Access Map


KakuonGateTo be precise, the Temple dates back to 1218 when the Second Regent Yoshitoki Hojo (1163-1224) built a prayer hall sacred to Yakushi Nyorai (Bhaisajya-guru in Sanskrit). The original structures and statues were lost by fires in 1243 and 1251. Later in 1296, Sadatoki Hojo , the Ninth Hojo Regent, renovated the hall and named it 'Kakuonji', nominating Chikai-Shin-e as the founding priest.

The primary purpose was to perform incantations and supplications for victory over the Mongolian troops. Back then, Japan was under external pressure from Mongolia. Kublai Khan (1215-1294), grandson of Genghis Khan (1215-1294), sent envoys to Japan from time to time to urge Japan to accept Khan's suzerainty. The Hojo regime then in power refused their proposal and even executed some of their envoy members. In retaliation, Mongol attacked northern part of Kyushu twice, first in 1274 and then in 1281. By sheer luck, timely typhoons helped expel the Mongolian armada twice. (Hence the typhoon is called Kamikaze, or Divine Wind.).

Priest Chikai was a disciple of Priest Ninsho (1217-1303), the founding priest of Gokurakuji. During the entire period under the Hojo regime, the Temple was patronized by the Hojos, and functioned as an important institution for Buddhism attracting a number of competent priests. Likewise, Emperor Godaigo (1288-1339), who temporarily restored supremacy in the 1330s, patronized the Temple greatly.

In the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), the Shogun including Takauji Ashikaga (1305-1358) and his offspring helped maintain the Temple, repairing broken Buddha statues. Takauji in particular appointed the Temple as his main prayer site.

After the Muromachi Period, Japan entered into the era of civil strife, and battles were waged nationwide. The Temple went into decline with no particular patrons. When the imperial supremacy was restored at long last in 1868, Shinto was institutionalized as the official state religion. The government ordered to dispose of all structures and statues that were associated with the Buddhism elements. The Temple may have been in dire poverty. In addition, the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 brought further devastation. It was as recent as 1948 that the real restoration of the Temple started.

Today's Temple consists of several wooden-buildings, and sits quietly at the foot of the hills with no cars running nearby. The road leading there is too narrow for a sightseeing bus to run on.

The Temple has many valuable assets as it is dubbed "a treasure-house of Buddha statues. " If visitors want to see them, they have to be here at a specific hour as mentioned atop. An elderly guide or two, who are members of a volunteer group in Kamakura, will take them inside the grounds. I joined this tour a couple of times during winter and there were only a dozen or so visitors. The guides say, however, more than a hundred people visit here in a busy season such as late April to early May, and the guides need a mike. At the start of the tour, the guides will warn that no camera, no cell phone are allowed to use during the tour.

Aizendo Hall (Picture; right)

KakuonAizenThe first building we will see immediately after entering the gate is Aizendo hall, which used to be a temple called Dairakuji located a few hundred meters down the road. It was relocated here shortly after the Meiji Imperial Restoration in 1868 as Dairakuji was about to close down. In the hall, the following statues are enshrined, though a little too dark to identify them:

The building adjacent to Aizendo-hall is priests' living quarters.

Up to this Aizendo Hall, occasional visitors can get access with no admission. Beyond this line, they have to join the guided tour. At the left-hand side of the Aizendo Hall is a booth where a fee of 500-yen will be charged for the 50-minute tour.

Yakushido Hall

First, visitors will be brought to the Yakushido Hall. (do means a hall, and therefore, it can be called Yakushi Hall to be exact). In the Yakushido Hall with thatched-roof, the main hall of the Temple, enshrined as the main object of worship is a statue of Yakushi Nyorai (Bhaisajyaguru-vaiduryaprabha in Skt.), or the Physician of Souls, flanked by Nikko Bosatsu (Solar or sunlight, surya-prabha in Skt.) at its left, and Gakko Bosatsu (Lunar or moonlight, candra-prabha in Skt.) at its right, forming a Yakushi trinity (Sanzon). Scientific analysis found that the head part of the Yakushi Nyorai statue was made in the Kamakura Period and the body was in the Muromachi Period. An inscription found in the head part of Nikko Bosatsu statue tells that it was carved in 1422 by a local sculptor named Choyu (?-1426). Yakushi Nyorai statue in the center measures 244-centimeter-tall and the two satellites 218-centimeter-tall. Nowhere else in Kamakura are such gigantic statues enthroned.

A Yakushi Nyorai statue at e-Museum.

