Access Map


myoogateWhen Third Shogun Sanetomo Minamoto (1192-1219) was unexpectedly assassinated in 1219 by his nephew, the Kamakura Shogunate had difficulty finding the successor, since Sanetomo was young and had no child. After careful deliberations, a young court noble in Kyoto was nominated as the next Shogun. His name was Yoritsune Kujo, a scion of the Fujiwara aristocratic family and he was remotely kin to Yoritomo Minamoto, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate.

Yoritsune was brought to Kamakura as the Fourth Shogun at age just one. The Hojo Regime chose the baby by design and followed this practice until the end of the Hojo Regime in 1333 so that the real ruling powers always rested on the Hojos. Shogun was only titular and grown-up Shogun were replaced with young boys citing one reason or another.

Yoritsune founded the Temple as his prayer hall in the north-eastern corner of Kamakura at the age of 18. The northeast direction was called kimon {key-mon} (literally, demon's gate), and Yoritsune thought it necessary to erect a temple around here to avoid an unlucky exposure. (The world-famous Enryakuji at Mt. Hiei, Shiga Prefecture, for example, is situated northeast of Kyoto, and it was built to guard against demons when the nation's capital was relocated from Nara to Kyoto in the late 8th century.)

Being of noble birth in Kyoto, Yoritsune adored and loved Kyoto culture. Back at the time, the chief priest of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine was Jogo (1152-1238). He used to be the chief priest of Toji in Kyoto, the mecca of Shingon sect Buddhism. (Those days, Shintoists sought to harmonize the teachings of Buddhists, particularly those of Shingon sect, with Shinto doctrines, and therefore, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine had plenty of Buddhist elements). Yoritsune believed that Priest Jogo would be the best to be the founding priest of this Shingon temple. The Priest accepted his request and assumed the seat of the founder.

The Shingon sect is often referred to as esoteric Buddhism, as its method of incantations and invocations are too elaborate, complicated and mysterious. Yoritsune often held large-scale incantations and prayers, saying it would be for the safe sake of and on behalf of the Hojos and Shogunate. Those religious services were so mysterious and enigmatic that outsiders did not really understand what they were doing.

Ritual objects used during the incantations, for instance, can be grouped into three categories: Weapons to destroy human lusts and desires, object to make sounds for awakening to enlightenment, and woodchips to burn by which purifications rites (Goma) are performed. The services kept going day and night chanting sutras loudly, and burning cedar sticks for the holly-fire rituals called goma, or Homa in Skt.

Various Buddhist fittings used by Shingon sect are on view at KNM.

Those religious services made the Hojos suspicious of Yoritsune's behavior. As he grew up, Yoritsune began to feel that he, the Shogun, was only nominal or a puppet with the real power always in the hands of the Hojos. He formed a group of loyal samurai on the sly who were displeased with the Hojos and gradually gained powers. In the meantime, Yoritsune kept on carrying out similar incantations time and again, which eventually led to misunderstanding between him and the Hojo Regents.

On one occasion, the enigmatic and fervent invocation continued day after day with no apparent purpose. The Hojos suspected it must be a ritual cursing on them or a prayer for the success of an attempt to topple the Hojo Regime. Blaming Yoritsune of his practice, Fourth Hojo Regent Tsunetoki (1224-1246) suddenly replaced him in 1244 with Yoritsune's six-year-old son Yoritsugu (1239-1256). Yoritsune's bitter feeling against the Hojos further escalated. In 1246, Regent Tsunetoki died and the post of the new Regent was handed to Tokiyori Hojo (1227-1263). Shogun Yoritsune thought this would be a rare chance to take over the ruling power, so say historians, and he secretly planned a coup d'etat with his followers.

Unfortunately for Yoritsune, however, the conspiracy leaked out to the Hojos. As a result, he was forced to step down and enter the priesthood. He was even ousted from Kamakura back to Kyoto the next year. The Fifth Shogun Yoritsugu's term in office did not last long either. For the same reason of the plot to overthrow the Hojo Regime, he was dismissed in 1252. It was a sheer coincidence that Yoritsune and his son Yoritsugu died in the same year of 1256.

Back then, the Temple was one of the greatest religious institutions in Kamakura, comparable to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, and chief priests after Priest Jogo were always chosen and appointed from leading priests of the Shrine.

It has to be noted, however, that Shogun Yoritsune was an excellent tanka (31-syllable verse) poet like the Third Shogun Sanetomo, and made a good number of tanka. Many of them expressed his feeling of loneliness as a titular Shogun.

Entering the Temple grounds, visitors may notice something different from other temples; there is no graveyard in the Temple, meaning it has no parishioners. (Buddhist temples in Japan can roughly be grouped into two: One for the consolation of the departed souls and the other for the incantations.)

Main Hall (Picture; below)

myooMHThe 5.4-square-meter hall has thatched roofs with latticed doors, built at the turn of the 17th century. Unique is the fact that the Temple is the only one in Kamakura that enshrines Godai Myo-o, or the Five Great Guardian Kings.

Enthroned in the center of the alter is the statue of Fudo Myo-o, or Acala-vidyaraja in Sanskrit fashioned during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), surrounded by four others that stand guarding the Fudo at each allocated direction. Fudo Myo-o denotes the Immovable. He usually holds a sword in his right hand and a rope in his left. His teeth are bared and eyes glare angrily, standing threateningly to destroy the devils. Has the background of flames.

Four others are: Gozanze (Trilokavijaya in Skt), guarding east, Gundari (Kundali), guarding south; Dai-itoku (Yamantaka), guarding west; Kongo Yasha (Vajra-yaksa), guarding north.

Paintings of Godai Myo-o at e-Museum, and Godai Myo-o@statues at NNM.

All statues but that of Fudo Myo-o were destroyed by the fire of 1637. Present ones were made during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Other than Godai Myo-o, the Hall enshrines the following statues:

The doors of the hall is usually closed. There are a pair of small openings on the closed door, through which visitors can peer in, but the interior is too dark to view them. Contact the Temple office, and you will be guided to the hall. Donation is necessary. All of the above are ICAs designated by Kamakura City.


Goma Kuyo rite on 28th, every month. Goma is Homa in Skt., and in case of esoteric Buddhism such as Shingon sect, it is known with its elaborates manner of incantations and prayers, which are not specified in any sutra and are succeeded in secret from generations to generations. Invocations are made by burning cedar-stick at the altar with priests chanting sutra. Many ritual objects are used as mentioned above: Fire is believed to purify everything and they call it holy fire. Today, the rite is believed to bring prosperity to merchants and good luck to families. On 28th of January, May and September, the rite is performed in full scale.

A picture of Goma Kuyo appears at the website of Yakuoin temple in Takao, Tokyo.

There is a signboard near the gate reading "No photos inside the temple grounds". The picture of the main hall above was taken in 2002 when there was no such signboard.

(Updated September 2013)