an offshoot temple of Tendai sect back at the time.
In ancient days, this was the place where cargo boats sailed up on the Nameri River to load and unload various cargoes. The government designated this district as a commercial zone and prohibited to do business in other parts of Kamakura. Ebisu, or the Deity of Commerce, Fishing and Fortune, had been enshrined here to invite good lucks and fortunes for the locals. Priest Nichiren stayed here for about six weeks and again tried to let the government accept his long-standing Lotus-sutra doctrine but to no avail. In disappointment, he finally left Kamakura for Minobu, Yamanashi Prefecture, where he had a hermitage and it was later expanded into Kuonji, the head temple of the entire Nichiren sect Buddhism. After his demise of 1282, he was buried there.
In 1436, about 150 years after Priest Nichiren' death, Priest Nisshutsu (his date of birth and death unknown), a devout follower of the Nichiren sect, came to Kamakura from Shizuoka Prefecture to propagate the Nichiren Buddhism. Like Priest Nichiren, he too was often at odds with the government over its religious policy. Mochiuji Ashikaga, the founder of the Temple, was then in power as Governor-General of Kamakura reigning over eastern Japan. Furious at Nisshutsu's propaganda, Mochiuji once tried to inflict a heavy penalty on him. It was Nisshutsu's good personality, however, that changed Mochiuji's mind. He recognized Priest Nisshutsu was a man of sincerity, a man of integrity. Not only did Mochiuji pardon the priest, but also gave him the Ebisudo Hall. That is the origin of the Temple. Priest Nisshutsu changed the denomination of the Temple to the Nichiren Sect in dedication to the memory of the founding priest of the Nichiren Sect.
The second chief priest Niccho (1421-1500), who served as the 11th chief priest of Kuonji, brought here part of Priest Nichiren's ashes from Kuonji. Since Kuonji is located roughly 130 kilometers west of Kamakura and high up on a mountain, 1,153 meters above the sea level to be exact, it was tough for the devout to visit. (Today, cable cars bring us up there in a few minutes). By sharing Priest Nichiren's ashes, the Temple obtained almost as identical status as Kuonji, and the Temple has since been called Higashi (east) Minobu. It was quite natural that the Temple flourished with many worshipers, most of whom were commoners living in Kamakura. As a matter of fact, the bridge in front of the gate of today's Temple has been called Ebisudo Bridge and was the most busy district back at the time.
Priest Niccho often stated that eye-disease would be cured if the sick visit here and say a prayer. He himself had suffered from eye disease and could cure it through the faith in the Lotus sutra. The Temple has been respectfully called 'Niccho-sama' (sama is a honorific suffix, politer than san) as many who had eye troubles experienced recovering from the illness after visiting the Temple. Even today, those who have eye disease come here wishing the divine favor with super natural power.
The Temple consists of the Nio-mon (Two-Deva Gate), Main Hall, Soshido (Founding priest's hall), guest house, priests' living quarters, Ebisudo hall, bell, etc.
The main objects of worship are statues of Shaka (Sakyamuni in Sanskrit) trinity (sanzon), or a statue of Shaka in the center flanked by a statue of Fugen Bosatsu, or Samantabhadra in Skt., at its right and that of Monju Bosatsu, or Manjusri in Skt., at its left. The Shaka statue is 105.7 centimeters tall, Monju statue 57.1 centimeters and Fugen statue 56.1 centimeters. All were fashioned in the 14th century and are excellent works reflecting the Sung's style sculpture.
A hanging scroll of Shaka Sanzon on display at MFA.
As is often the case with Nichiren sect temples, Sanbo-honzon are also enshrined in this hall as another main objects of worship. Sanbo originally means three elements (the Lord Buddha, the Law and the Priesthood) and in the case of Nichiren sect temples, a tablet is placed in the center. It is a slab on which seven invocation letters or Nam-myo-ho-ren-gek'kyo, (called odaimoku) meaning adoration to the Lotus Sutra, are written with a brush in Chinese characters together with other names of Buddhist deities. Surrounding the tablet are the statues of Shaka trinity and Priest Nichiren in front. Through the windows, the statue of Nichiren will easily be identified because it is colorful like a doll. The following statues are also enthroned upon the altar:
In addition, the Temple hold a number of ancient writings. Included among them are seven pieces of Priest Nichiren's writing, a letter written by Niccho etc.
To the right of the main hall is a structure called Soshi Bunkotsudo, wherein are kept Priest Nichiren's ashes brought from Minobu. It is usually closed.
The current hall was built in 1981 in commemoration of Priest Nichiren's 700th anniversary of death. The structure is octagonal and its roofs are slightly round. Ebisu is a name of the Japanese deity of commerce and fishermen. Also called the Mercury of Japan. The statue usually holds a big sea bream under his left arm and a fishing rod in his right hand. In this hall, however, a statue which looks like Priest Nichiren is installed in the center.
Annual festival takes place on January 10 every year (picture; right). Merchants visit here and pray for their successful businesses and prosperity. Beside, Ebisu here belongs to Shichifukujin, or the Seven Deities of Good Fortune of Kamakura. On January 10, 2011, it drew as many as 7,000 visitors. The day fell on the second Monday of January, which is a national holiday in Japan called Coming-of-Age Day.
An Ebisu statue at MFA.
Built in 1410, it is an ICA designated by Kamakura City. There is an interesting episode on this bell. It was originally owned by a temple in Chiba Prefecture. When Priest Nisshutsu was the chief priest, he had a religious debate with the priests over there and he won it. As a prize, he obtained the bell. The trouble was that how he could carry it. Fortunately, he had a servant with herculean strength and had him haul it all the way back to Kamakura. The bell weighs more than 700 kg. The original bell is now kept at the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History in Yokohama and the one here is a replica.
Cenotaph for Masamune Okazaki
Masamune was probably the most famous swordsmith Japan ever produced. Although his date of birth and death unknown, it is certain that he lived near Jufukuji in late Kamakura Period (1185-1333) and made most excellent swords. The word Masamune is synonymous with high quality Japanese swords, which were not only important weapons for samurai but also art works made of iron. Swords were in fact regarded as the soul of samurai, outweighing its usefulness. And as one of the three regalias of the Imperial Family, swords are often dedicated to Shinto shrines.
In the graveyard of the Temple, his and his son Sadamune's cenotaphs in form of Hokyo-into are placed. When exiled Priest Nichiren came back to Kamakura in 1274 from Sado island, he stayed at Ebisudo here for a while. Hearing this, Masamune visited the Priest to ask for his teachings. The Priest was willing to teach Masamune his doctrines. Later, Masamune turned devotee for the Priest from whom the name Masamune was conferred. Masa is right, and Mune is part of Chinese character meaning religion. What the word Masamune means is the right religion, or the Lotus Sutra.
However, the Temple was erected in 1436,
more than 100 years after Masamune's death.
The Hokyo-into were dedicated in 1836 by a group of swordsmith
in Tokyo who admired Masamune's technique.
Tokugawa Art Museum has a host of Japanese swords on display, most of which are called Masamune. In this case, Masamune means orthodox. You can also view various national-treasure swords at e-Museum.
Meanwhile, the Temple stands with its back (not the front) facing the Wakamiya-Oji, the main street of Kamakura leading to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Those days, temples were not permitted with their gates facing it. Today, as the Temple is conveniently located between the main street near Kamakura Station and residential area in southeast of Kamakura, Kamakuraites are going across the temple grounds using it a convenient shortcut to and from the Station.
January 10: Ebisu Festival:
The Temple's grounds are crowded on this day with worshipers to pray for prosperity. As the patron deity of merchants, businessmen and good fortune, this is the time when they pray for a successful year at Ebisudo Hall. Female attendants clad with red and white kimono like maidens at Shinto shrine and a long headgear serve visitors with bamboo leaves, which are ornamented with various amulets, and are sold for 10,000, 5,000 and 3,000 yen a piece. If they are placed in offices and stores, business is believed to grow fast. The worse the economic climate, the greater the sales of bamboo leaves. It may be a good indication to know whether or not the economy is favorable, perhaps better than the predictions made by economists.
First Sunday of October: Memorial Service for dolls
This ceremony started rather recently. At the guest hall of the Temple, doll lovers hold an exhibition of dolls every autumn. It is a popular show among the doll fans and many appreciate the event. At the same time, they feel that throwing away old dolls is just pitiful and awful. For them, dolls are like babies or family members. This feeling eventually led to a motive that old dolls should be properly treated holding memorial services for them. The Temple accepted their request and the first service started in 1983. While the priests recite sutras, the old dolls are burned and ashes are dedicated to the doll mound in the temple courtyard. The Japanese do not like to throw away what they loved for a long time simply because they got too old. Similar rituals are held at other temples for dead timepieces, old pictures, etc.
A large tee of Sarusuberi (Indian lilac, or Lagerstroemia indica) in front of the priests' living quarters is just beautiful in summer.
(Updated January 2011)