Zeniarai Benten Shrine

Access Map


History

Zeni1The Shrine is one of the most popular spots in Kamakura. The City of Kamakura releases the number of visitors by sightseeing spot every year, and the number here totals nearly 900 thousands only behind Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine.

Lay worshipers may not know whether this is a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine until they find a torii gate at the entrance. However, there is an incense burner on the premise and the area is fragrant with incense, which puzzles visitors anew and make them wonder again if this is really a shrine.

Legend has it that the Shrine dates from the era of Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate. One night after a series of battles, an old man appeared in his dream and said, "I am the god of Ugafuku . There is a spring in the gorge located in the northwest direction of Kamakura. Go find it and worship Ugafuku with the spring water. People may start to have faith in the god, and peace will be restored." It was the day of the Serpent, the month of the Serpent in 1185, the year of Serpent on lunar calendar based on twelve zodiac signs. (Refer to Eto of Kamakura Terminology for details.)

Yoritomo interpreted the dream as a divine revelation, and immediately made his men find the spring. They found it at the site where the present-day Shrine stands. He ordered to dig a cave and enshrine the god of Ugafuku. 'Uga' denotes food and 'fuku' is happiness, and therefore, Ugafuku is the god of food, or the god of grain to be exact. Praying to the god of Ugafuku for a bumper crop, farmers near here washed rice seeds with this spring water. Later, Ugafuku began to be worshiped as the God of Wealth and was assimilated with Benzaiten (Sarasvati in Sanskrit), the Goddess of Fortune. Sarasvati is a divinized river in Brahmanism and revered as the God of Water. The Shrine, therefore, demonstrates a syncretism in Japanese religions combining a Shinto god with a Buddhism deity through the common element of water. The torii gates and the incense burner indicate a reconciliation of Shinto and Buddhism elements.

The object of worship enshrined here is the statue of a serpent with a human head made of stone (andesite) brought from the Izu Peninsula. A serpent is supposed to be sacred to Benzaiten. However, it is not viewable to visitors as enshrined deep inside the cave. The snake statue reminds me of Zombie of voodoo cult, though the one here does not have the supernatural power to reanimate a dead body. It may hopefully make worshipers a little bit richer.

(For your reference, a statue of Ugafuku is viewable at Kaizoji. It has a human head on a coiled serpent and is enshrined in the cave near the main hall.)

Zeni-arai or Coin-Washing

It was not until 1257, however, that the unique coin-washing practice started. Tokiyori Hojo (1227-1263), then the Fifth Regent, visited the Shrine one day and washed his coins with spring water, saying that coins washed here might be doubled. Hearing this, people began to wash their coins, and coin-washing practice has since been honored by many people in the hope that they might get rich. Hence the Shrine is credited by the superstition with the power of enrichment. Today, people visit here almost uninterruptedly making it one of the busiest shrines in Kamakura. Meanwhile, Zeni means coins and arai washing.

Zeni2The Shrine's grounds are surrounded with rocks, and there is a cave in the rear where water is pooled. The water is coming from the said spring deep inside the cave, which is counted as one of the Five Noted Wells in Kamakura. The cave is lit with numerous candles. Bamboo baskets and ladles are available on the shelf. Most visitors are busy washing their paper money, not coins. Perhaps, they hope the larger the amount, the greater the benefit.

With this peculiar custom, the Shrine is widely known in Japan, and a host of visitors repair to the Shrine wishing to get wealthy. When I visited here for the first time, it was my impression how greedy they were wishing to get rich without any cost or perspiration. The greedier the visitors, the larger the bill they wash. In ancient days, however, people were living in dire poverty. No matter how hard they worked, they were unable to get rich, and all they could do was to pray to god, washing pennies here and wishing they would double. That's understandable, but today's people are not as poor.

On second thought, I realized that most visitors are washing their money just for fun or on a whim. Obviously, they do not believe washing money will make them rich. Some say, "Wash money with sacred water and spend it clean." It's money laundering in Japanese fashion. Oddly enough, two-thirds of those who visit here are women, according to a survey conducted by a magazine publisher. Dose it mean that women are greedier than men?

On the other hand, there are a handful of devout worshipers, mostly merchants, who deeply revere the Shrine and wash bundles of 10,000-yen bills. (As noted above, zeni means coins, not paper money.) In fact, hundreds of torii gate appearing near the entrance of the Shrine were donated by those merchants who believe their wealth was brought by virtue of the power of Ugafuku here. Those merchants come visit here every month on the Day of Serpent by all means to attend the rituals held by the Shrine. Police warns car-drivers not to drive into the neighborhood on weekends, the Serpent Days in particular. Most crowded is the First Serpent Day of the year, which usually falls on an early February day and Benten Festival takes place. (Benten is also called Benzaiten.)

Today, Kamakura Station sells tickets by vending machines. A couple of decades ago when tickets were sold by hands, wet notes were often plastered on the window glasses of the Station office. Those were money washed at the Shrine and visitors bought tickets with the wet money. Today's tickets are sold by high-tech vending machines, which do not accept wet ones.

Foreign visitors probably feel curious about the eggs sold at the souvenir shops inside the Shrine. The Shrine deity is sacred to the Serpent and the favorite food of serpent are eggs. Dedicating the eggs to the deity, they pray their wishes be answered.

(Updated July 2013)

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