Slender fingers and canonical dress hanging down from the pedestals clearly reflect the style that was in fashion under the Sung dynasty in China. This also indicates that Kamakuraites back at the time wanted to be independent from Kyoto culture or to rival it. The trinity are naturally ICAs.

Nikko and Gakko Bosatsu statues seem symmetric and almost identical. If you take a closer look at the flowers they hold and crowns on their head, however, you will find they are slightly different.

On the left- and right-hand altars, there are twelve life-size statues called Juni Shinsho, or the Twelve Guardian Generals for Yakushi Nyorai, each representing one of the twelve zodiac animals. On the right-hand altar, there are six statues starting Ne (mouse) from the left and ending with Mi (serpent). To your left, there are another six starting Uma (horse) from the left and ending with I (boar). All of the statues, clad in armor and have threatening aspects, are made of wood, and as tall as 150 to 190 centimeters. They were fashioned by Choyu and his group during 1401 to 1411. Indeed, Choyu was a great sculptor of the days in Kamakura and he gained the fame through these excellent works.
One of Juni Shinsho
on display at TNM.

The Twelve Guardian deities for Yakushi Nyorai did have nothing to do with twelve Chinese zodiac in the beginning. They were believed to guard Yakushi Nyorai twelve months a year, twelve hours every day and night at twelve directions. The number twelve gradually were assimilated into twelve zodiac signs and the statues were carved so that each represent one of them. For details on the twelve-zodiac, refer to eto of Kamakura Terminology.

KakuonjoOn the occasion that Sanetomo Minamoto (1192-1219), the Third Shogun, was assassinated by his nephew in 1219, Yoshitoki Hojo (1183-1242), the Second Regent and Sanetomo's uncle, was also nearly killed as he was supposed to be with Sanetomo as an aide, but managed to escape the tragedy. He had seen a white dog seriously staring at him shortly before the ceremony for Sanetomo took place at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. He interpreted the dog's staring as something ill-omened, or as a premonition that he should not join the ceremony. The premonition came true, and his replacement was killed together with Sanetomo on the spot. Yoshitoki thought he might well have been killed, had not there been for the dog. The Temple's legend tells the dog-deity statue had disappeared from the hall exactly when Yoshitoki saw the dog. Hearing what happened, Yoshitoki thought that the dog deity at this hall saved his life, and protected the Temple cordially thereafter. The story is always told by the guide and he says the Dog statue (standing second from right on the left altar) is a little shorter than others and was fashioned in Kamakura Period, implying that those statues had already existed before Sanetomo was assassinated in 1219. On the other hand, literatures assert they were rebuilt later by sculptor Choyu. Some historians do not believe either story. They say Yoshitoki refused by design to join the ceremony from the very beginning because he was the real conspirator plotting the assassination.

In front of the trinity statue and to your left is a small, black statue of a priest called Binzuru, or Pindola Bharadvaja in Skt., the first of the Sixteen Rakan (Arhat in Skt.), or Buddha's great disciples. According to legend, touching part of this statue and then rubbing the corresponding part on your body insures you recovery of your illness. Hearing this, almost all of visitors touch the statue one by one and then rub their own body, some their heads laughing. Before doing this, they are required to make some donation into the offertory box placed in front.

A panel of Yakushi and Twelve Guardian deities at MFA.

Enthroned in the right-hand recess is another Buddha statue, wooden and sedentary, which is called Saya {sah-yah} Amida, or Amitabha in Skt. Saya denotes a case or a sheath, something to put in. This statue contained a small Buddha statue inside the body like a case and the namesake of Saya Amida. This is one of the Six Amida Pilgrimage in Kamakura, and notable as it has decoration of domon, a technique developed in Kamakura. Patterns of flowers, leaves of tree and Buddhist fittings are put on the robe of statue. Those are made of clay and affixed on the statue's robe with lacquer. Unfortunately, domon on this particular statue is no longer clear. The guides say Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), a Nobel prize-winning writer, admired this statue, and had visited here to say a prayer before the statue just three days before he committed suicide.

In the left recess are three statue of Garanjin, or the guardian deity of the Temple wearing black headgear similar to those enshrined in the main hall of Kenchoji. Why are Garanjin here at this Shingon sect temple? Because the Temple had been affiliated with four sects before the Meiji Imperial Restoration: Shingon, Ritsu, Zen and Jodo. Garanjin concept was introduced into Japan together with Zen and its statues are usually installed at Zen temples.

