Kamakuragu Shrine

Access Map


KamakuaguAThe Shrine is considerably new, erected to the spirit of Prince Morinaga, probably the third child of Emperor Godaigo (1288-1339). "Probably" is because Emperor Godaigo had a wife and 17 court ladies giving birth to 18 sons and 18 daughters, and the record does not clarify exactly when the Prince was born. In addition, his mother gave a birth to a child by his grand father. The Prince's full name is Oto-no-miya Morinaga, hence the Shrine's alias is "Oto-no-miya." He grew up at a chaotic time the Kamakura Period was about to end.

It was back in 1333, the year the Kamakura Shogunate terminated and the ruling power was temporarily handed over to Emperor Godaigo. The Imperial Court finally restored the sovereignty as a ruler of Japan. However, his regime did not long last. Takauji Ashikaga (1305-1358), the founder of the Ashikaga Shogunate, first sided with the Emperor and helped him to win the battle against the Hojos in Kamakura. However, he changed sides suddenly and tried to establish his own government betraying the Emperor. Knowing the movement, Prince Morinaga braced himself against the Ashikagas but to no avail. He was captured and sent to Kamakura, where he was under house-arrest at Tokoji, which was a Zen temple located at the present Kamakuragu site (no longer exists).

In 1335, Takauji's younger brother, Tadayoshi Ashikaga (1306-1352), who was stationed in Kamakura to defend against the enemy, was attacked by the remnants of the defeated Hojos. Tadayoshi was cornered to a near defeat and forced to retreat. Unable to take the Prince with him, Tadayoshi ordered his men to kill the Prince. Thus the Prince was beheaded at age 26.

Thereafter, Japan had to go through periods of internal strife and feudalism controlled by military rulers. Over 500 years until Emperor Meiji gained the supremacy in 1868, the Prince had almost been forgotten. For the Emperor, it was quite natural to build a shrine for his brave ancestor who was a martyr to the Imperial Family.

Across the street, some 300 meters away, up the hill on the east of the Shrine is the graveyard for the Prince. This grave is now under the care of the Imperial Household Agency, and the tomb, made of Hokyo-into, faces south as is the case of Imperial tombs. (Two flights of steps counting 198 altogether are too steep. Probably, acrophobes will not make it.) Prince Morinaga cannot be entombed inside the Shrine precinct under the Japanese Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of religion and prohibits the government from giving any aids to a specific institution, be it Shinto, Buddhism or Christianity, and therefore, the Agency placed his grave separately from the Shrine.

The site of the Shrine had formerly been owned by Tokeiji. At the news of Prince Morinaga's execution, one of his sisters was so grieved that she entered Tokeiji as a nun to console her brother's soul, and later assumed the position of the 25th chief nun by the name of Yodo-ni. The site as well as his tomb had for some time been taken care of by Tokeiji. With this relationship, Tokeiji was willing to donate the site to Emperor Meiji when he decided to erect a shrine for the Prince. Though not as large as Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, typical structures of Shinto shrines can be observed here.

Wash basin
Worshipers are first requested at the entrance to wash hands and rinse mouth for purification before the torii gate, or entering the shrine's sacred territory.

Main Hall
As usual in Shinto shrines, the main hall consists of two parts: Haiden, or the oratory in front, and Honden, or the sanctum at the back. Worshipers say a prayer before the oratory. The method of prayer is; bow twice, clap hands twice, bow once more and then worshipers make a money offering, casting it into the offertory chest.

Unlike the Buddhist temples, there aren't any statues in the Haiden or the Honden. Sacred objects such as a sword, a mirror made of polished iron, a wooden stand with zig-zags of white paper called Gohei {go-hay} are placed on the altar, though worshipers are not allowed to take a close look at them.

Following the architecture mode of Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture, the head shrine for the Amaterasu Sun Goddess and for the Imperial Family, the Shrine here also has a similar style. Look at the roof of the Honden. It has horn-like cross-boards called Chigi extending above the roofs at both ends. Top of Chigi are cut vertically pointing upward.


TuchiroAt the right-hand side of the Haiden is a sub-shrine for Yoshiteru Murakami (?-1333), Prince Morinaga's loyal retainer who protected the Prince at the battle near Osaka sacrificing himself as a human shield. Legend asserts that when Murakami was driven to bay, he disemboweled himself and hurled the bowels to the enemy. Praised as a role model for loyal vassals. His memorial service is held on August 20 every year.

At the left of the Honden is another sub-shrine for a court lady called Minami-no-kata, who served the Prince. When he was killed, she was pregnant with his child. The fatherless boy entered priesthood and was ordained under the Nichiren sect Buddhists with the name of Nichiei (1334-1397). He founded Myohoji and built a cenotaphs for his father at the temple.

This sub-shrine was built anew in 2004 together with a sculpture of Murakami carved out by sculptor Minoru Iwata (1948-), a Kamakura resident.

