Access Map


According to the Temple's records, its origin dates back to 1159 when a warrior living near here was killed at a battle between the Minamoto and the Taira Clans. His son built a small temple here to console the souls of the departed father as well as other war-dead, dedicating a statue of Nyoirin Kan'non (Cintamani-cakra in Skt.) to it.

A statue of Nyoirin Kan'non at e-Museum.

In 1256, Fifth Regent Tokiyori Hojo (1227-1263), who also lived in this neighborhood, stepped down from the Regency at the age of 29, and entered priesthood under the leadership of Rankei-Doryu (1213-1278), a Chinese Zen priest whom Tokiyori invited to Kamakura and nominated as the founding priest of Kenchoji. At the same time, Tokiyori built a small prayer hall and named it Saimyoji. This hall was, however, abolished after he died several years later.

It was Tokimune Hojo (1251-1284), Tokiyori's son and the Eighth Hojo Regent, who erected a full-fledged temple in 1268 near his father's prayer-hall to hold religious services. (Tokimune is also known as the founder of Engakuji.) The new temple was called Zenkoji. Records narrates that at the memorial service held in 1323 at Engakuji for Sadatoki Hojo (1271-1311), the Ninth Hojo Regent, Zenkoji dispatched as many as 90 priests.

The structures of Zenkoji was expanded in 1383, and included among the sub-temples was Meigetsu-in built by Norikata Uesugi, then Vice Governor of Kamakura. He appointed Mitsushitsu-Shugon to be the founding priest. He was a six-generation down disciple of Priest Rankei. Meigetsu-in was named after Norikata's posthumous name and became the family temple of the Uesugis at the Yamanouchi district of Kamakura. (Meigetsu denotes a full moon). Zenkoji continued to thrive until the late 16th century getting patronage from the rulers then in power. However, it did not necessarily flourish thereafter with no specific supporters, and finally was on the verge of abolishment in the face of the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1868. Making Shinto the state religion, the new government clamped down on Buddhist temples. Only sub-temple Meigetsu-in managed to survive, and that is what we see today.

Shiyoden {she-yoh-den}, or Main Hall

meigetsuhallAs its appearance indicates, the Hall is new, rebuilt in 1973. The main object of worship is a sedentary statue of Sho Kan'non or Arya-avalokitesvara in Sanskrit. The inscriptions affixed to the statue read that it was chiseled in 1309 and enshrined at a Zen temple named Ji-onji (no longer exists) at first. Then in 1520, it was brought here as the main object of worship of the Temple. The 54-centimeter tall wooden, sedentary statue is beautiful and worshipped by many adherents, though relatively small in size.

A standing Sho Kan'non statue on display at NNM.

Until 1992, the statue had been defined as Nyoirin Kan'non. The admission ticket I received in 1989 in exchange of a fee clearly says so, while today's brochure states it is Sho Kan'non. Puzzled, I asked a receptionist one day why it was changed. She answered that only the title has been changed and the statue itself remains the same. I could not understand her, because statues of Nyoirin Kan'non are quite different from those of Sho Kan'non in their appearances. My guess was that the Temple keeps both statues and may have changed the main object of worship from Nyoirin to Sho Kan'non. Still mystified, I took liberties to write a letter to the Temple and asked if my guess was right, enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Two days later at night, the chief priest of the Temple was kind enough to give me a call (I did not give my home phone number) and told me how come it turned to Sho-Kan'non. He said that the statue in question has long been argued among experts over whether it is really Nyoirin Kan'non, and recent study concluded that it should be categorized as Sho Kan'non from the academic perspective. As a result, the Temple changed its title to Sho Kan'non in 1992.

The Temple owns many important assets. Among them are:

  1. A Wooden statue of Shigefusa Uesugi (his date of birth and death unknown), who came to Kamakura from Kyoto in 1252 as a retainer of the Sixth Shogun Munetaka (1242-1274). From then onward, his descendants settled in Kamakura as a samurai family assuming the seat of vice-governorship of Kamakura. A 68.2-centimeter tall statue of Shigefusa, carved in the Kamakura Period, is garbed in the formal samurai robe with unique headgear and holds a scepter. This is rare since many other extant statues are those of priests. An Important Cultural Asset. Though owned by the Temple, it is kept at the Kamakura Museum and on view from time to time.