The nine-meter-square hall itself is a hybrid made of new and old pillars and beams. The thatch of the hipped roof was replaced with new one in 1974. The guides will show the visitors the ceiling with a flashlight since there is no electric light in this hall and it is dark even at daytime. Although brush-written letters on a beam above are barely decipherable, there appear the name of Takauji Ashikaga (1305-1358), the founder of Ashikaga Shogunate, and the year of o-ei 24 (1354), which are believed to be his autograph, and reveals that the hall was rebuilt that year by himself. The white dragon on the ceiling, of which tint has faded with times, was painted by Michinobu Kano (1730-1790), one of the famous Kano-school painters. The building is an ICA designated by Kanagawa Prefecture. Incidentally, this Yakushido hall is one of the four oldest buildings in Kamakura. Other threes are: Shariden of Engakuji, Kaisando and Shodo of Kenchoji.

Black Jizo Bosatsu

In the foreground of the Yakushido Hall is the Jizo-do Hall, where a 170 centimeters tall, wooden statue of Jizo, or Ksitigarbha-bodhisattva in Skt. The structure is much smaller than the Yakushido Hall. This was also made during the Kamakura Period and designated as an ICA. The statue is called Kuro (black) Jizo. Why black? Legend holds that this merciful Jizo took part in burning the caldron at the netherworld's hell not to heat up but to cool down the temperature so that those who were being tortured by heat may feel relieved. Legend further says that the black Jizo turned into black overnight no matter how often priests wiped out the soot or painted differently.

August 10 every year is the day to venerate this Jizo. A religious service for him starts at twelve midnight with gongs of bell, attended by a number of Shingon sect priests chanting Han'nya shingyo, or Prajna-paramita sutra. Religious people join this ceremony from the very beginning or before dawn at the latest. When August 10 fell on weekend, I used to visit here before noon. Even at this hour, the narrow road leading to the Temple, which would otherwise see few passersby, was crowded with the devout.

It is said that visiting and worshiping the Jizo on this particular day is worth visiting 46,000 times, and no admission is charged. But, it is customary to offer incenses and candles to the Jizo Bosatsu which costs us 300 yen.

In front of the Jizo-do, there stands a pole, from the top of which, long, white cloths hang on this day. It is believed that if worshipers pray for something holding this cloths, their wish will be fulfilled. People wait their turn forming a long queue. Young men and women seen among them may have had parents who were seriously ill and be praying to god for divine aid. Hope that once on a shore, they continue to pray.

On the left-hand side of the Jizo-do hall are smaller six Jizo Statues made of stones with red bibs on, which are Jizo of the Six State of Existence. With respect to Six Jizo concept, see En'noji.

A Jizo Bosatsu statue at NNM.

Sentai-Jizo Hall

Near the Black Jizo stands a new hall called Sentai Jizo Hall, which was built in the early 2000s, wherein several hundreds of Jizo figurines are enshrined. Many of them were made in the 14th to 18th centuries and donated by parishioners. Sentai means one thousand statues, but actually there now are less than 800. Those had been enshrined in the Black Jizo Hall before the new hall was built. A pregnant woman used to take home one to pray for an easy delivery, and if her wish is met, she has to bring it back with a new one.

Cave for Thirteen Buddha and Bodhisattvas

To the right of the Yakushido Hall at the foot of a hill is a cave, or Yagura as popularly called in Kamakura, roughly 7 to 8 meters square, and 2 to 3 meters high, in which 13 Buddha and Bodhisattva statuettes appear in niches of the rock wall. During the Kamakura Period, the teaching of Ten Kings in Hades thrived together with Zen Buddhism. Ten Kings in Hades was based upon Taoism in China. According to the teaching, we have to face trials ten times after death on our wrongdoing while we were alive. The judges in the netherworld are called Kings, hence the Ten Kings in Hades. The last trial ends on the second anniversary of death. See En'noji for details.
A hanging scroll of Thirteen Buddha can be seen at Tofukuji's site in Kyoto.

Entering the Edo Period (1603-1868), however, the Tokugawa Shogunate added three more judges with the last trial ending on the 32nd anniversary. This was aimed at making parishioners to stay with Buddhism as long as possible, in other words, to keep them estranged from Christianity. For each trial, a specific tathagata or bodhisattva is allocated to help mitigate punishment and serve as a guardian deity for the souls wandering in the netherworld. In this cave, therefore, the statuettes of those 13 Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are enshrined.

