Kenchō-ji (建長寺), formally known as Kyofukusan Kenchō Kōkoku Zenji (巨福山建長興国禅寺) is one of the main temples of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. It is located in Kamakura and the first of the so-called Kamakura Gozan (鎌倉五山), the Five Great Temples of Kamakura, based on a ranking system for Zen temples that was introduced under the rule of the Ashikaga in Kyōto and Kamakura. It is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan.



Kenchō-ji was established in 1253 by the fifth regent Hōjō Tokiyori (北条時頼, 1227-1263) and Emperor Go-Fukakusa. It owes its name to the era name Kenchō (建長, 1249-1256). In 1245, Tokiyuri had invited the famous Chinese priest Lanxi Daolong, known by his Japanese name Rankei Dōryū (蘭渓道隆, 1213-1278) and made him the first abbot of the temple. In 1259, Dōryū moved to Kennin-ji (建仁寺), another major Rinzai temple in Kyōto, and was succeeded by Wuan Puning (chin. 兀菴普寧), known in Japanese as Gottan Funei (1197–1276). Tokiyori himself became a monk in 1256 and is buried in the nearby Meigetsuin Temple. Chinese monks would continue to play a vital role at Kenchō-ji until 1339.

The temple was destroyed and reconstructed several times: it burned down in 1315 and 1414 and was severely damaged in the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.


Somon (総門, sōmon), the Outer Gate, also known as Kofukumon (巨福門), the Gate of Great Luck.

Kenchō-ji is a vast temple. In its heyday, it consisted of 49 subtemples that housed hundreds of monks. Nowadays, that number is much smaller, but even today the temple is only second to Engaku-ji. It follows the traditional order of Zen architecture, which is based on the Shichidō garan (七堂伽藍). Shichidō means seven halls and refers to a temple with many buildings, while garan is a short form for sōgya ranma (僧伽藍摩), a Sanskrit term that means a "garden for monks".


Sanmon (山門), the Main Gate.

Visitors enter through the Outer Gate, the Sōmon (総門), also called the Gate of Great Luck (巨福門 Kofukumon), It was moved to Kamakura from Hanshū-zammai-in (槃舟三味院) in Kyōto. A path lined with cherry trees leads to one of Kenchō-ji's most magnificent structures, the Sanmon (山門) or Main Gate, constructed by abbot Bansetsu in 1754.


The nameplate of the temple's official name (but without its sangō, or mountain name), Kenchō kōkoku zenji (建長興国禅寺), read vertically from right to left.

The upper floor of Sanmon contains a statue of Amida Buddha surrounded by groups of 16 (十六羅漢 jūrokurakan) and 500 (五百羅漢 gohyakurakan) rakan (羅漢), or arhat, sculptures or paintings of those who have attained insight into the true nature of existence. Entering through the gate is said to free humans from any kind of desire, addiction or obsession.



Just to the right of Sanmon stands a low belfry with a thatched roof (鐘楼 shōrō), a National Treasure. Its bell (梵鐘 banshō) was made in 1255 by order of Tokiyori and weighs in at 2,7 tonnes. It has two famous inscriptions attributed to Dōryū.



The grove in front of the main temple consists of seven spectacular Chinese juniper trees (ビャクシン byakushin or 伊吹 ibuki), which were planted at the time when Kenchō-ji was established. The oldest tree measures some 13 metres in height and is said to have grown from a seed Rankei Dōryū brought from China.



The main hall (仏殿, butsuden) was moved from Zōjō-ji (増上寺) in Edo (modern-day Tōkyō) to Kenchō-ji in 1647. It used to be part of the mausoleum (霊屋 tamaya) of Ogo no Kata, Tokugawa Hidetada's wife.



The main object of worship is an almost 5-metre tall wooden statue of Jizō enthroned on a lotus plant. Jizō is regarded as the bodhisattva of hell-beings and the guardian of children as well as the patron deity of deceased children and aborted fetuses in Japanese Buddhism. The statue was lacquered and gilded, and though most of its colour and gilding have faded away it is still of striking beauty and serenity. Jizō is represented with the shakujō (錫杖, monk staff) and the hōju-no-tama (宝珠の玉), the jewels of luck. Most likely, the statue was created after the conflagration of 1414 when the original sculpture had to be replaced.



To the left and the right side of the Jizō statue are garanjin (伽藍神), guardian deities of the temple.



The faded but still magnificent ceiling of the butsuden.



The Lecture Hall (法堂 hattō) was constructed in 1814 and is not dissimilar to the butsuden. Originally without a deity, it now houses a statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and a replica of the Starving Buddha of Gandhara, a gift of the Government of Pakistan.



The ceiling of the hattō depicts a dragon. The Lecture Hall is the largest wooden structure in Eastern Japan.



Behind the Lecture Hall stands the Karamon (唐門), a gate built in the Momoyama Era (1573-1600) and designed in the so-called Mukokarahafu style with its typical undulating gables. Just like the butsuden, it was part of Ogo no Kata's mausoleum at Zōjō-ji. The gate was restored to its former glory in 2011.

Karamon leads to the monks' quarters (方丈 Hōjō), which you can visit after leaving your shoes at the entrance. At the back of the hōjō is a Zen garden with a pond shaped like the character 心 (kokoro, heart) which is also called Sanpekichi (蘸碧池).



On the hill north of the temple compound stands Hansōbō (半僧坊), a small tutelary shrine dedicated to Hansōbō Daigongen, the tutelary spirit of Hōkō-ji in Shizuoka. The shrine was brought to Kamakura by abbot Ozora Kandō in 1890.


Karasu-tengu, one of the attendants of the tutelary spirit Hansōbō.


Hansōbō Shrine (半僧坊)


View of Kenchō-ji as seen from Hansōbō Shrine. On clear days, Mount Fuji can be seen from the shrine.

Hansōbō Shrine is the beginning of the Ten-en Hiking Course that leads to the Yōfuku-ji Temple ruins or, even further, all the way to Zuisen-ji.

More photos in the Kenchō-ji album.

Links:



References:


  • Baldessari, Francesco, Kamakura: A Historical Guide, 2016
  • Mutsu, Iso, Kamakura: Fact and Legend, Tuttle 2012

Access:

A 15-minute walk from Kamakura Station (JR Yokosuka Line, Shōnan–Shinjuku Line).
Address: 8 Yamanouchi, Kamakura, Kanagawa 247-8525; phone: 0467-22-0981.
Admission: open daily 08:00-16:30; adults 500 JPY, children 200 JPY.


Map: