Access Map


One of the oldest structures in eastern Japan, the Temple dates from some 1200 years back. Priest Kukai (774-835), a great priest in Japanese Buddhism (see Heikenji for details), was once travelling across the country for missionary work, and stopped by this lonely village. Local people was greatly moved with his religious teachings and magical powers he performed. Tradition runs that while the Priest was staying here, he encountered with a boy and his sick father in the riverbed near the Temple. The boy was washing father's body with river water. Sympathizing with them, the boy in particular for his filial piety toward the father, Priest Kukai, who was believed to be endowed with miraculous power, approached them and tapped his Tokko (also called Dokko), or a ritual bell with a single-pronged handle, on a rock in the riverbed. Then, suddenly hot water gushed out. The father bathed in the warm water and could cure his sickness. The Tokko turned out to be a magic wand. This is the origin of the hot springs in Shuzenji district, so the folklore goes. Today, there is a roofed compartment on the riverbed near the Temple called Tokko-no-yu, where the Priest is said to have met the boy and his father. It is now a major tourist attraction in Shuzenji town and hot water is still welling up.
(A Tokko at Kyoto National Museum)

shuzenjigateResponding to the request of the Shuzenji villagers, Priest Kukai instructed Priest Gorin (767-837), one of his ablest disciple, to stay here for a while and erect a temple. Thus the original structure of the present-day Shuzenji was built in 807. For nearly four and a half centuries from then onward, the Temple remained a Shingon Sect. However, the Temple went downhill gradually in the course of time.

In the 13th century, Japan was under the control of the Hojo regime, which favored Zen Buddhism and helped found many Zen temples in Kamakura such as Kenchoji, Engakuji etc., inviting Zen masters from China. Among the invitees was Priest Rankei-Doryu (1213-1378), a Chinese Zen master, who founded Kenchoji and played a pivotal role in spreading Zen Buddhism in Japan. Unlike other Chinese Zen Masters, he spoke Japanese so fluently that he was twice suspected of a Mongolian spy, once in 1271 at the time Mongolian envoys visited Japan to make the Shogunate acknowledge Khan's suzerainty. As a result, Priest Rankei was exiled to the Temple in 1275. In reality, he was not engaged in espionage at all. While under house-arrest, he witnessed the Temple was falling into decay. As he was later cleared of the suspicion, he started to revive the Temple changing the denomination to the Rinzai Zen Sect. After Priest Rankei returned to Kamakura, another Chinese Zen Master Itsusan-Ichinei (1247-1317) was also exiled to the Temple on suspicion of espionage but released later. Recognized as a great Zen Master, Priest Itsusan assumed the post of the chief priest of Kenchoji, Engakuji, Jochiji in Kamakura and Nanzenji in Kyoto.

Making the Temple famous today would probably be the tragedies befallen on Yoriie Minamoto (1182-1204), the Second Shogun in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), and Noriyori Minamoto (?-1193), younger brother of Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate. Both were killed here after entangled in power struggle and conspiracy swirling around them. Yoriie was deported here while he was in office of the Shogun and was assassinated under secret instructions from, according to some historians, Tokimasa Hojo (1138-1215), his grandfather. Noriyori was also exiled here because of a few words he mentioned carelessly. One day, Yoritomo Minamoto went hunting near Mt. Fuji, when a wrong information telling Yoritomo died accidentally was delivered to Kamakura. Hearing the report, Noriyori told grieving Masako Hojo (1157-1225), Yoritomo's wife, "Rest assured. I am here and I can be a Yoritomo." The report turned out false and his comment made Masako and her husband suspect that he might have had a conspiracy to topple the Shogun. (A woodblock print of Yoritomo hunting near Mt. Fuji at MFA.)

Both Yoriie and Noriyori were buried here in Shuzenji and their graves are often visited by sightseers. Yoriie's grave is located on the other side of the road before the Temple and near the grave is a structure called Shigetsu-den. It was built by Masako, Yoriie's mother, for the solace of her departed son's soul. Rebuilt in 1703 by the then chief priest of the Temple on the 500th anniversary of Yoriie's death, it is the oldest wooden structure in the Izu Peninsula.

The Temple flourished for nearly a century, and helped spread Rinzai Zen Buddhism in Izu. In 1361, the military commissioner then controlling the Izu area rose in revolt against Motouji Ashikaga (1340-1367), Governor-General in Kamakura, who reigned Eastern Japan. Shuzenji was geographically the center of Izu and turned battleground. As a result, the Temple was devastated in the war flames.

It was So-un Hojo (1432-1519), a chief of a powerful samurai clan in Izu and Kanagawa areas (See Ninomiya Jinja & Odawara Castle) that greatly contributed to rebuilding the Temple in the late 15th century. A faithful adherent of the Soto Zen, So-un invited his uncle priest named Ryukei-Hanjo (1449-1504) to be the chief priest of the Temple, and made it restart as a Soto Zen in 1489.

Main Hall

shuzenjiMHThe hall was destroyed many times by fires. The present one was rebuilt in 1883. The main object of worship is a statue of Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana in Skt.), or the cosmic Buddha usually revered by the Shingon Sect. It had long been unknown who fashioned the statue. On the occasion that the statue was repaired in 1985, however, an inscription was found inside the statue, which proved it is attributed to Priest Jikkei (his date of birth and death unknown). He carved it in 1210 following the instruction of Masako at the sixth anniversary of Yoriie's death for the solace of his soul. Priest Jikkei was also a sculptor of Buddha statue belonging to the famous Kei school as its suffix kei suggests. Kei school sculptors are often represented by sculptor Unkei (?-1223), who was dubbed "a Japanese Michelangelo," and fashioned a host of masterpiece statues including the famous Deva Kings of Todaiji in Nara. Eight years after the finding, the National Government put it on the ICA list in 1993. The sedentary statue is 100.5 centimeter tall. It is installed in the feretory and casual visitors are not allowed to view it except for the first ten days of November, when it is on public display in the Treasure House.

