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This is the oldest temple in Kamakura, founded way before the Kamakura Shogunate was established. The Temple's legend holds that Empress Komyo (701-760) in the Nara Period (710-794) instructed Fusasaki Fujiwara, a high-ranking minister at the time, and a famous priest named Gyoki to build the Temple enshrining a statue of Eleven-Headed Kan'non, or Ekadasamukha in Sanskrit, as the main object of worship. Priest Gyoki fashioned the statue himself as he was also a great sculptor.

There are more than 1,200 temples in Japan which were more or less associated with Priest Gyoki, and for its outstanding virtue, he was conferred the honorable title of Daibosatsu, or the Great Bodhisattva, by the emperor. The most famous temple he helped build is Todaiji in Nara, well known for its Great Buddha Statue. Commemorating the 1250th anniversary of his death, Todaiji held a Grand Memorial Service for him in November 1998. As a traditional custom, Buddhist temples in Japan hold this Grand Memorial Service for great priests every 50 years calling it Onki {on-kee}.

sugimotoStepIn 851 when another Tendai-sect priest called En'nin (794-864), (a.k.a. Jikaku the Great Teacher) visited here, he made a new Eleven-Headed Kan'non statue and granted it to the Temple. Again in 985, Retired Emperor Hanayama (968-1008) told Priest Genshin (942-1017), another famous priest at the time, to fashion an additional statue of Eleven-Headed Kan'non and dedicate it to the Temple. Both En'nin and Genshin were most influential priests back those days and played key roles in spreading Japanese Buddhism as priests of Enryakuji in Shiga Prefecture, the mecca of the Tendai Sect. Retired Emperor Hanayama himself once paid a visit to the Temple and designated it as the first of the Bando (Tokyo and its neighboring prefectures) Thirty-Three Kan'non Pilgrimage. Later, it was also listed at the top of the Thirty-Three Kan'non Pilgrimage in Kamakura.

A fire broke out in 1189 in the neighborhood entirely ruined the Temple, but, says the legend, that a priest by the name of Jodai-bo rushed into the burning hall and carried out the three Kan'non statues safely. Despite the raging fire, he was not burned at all and the three statues were undamaged taking shelter under a cedar tree. Hence, the Temple was called Sugimoto (under cedar) dera (temple), and people enhanced their faith in the Temple. Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate and the commander-in-chief of the military government, ordered to reconstruct the Temple after the fire and granted a new statue of Eleven-Headed Kan'non in 1191.

Added to the four Kan'non statues above is quite a new one carved in 1963 by the then chief priest, and therefore, a total of five Eleven-Headed Kan'non statues are enshrined in the Temple.

An Eleven-Headed Kan'non statue at e-Museum.

With respect to the oldest Kan'non statue, there is an anecdote prevailed at a time when Tokiyori Hojo (1227-1263) was in power as the Fifth Hojo Regent. If someone who did not have faith in Buddhism passed the road in front of the Temple on horseback, he was often thrown off. Hearing this rumor, Priest Rankei-Doryu (1213-1278), the founding priest of Kenchoji, visited here to pray and put a Kesa {keh-sah}, or Buddhist surplice, on the face of the Kan'non statue made by Priest Gyoki. Thereafter, no one did fall from a horse and the Temple was also called Fukumen (masked), or Geba {geh-bah} (dismounting) Kan'non.

Soon after the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) ended with the collapse of Hojo regime, there was a bitter battle in 1337 between the Imperial Court forces and the remnants of Hojo clan. Behind the Temple was a fortress, which turned the Temple into a battlefield and more than 300 samurai were killed. On the right-hand side of the courtyard, there stand a little over 100 small Gorinto, or five-tier stupa, all of which were installed for the repose of those war victims.

Sugimoto-dera is one of the two Tendai sect temples in Kamakura. The other is Hokaiji.

Ni-o mon, or Deva King gate

Guarded by two Deva Kings, the gate with thatched-roof stands halfway through the old narrow stone steps leading up to the main hall. The Temple claims that the statues were chiseled by Unkei (?-1223), one of the most famous Buddha statue sculptor during the Kamakura Period and often referred to as Japanese Michelangelo.

From this gate up, the stone steps (picture; above) are preserved and visitors are required to keep off, like the moss-covered steps of Myohoji. Visitors have to use the left-hand side steps.

On both sides of the approach steps and along the main hall, many white banner are fluttering in the wind. The Kanji characters appearing on the banners read "Eleven-Headed Sugimoto Kan'non."

Main Hall (Picture; right)

The nine-meter-square wooden building with thatched roofs tells us of its age. It was rebuilt in 1677. Visitors are allowed to go inside. Once inside, burning incense smells and the hall is filled with smoke as well as a number of statues. Nowhere else would give us an opportunity to worship and watch Buddha statues this close.
Listed below are the ones enshrined here in addition to the five Eleven-Headed Kan'non statues mentioned above:

Unfortunately, the trio statues of Eleven-Headed Kan'non, the main objects of worship, are not viewable since they are enshrined in the feretory of the inmost recess. (To be precise, this is not a recess, but an fireproof annex to the main hall).

In the center is the one fashioned by Priest En'nin which is 166 centimeters tall, and the one at its left, 142 centimeters tall, was made by Priest Genshin. Both are ICAs. They are well carved and highly evaluated from artists' perspective. The left-side one, 153 centimeters tall, is the oldest among all of the statues in the Temple and was reportedly made by Priest Gyoki with a single bloc of wood. Academic circles cast a doubt, however, if those statues were really fashioned by such famous sculptors. Rough carving of the left one, for example, is said to suggest the sculptor was untrained.

As are common in these cases, no clear evidences exist as to the origins of the statues. Many important documents were lost by a series of fires. The one said to be made by Priest Gyoki is, however, an ICA designated by Kamakura City.

On the pillars and beams, quite a few paper slips are plastered with Chinese characters written on them. They are called Senja-fuda. Devout pilgrims plaster those papers in commemoration and recognition of the visit and prayer hoping their wishes be answered. On those Senja-Fuda, their names and addresses etc. are printed.

The Temple found a leaky roof of the main hall in 2012 and is now running a fund-raising campaign for a new one.

Annual Observances:

Note: In my recent visit to the Temple, I came across an old woman bent with age praying attentively at the entrance of the hall. A housekeeper of the Temple said to her, "Why don't you step up in and get closer to the statues?" The old woman replied to him, "I'm tired climbing up so many steps. How many are there? I counted them one by one. There are 108, aren't there?" The housekeeper said to her, "No, you are wrong. There are 115 steps to be exact."

(Updated August 2013)