The Temple's site used to be an execution ground for criminals during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), and its monuments stand at the left-hand side of the Temple's outer gate.
Priest Nichiren (1222-1282), the founder of the Nichiren Sect, stayed in Kamakura for nearly 20 years and was engaged in missionary work to promote Buddhism, emphasizing the importance of the Lotus Sutra. His adoration to the Lotus Sutra was so intense that he constantly attacked other sects' doctrines criticizing them as heretical or dissent from legitimate Buddhism. His harsh criticism provoked hostility toward him not only from other sects Buddhists but also from the Kamakura Shogunate authorities. As a result, he had to face persecutions four times during his stay in Kamakura, and in the last case of 1271, he was sentenced to death by beheading as he accused the Shogunate of not employing his doctrines.
On September 12, 1271, Priest Nichiren was brought here for the execution. No one doubted he would die within hours. However, the moment an executioner was about to strike his neck with a sword, asserts the legend, a tremendous clap of thunder roared the area with a streak of lightning. Aghast and petrified, the executioner was no longer able to behead the Priest. He thought it was a miracle wrought by the Priest. (The Priest performed a various miracles and was revered as a miracle worker by millions like beautified Christian saints.) Messengers were sent to the Shogunate office to tell them what had happened. When they came up to a stream called the Yukiai River, roughly 2,000-meter east of the Temple, they met with another messengers who were dispatched by Tokimune Hojo (1251-1284), then the Eighth Regent. The Regent's messengers were on the way to tell them not to execute Priest Nichiren. Since the two groups met here by accident, the river was thus named the "Yukiai-gawa," or the River of Meeting.
The execution was suspended immediately and Priest Nichiren was exiled instead to Sado Island off the coast of Niigata Prefecture. (Some say that the Regent gave a special pardon to Priest Nichiren as the Regent's wife turned out to be pregnant).
A woodblock print of Priest Nichiren in exile on Sado at MFA.
Sixty-six years later on this historic spot, a priest named Nippo, Priest Nichiren's adherent, made a hermitage to dedicate it to the memory of the great Priest, in which he enshrined a statue of Priest Nichiren he carved himself. From then on, the Temple gradually gained momentum supported by the devout and expanded its structures.
However, the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 destroyed nearly all of the Temple structures except for the main hall and the five-story pagoda. All others were rebuilt afterward.
The Temple ranks among the 44 head temples of Nichiren sect.
(1) Hondo, or Main Hall (also called shikigawa-do)
The present hall, 29 by 32 meters, was rebuilt in 1818 and one of the largest in Kamakura. Shikigawa denotes a leather mat on which Priest Nichiren sat waiting for the execution. Since Priest Nippo erected the original hermitage, it has been called shikigawa-do. Today, the stone on which shikigawa was laid is kept at the center-left of the hall as a temple treasure. In contrast to other sect temples like Zen, inside the hall of Nichiren sect temples is highly decorative ornamented with many carvings and decorations hanging down from the ceiling.
In the center are a group of statues and the Odaimoku Tablet inscribed with the letter "Nam-myo-ho-ren-gek'kyo," often seen at other Nichiren Sect temples. In the right-hand recess are six statues of those who were Priest Nichiren's immediate disciples. Unlike other Nichiren sect temples, the door is usually open and casual visitors are allowed to go into the hall, even get close to the statues in case religious services are not taking place.
(2) Five-story Pagoda
At the right of the main hall is a flight of about 50-step leading up to the pagoda. The only five-story pagoda in Kanagawa Prefecture was built in 1910 by an architect who specialized in temple and shrine construction, and founded a top-ranking construction company in today's Japan. It was made of keyaki (zelkova) trees, and survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Pagoda originally meant the spire towers of Hindu temples in India.
Japanese pagodas have long been known as being resistant to earthquakes and scholars are mystified about why these tall wooden building are so stable. In fact, there are roughly 500 pagodas in Japan, which remain standing for centuries in a land often shaken by quakes, and few collapsed. To name a few, Toji Pagoda located near Kyoto Station measuring 55-meter high and the highest of its kind has been standing since 1644. Horyuji pagoda in Nara was originally built in 607 and is the oldest multi-story wooden structure in the world.
Whereas the Chinese pagodas are mostly made of stone, Japanese built them with wood on their own design. They have extended eaves and there are no staircase connecting each floors. An intricate woodwork. In this pagoda of the Temple, statues of Priest Nichiren and others are enshrined on the ground floor.
Meanwhile, a 634-meter(2,080 ft)-high TV tower for digital terrestrial broadcasting was opened at Sumida ward in Tokyo in May 2012, which uses central pillar technology employed by many pagodas to be quakeproof. The tower is called Tokyo Sky Tree. For Japanese, the height is easy to memorize as the figure 634 is mu (6) sah (3) shi (4), and Musashi is the old name of Tokyo. It is now a symbolic landmark in downtown Tokyo.