Traditional Farmhouse

In the backyard is an old, considerably large farmhouse, which was once owned by a village headmaster Utsumi family and served as his residence. Originally built in 1706 in the western part of Kamakura, it was restored in 1981 and relocated here to preserve a typical farmhouse during the Edo Period. An ICA designated by Kanagawa Prefecture. The guides elaborate here on the concept of the 13 Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In the left recess, a sedentary statue of Monju Bosatsu, or Manjusri in Skt., the Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Intellect, is installed.

Chief Priests' Tombs

That's about what the guide priest takes the visitors around for the 50-minute tour. However, there are more in the Temple, which are off-limits to casual visitors. Far back of the Temple grounds, there are many stone towers. Most of them are tombs for the deceased priests and are called Ranto (egg tower) as an egg-shaped stone is placed on top of each tomb. Among those stone towers are two big and important Hokyo-into. Both are as high as 3.7 meters and were made in 1332. One called Kaisanto, or "Founding Priest's Tower," is for Priest Chikai, the founding priest, and the other called Daitoto is for Priest Genchi Daito (date of birth and death unknown), the second chief priest. Both are the masterpieces of the era and are ICAs. The guides said that in late June when hydrangea is in full bloom, visitors can go around the garden where quite a few hydrangea are planted. It may be a good chance to get near those tombs.

A Hundred and Eight Yagura

Popularly called "108 Yagura", there are 177 small caves to be exact dug into tuff. Each one has niches for cremains. In other words, Yagura here are graves for middle-to-high class people like samurai and priests. Many of Yagura have gorinto, or five-tier tombs or cenotaphs, inside. The number 108 is familiar to the Buddhists in that there are 108 passions we human beings are subject to. On New Year's Eve, all temples start to ring the bell at midnight and ring 108 times so as to dispel those passions. Inside the caves, there are many stone statues of Jizo installed, but some of them without the head part. During the Edo Period, rumors swirled through the gamblers that they could win the gamble if they carried a head of Jizo in their pockets. Those who wanted to change the luck are said to have stolen them.


  1. In 1934, two Cabinet Ministers were forced to resign because of the comment they made on Takauji Ashikaga in the Diet. The then Education Minister said something like "Takauji was not necessarily a traitor", and protected Takauji's behavior. With the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1868, emperors restored supremacy under the absolute monarchy system, and Shinto became the official state religion. Anyone including historical figures who criticized the emperors were charged with lese majesty. Takauji was thought to be a national traitor since he had plotted a rebellion against Emperor Godaigo in 1336 before he became the ruler of Japan. The minister and his fellow minister were later forced to step down to take responsibility as they sided with Takauji. Likewise, the Temple had to undergo hardships during the time for the reason that it was built and protected by Takauji Ashikaga, the traitor to the country. The Temple's structures and various statues had long been weather-beaten with almost no caretakers. There must have been a sharp contrast in the government's treatments made against the Temple and for Shinto-based Kamakuragu Shrine, which is only 700-meter apart from the Temple. A case in point was Chojuji, which had no caretaker in the early Meiji period.

  2. Before the Meiji Restoration, many members of the Imperial Family had faith in Buddhism. Sen'nyuji, the headquarters for the Temple, for instance, was erected exclusively for the Family, and it took care of their religious services. A host of emperors up until the Restoration including the 121th Emperor Osahito (a.k.a. Komei) (1831-1867) were buried here. Sen'nyuji has been commonly called Mitera in honor the Imperial Family. Mi of Mitera is an honorific prefix and tera denotes a temple.

    The new government after the Restoration employed Shinto as the state and Imperial Family's religion, protecting it by the Constitution. Some Buddhists in the Imperial Family could not change their faith overnight. Among them was a prince, who was an adherent Buddhist. At his deathbed, he left a will, in which he strongly required that his funeral service be carried in accordance with Buddhist traditions. His will was never honored.

  3. When I first read about the Temple years ago, I thought it may be called "Gaku-en-ji". The name of the Temple shown in Chinese characters is identical to that of Engakuji if the first and the second characters are reversed. But the Temple is called "Kaku-on-ji".

  4. In the Temple's backgrounds, there are a dozen or so Japanese plum trees, of which flowers bloom from February to March, one after another. In early December, Japanese maples exhibit a brilliant red color. About a couple of hundreds meters down the gate of the Temple, there is a hiking trail leading off into hills east of Kamakura, and further to outskirts of Yokohama.

  5. In Osaka, Aizen Festival takes place from June 30 to July 2 every year in honor of Aizen Myo-o, the main object of Shoman-in temple. It is one of the three main festivals in Osaka. Many join the festival wearing summer cotton kimono. Shoman-in is a sub-temple of Shitennoji.

(Updated August 2013)