Cavern (Picture, right)
Right behind the Honden is a cave with a heavy wood-grill at the foot of precipice, in which Prince Morinaga was reportedly held in captivity for nine months. It is 4 meters deep and 13 square meters. The fact is, however, he was under house-arrest, and not imprisoned in this cave.

God's garden
Beyond the cavern, the path leads down to a well-maintained garden where stone tablets and monuments stand. Legend relates that right here, Prince Morinaga was beheaded.

Treasure hall
Items related to Prince Morinaga and Emperor Meiji are on view. Visitors were allowed to go inside before. But, today, we can see them only through the window panes.

Annual Observances

New Year Purification Rite: During the first five days of New Year, the Shrine gives worshipers a special purification rite, free of charge, at the Haiden that is not otherwise accessible for occasional visitors. A group of about thirty, one by one, undergo the rite to shake off bad luck while Shinto priests recite a prayer to the Gagaku (ancient court music) accompaniment. One session lasts about 15 minutes.

ShisigasiraMay 5: Kusajishi {koo-sah-gee-she} Festival
Archery contest is held on this day at the Shrine's grounds. Archers with ancient headgear and clad in ancient garbs shoot arrows at the target which is made to imitate deer. This event originates in Yoritomo Minamoto's hunting party held near Mt. Fuji eight centuries ago. A woodblock print of the Yoritomo's party on display at MFA.

An autumnal night spectacle

Hosted by the Kamakura Tourist Association, Noh is played on the evening of early October every year at the courtyard of the Shrine. As the sun sets, all lights are extinguished to make the area dark and firewoods are burned instead. That's why this particular Noh play is called Takigi (burning firewood) Noh. Before 2004, anybody was able to enjoy the play free of charge if only he or she was lucky enough to draw a winning lot. More than 20,000 people used to apply against 2,000 guests. Since 2004, the Association has been charging 7,500 yen per head, and all seats are reserved. Weather in early October is very changeable in Japan and the play was often rained out. It usually starts with Okina, a traditional and highly ceremonial opener that invokes fertility and longevity.

Incidentally, this Takigi Noh originates in the religious service performed in Kofukuji in Nara Prefecture, and today, it is played in various occasions throughout Japan.
A picture of Takigi Noh play at Heian Jingu in Kyoto.

Speaking of Noh play, there are quite a few numbers associated with the tales during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). One of them that comes to my mind offhand is Hachinoki , or A Tree in a Pot. The story narrates like this: An itinerant priest was travelling somewhere in Tochigi Prefecture on the way from Nagano to Kamakura. As the sun set, snow began to fall thick. He dropped in a house and asked for an overnight stay. An old couple of the house did welcome him. But, they were too poor to treat him good. To warm up the room, the old man burned the trees in pots. The trees were plum, cherry and pine, all were precious to them. The priest asked his background. The old man said he used to be the lord of a manor in the area. Unfortunately, the manor was unduly confiscated because of the struggle among the local lords. He also referred to his allegiance to Kamakura that never changes and once the Shogunate summons local lords like him to Kamakura, he would be the first to show up. The old man believed the priest was so poor as to be mendicant. In reality, however, the priest was Tokiyori Hojo (1227-1263) in disguise, the Fifth Regent and the most powerful man in the country around that time. Tokiyori did not identify himself. As soon as he came back to Kamakura, he summoned all lords to come up to Kamakura immediately. The old loyal samurai in Tochigi rushed to Kamakura and reported to the Regent, the fastest of any as he pledged to the itinerant priest. To his much surprise, what he saw there was, however, the man he treated in his poor house in Tochigi. Tokiyori thanked him for his hospitality and gave back the lands near where he lived, all of which had the name of plum, cherry or pine.

A woodblock print of Hachinoki , female version of Noh play on view at MFA.


Lion's head talisman (Picture; above): Talismans of lion's head, made of wood, and look like folk handicrafts, are sold at the reception desk as the Shrine's good-luck charm. Price ranges from 1,000, 1,600 to 2,000 yen. Legend has it that Prince Morinaga kept this talisman worn next to the skin whenever he fought. Thus, it is believed to ward off evils.

Shinto Gods and Sake
The Japan Times used to run "Cultural quiz" on Japan. Among them was: Shinto gods drink: (a) Energy drinks, (b) Sake, (c) Green tea, (d) Vitamin D milk. Answer: (b). Shinto Gods will eat or drink any offering, including rotten fruit and water, but they definitely prefer alcohol, especially sake.

The answer is not necessarily correct. We offer only sake
, no other alcohol like whiskey, wine, etc. Sake is made of rice, which is the staple food for Japanese, and Sake is the essence of rice. To distinguish from other alcohol, sake offered to Shinto gods is specifically called "Omiki", meaning "Divine Sake." "Omiki" has traditionally been thought sacred. Also, we never offer rotten fruit. The writer may have seen the fruit offered was beginning to perish.

(Updated July 2013)