(3) Shichimen Daimyojin Shrine
Up a flight of about 80 steps at the left side of the main hall is a shrine called Shichimen Daimyojin (Shinto). This is the guardian deity of the Temple and a typical example of syncretism. To be precise, Shichimen Daimyojin is the guardian deity of Kuonji situated in Yamanashi Prefecture, the headquarters of all Nichiren sect temples, and therefore, the one here is its sub-shrine.
Legend holds that a young lady beautifully dressed often appeared out of nowhere when Priest Nichiren was reciting the Lotus Sutra at Kuonji and she enthusiastically listened to his recitation. One day, the Priest asked her who she was. She said she was a celestial nymph living in a pond near Mt. Shichimen and would like to get salvation from various sins and agonies by listening to his Lotus sutra. But, Priest Nichiren had known who she was. For a trial, the Priest put a vase in front of her. Her reflection on the vase revealed that she was a red dragon. Priest Nichiren instructed her to get back to the pond and to be a guardian deity of Kuonji. Being identified, the red dragon went back to the pond. Ever since, she, or the red dragon, turned guardian deity of Kuonji, guarding at the southwestern corner (believed to be the rear Demon's Gate) of the temple.
(4) Bussharito, or Buddha's stupa (Picture; above, right)
Further up the Shichimen Daimyojin, the path leads off to a clearing, a good vantage point to view the sea coast. On the other side of the clearing is a white Bussharito. Built in July 1970 by Nittatsu Fujii (1885-1984), a wealthy Nichiren Buddhist, in commemoration of the 700th anniversary of the Priest Nichiren's deliverance, it is of traditional Siamese style. Busshari is literally Sakyamuni's ashes or relics and Bussharito is a tower to house Busshari.
The clearing commands a wide view of the south toward Enoshima as aforementioned. In 1919, Iso Mutsu (1867-1930), an English woman who married a Japanese diplomat, described the beauty of the area as follows in her book Kamakura: Fact and Legend: Quote. The picturesque grounds---upon an extensive and parklike scale--- extend over surrounding hills which command a feast of beauty and color. The green heights of Enoshima lie like a jewel in the rich blue ocean below, spangled with sails of countless white-winged ships and boats plying the waves; the distant mountains, with an uninterrupted view of Mt. Fuji, blend into a serene picture justly named for its romantic character. Unquote.
In the Edo Period, many travellers visited Enoshima area and its beauty was painted by a host of artists. Here is one of them owned by MFA.
By contrast, what we see today at the same spot is quite different. The hill is overgrown with grass, and the Enoshima coast is far from beautiful with many ugly buildings and shabby houses standing close together. Mt. Fuji can only be seen on clear days in December and January.
(5) Daisho-in or the guest house
Connected with the main hall by a corridor is a magnificent wooden building with triple-deck roofs. The structure used to be a house called "Sericulture Palace" located in Nagano Prefecture. By the contribution of Nichiren sect devotees, the palace was relocated here in 1923 shortly after the Great Kanto Earthquake.
(6) Holy cave (Picture; below)
The night Priest Nichiren was almost beheaded on September 12, 1271, he stayed in this small, 7-square-meter cave on the edge of precipice at the southwest corner of the courtyard. With heavy wood grills, it is preserved by the Temple as the Priest's Holy Cave.
Myoken is a Bosatsu or Bodhisattva of Big Dipper or the divinized Big Dipper (Sudrsti in Skt). In ancient days, navigators relied on the Big Dipper like a compass, whereby navigators, merchants and those who gained profits by sea transportation began to worship the Big Dipper as the god, or Bodhisattva of safe voyage, calling it Myoken Bosatsu.
Myoken has also been respected as the god of healing eye-disease. Legend has it that this Myoken Bodhisattva once appeared before Priest Nichiren and because of this legend, Myoken Bodhisattva is closely associated with Nichiren sect temples.
(8) Public execution site
The site of public execution is seen to the left of the front gate, where tens of thousand criminals were beheaded right here centuries ago. A Gorinto (Five-element stone tower) was donated by the Nichiren followers to commemorate Priest Nichiren's persecution.
The memorial service for Priest Nichiren takes place on September 11 through 13 every year. The Temple treats visitors with rice-cake dumpling covered with sesame paste in commemoration of the nun at Joeiji who gave the dumplings to Priest Nichiren on his way to the execution site. It is called Botamochi in Japanese and usually covered with sweet bean paste. However, the dumplings here are covered with sugar-free sesame paste, same as the one Priest Nichiren was treated with. Legend asserts that when the nun tried to give her Botamochi to Priest Nichiren, there was no plate to put her offerings on. Instead, she used a circular lid of her cooking pot or Nabebuta. Moved by her thoughtfulness, Priest Nichiren inscribed on the wooden lid a text of scriptures. This inscribed wooden lid was later called "Nabebuta mandala" and has been preserved as a temple's treasure.
(Updated June 2012)