Treasure Hall

On the right-hand side of the main hall is the Treasure House. Admission: 300 yen. The following are the major items on display:

Shigetsu-den Hall:

The time-worn structure, the oldest one in the Izu peninsula, stands on the other side of the road running near the Temple. As briefly stated above, Masako built the hall to propitiate the soul of his son Yoriie and installed thousands of volumes of Daizokyo, or Tripitaka in Sanskrit, a complete collection of Buddhist scriptures she obtained from China. Unfortunately, most of them were dispersed in later years, though some are still preserved in the Treasure Hall as above-mentioned. The main object of worship is the 203-centimeter tall (so-called Joroku in Japanese) statue of Shaka or Sakyamuni in Skt., the largest one in the Izu Peninsula, made during the Kamakura Period. It is an ICA designated by the Prefecture of Shizuoka. Unique is that the statue here hold a lotus budding flower in his right hand. A pair of Deva King statues standing both sides of the Shaka are said to be even older. They give us a rare chance to worship and view them real close. The Chinese characters "Shigetsuden" appearing on the tablet was brushed by Priest Itsusan.

Hiking Trail to Oku-no-in Temple

From Shuzenji westward to Oku-no-in, or Shogaku-in temple (Shingon Sect), there is a good hiking trail spanning 5 kilometers. It is a pleasant one-hour stroll. Oku-no-in is the site where Priest Kukai is said to have practiced asceticism in the waterfall in 791 when he was 18 years old. Scattered along the paved 5-kilometers road are 48 signposts made of stone, each showing one of the 48 hiragana (Japanese kana characters), which is called iroha-uta. The Japanese syllabary has 50 sounds, but strictly speaking there are 47. Priest Kukai is said to have written the famous 47-letteriroha verse covering all of the phonetic syllabary, or a pack of Japanese alphabet. It reads as follows (with rough meaning):

I-ro-ha-ni-ho-he-to (Though the colors of blossom are beautiful)
Chi-ri-nu-ru-wo (They will soon be gone)
Wa-ka-yo-ta-re-so (Who in the world)
Tsu-ne-na-ra-mu (Would remain unchanged, or last forever?)
U-wi-no-o-ku-ya-ma (It is difficult to escape from this inconstant world)
Ke-fu-ko-e-te (But, let's cross over it)
A-sa-ki-yu-me-mi-shi (And dream no more empty dreams)
E-hi-mo-se-su (Since we are not deluded)

The four sets of seven-and-five syllable poem are ballad called Imayo, which was in fashion during the Heian and the Kamakura Periods (794-1333), and this Iroha poem is based on the Buddhists' thought of emptiness.

Adding the kana "n" (ng) on those 47, the 48 signposts were installed along the path to Oku-no-in in 1906 by a wealthy merchant in Tokyo, to commemorate the great achievements of Priest Kukai. The signposts helped pilgrims to visit Oku-no-in and other temples located further west and the trail is called "Iroha path." It has been nearly a century since they were first placed and some of them are missing or worn out with time to the extent that the kana is not decipherable. Some are replaced with new ones. The uncrowded and quiet atmosphere in Oku-no-in, meanwhile, will make visitors feel relaxed.

Tale of Shuzenji

Shuzenji reminds Japanese of two things: Hot springs and the Tale of Shuzenji, a famous Kabuki number written by Kido Okamoto. It was first staged in 1911. The tale is based on a mask of ill-fated Yoriie. While confined in Shuzenji, Yoriie asked a local mask maker, Yasha-o by name, to carve his mask. Yasha-o started on his work immediately. However, every time he made, the mask seemed to have the seal of death. Yasha-o did not give those masks to Yoriie since the seal was an ill omen. Growing impatient, Yoriie one day visited Yasha-o and took the mask by force, which had a similar seal of death. At the same time, he employed one of Yasha-o's daughter as his mistress. Shortly afterwards, Yoriie was attacked by a group of assassinators from Kamakura and was murdered. Yasha-o's daughter defended Yoriie putting on his mask her father chiseled to disguise herself as Yoriie, and was seriously wounded. Despite the injury, she rushed to her father's and told him what happened. Her father was pleased to know the ill omen he had recognized on the mask came true, and was convinced he was gifted with superhuman feat.

The Temple preserves the old mask of Yoriie, which came into the playwright's mind to write the Tale of Shuzenji. Legend holds, however, that Yoriie and his 13 vassals were so excellent in martial arts that assassinators from Kamakura were unable to kill him off hand. One night, they plotted a plan to kill him in another way. They secretly poured lacquer liquid into Yoriie's bathtub. Yoriie took the bath without knowing it, and his skin including face was heavily poisoned. A local mask maker made a mask of Yoriie with a poisoned face. It was sore and far from pretty, and sent it to Masako to demonstrate how brutal they were treating her own son in such a manner.

Note: Shuzenji Temple and Shuzenji Town

They are the same in alphabetical spelling, but "zen" of Shuzenji is different in Chinese characters. Many Japanese are unaware of the difference. One denotes the Temple itself, and the other is the name of a hot-spring town. Right in the center of the Shuzenji town is the Temple.

(Updated April 2010)