  2. A statue of Tokiyori Hojo made with clay. There are only a handful of clay-made statues in Kamakura, and two of them are Tokiyori's; one owned by Kenchoji (usually kept at the Kamakura Museum), and the other is possessed by the Temple. The Kenchoji's statue is in full court dress, while the one here is apparently a tonsured priest, and looks like an elderly one. In light of the fact that he died young at the age of 36, the statue is not necessarily realistic. Its photo appears on the explanatory paper we receive in exchange of 300-yen admission.

  3. Portrait of Priest Gyoku-in-Eiyo (1432-1524). Priest Gyoku-in was the 8th chief priest of Zenkoji and the 164th chief priest of Kenchoji. Not only was he a good calligrapher, but also an excellent painter. This portrait, 101.7-centimeter in height and 41.9 centimeters in width, was drawn by himself. An ICA.

  4. Ancient Meigetsu-in illustration. Another ICA, this multi-color sketch shows vividly what the Temple was like around 1394. It was signed by second governor Ujimitsu Ashikaga (1359-1398) and believed to have been drawn in the late 14th century

Karesansui, or Dry Rock-and-Sand Garden

meigetsuniwaIn front of the main hall lies a garden beautifully arranged with sands, rocks and bushes such as azalea. White sands are always raked and give us an impression of cleanliness. Simplicity and cleanliness seem to be essential to all Zen temples. It embodies, however, Mt. Shumi or Sumeru in Skt., an imaginary mountain in the Buddhist universe.

Referring to Karesansui, a full-scale one was recently constructed at Schoenbrunn Schloss in Vienna, Austria. A Japanese woman living in Vienna discovered in 1996 an overgrown Japanese garden in the Schloss, which looked like a Japanese Karesansui. Her father was a gardener by chance. At her request, he flew to Vienna for further survey and found it was a real one landscaped a century ago in 1913 by an Austrian gardener Anton Hefka (1872-1915). Reconstruction talks immediately started and the Austrian government approved to renew the garden with the help of Japanese gardeners. The opening ceremony took place in May 1999.

Soyudo, or Founding Priest's Hall

On the left of the main hall is the thatched-roof Soyudo Hall dedicated to the memory of the founding priest Mitsushitsu-Shugon and his statue is installed.

Yagura (Cave)

To the left-hand side of the Soyudo hall is a large cave called Yagura dug at the foot of a hill. It is said to be the largest of any in Kamakura, measuring 6 meters deep, 3 meters high and 7 meters wide. In the center of theYagura stands a Hokyo-into or a stone tower thought to be the tomb for Norikata Uesugi, the founder. On the wall behind the Hokyo-into, images of Shaka, or Sakyamuni, and Sixteen Rakan, or the disciples of Sakyamuni, are carved. Unfortunately, inside the cave is too dark to view those images. Similar caves can also be seen behind the Soyudo hall.

Paintings of Sixteen Rakan at on display at TNM.

Tokiyori's shrine and tomb

The left side path immediately after entering the Temple gate will lead to the Tokiyori's shrine. On the left is a Hokyo-into, which is believed to be his tomb.


The flower that makes the Temple famous is Ajisai, or hydrangea, and the namesake of "Ajisai-dera" or Hydrangea Temple. Counting approximately 3,500, these Hydrangea grow in the temple grounds and line the pathways. But, those Ajisai were planted after World War II, and it was only in the 1970s that people began to flock in the Temple to see them. During the rainy season from mid-June to mid-July, when nearly 20,000 flowers, mostly blue (the locals call it "Meigetsu-in blue"), are in full bloom, the Temple is awfully crowded on weekends with visitors as many as the number of flowers. Had better avoid this season if you want quiet atmospheres. Other flowers planted in the temple grounds are:

Early January to mid February: Suisen, or narcissus
Mid January to late February: Rohbai, or winter sweet
Mid March: Hakumokuren, or yulan
Late March to early April: Momo, or peach
Late March to early April: Rengyo, or weeping forsythia
Late March to mid April: Shokassai, or Orychophragmus violaceus

(Updated June 2013)