Following the trail of the great Buddhist sect founder Nichiren and the Lotus Sutra
Or: Again, off the beaten tracks of the tourists there are the prettiest spots
If you feel, you can do without the standard tourist sights in Kamakura, all those locations where hundreds of thousands of tourists from Japan and abroad pound the streets, you’d not necessarily enter terrain of no relevance. Quite the contrary – as the following stroll, retracing the great Buddhist reformer Nichiren’s (日蓮 / にちれん) (1222-1282) steps, shows.
Nichiren who came from Awa (安房 / あわ) (today’s Chiba prefecture), is the founder of one of the most influential buddhist sects in Japan – a religious man who didn’t mind stepping on some people’s feet – the establishment’s an the authorities’ in the first place. Maybe it doesn’t harm to learn some of the most basic facts about Nichiren, in order to consciously appreciate the significance of the locations along the stroll:
Already when he was 12 years old – when his name wasn’t Nichiren yet, but Zennichimaro (善日麿 / ぜんにちまろ – he left his family, because he wanted to receive an education in Tendai-Buddhism. As he said himself, he wanted to become the „wisest man in Japan“.
He absorbed the teachings with great vigour, obviously. When he was fifteen or sixteen years old, he became an ordained priest and called himself „Zeshō-bō Renchō“ (是生房蓮長 / ぜしょうぼうれんちょう).
After that he went on a 10-year-voyage all over Japan to visit the great teachers of his times. One of the insights he gained from meeting these people was that true wisdom of Buddhism was incorporated in the Lotus-Sutra. When he was 31 he began to teach his vision of Buddhism. And the essence of it all was embodied and expressed in the core-mantra of the Lotus Sutra, the „Nam(u)-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō“ (南無妙法蓮華経 / なむみょうほうれんげきょう). One could loosely translate it with: „I seek refuge in the true law of the Lotus Sutra.“ And the true believer will find enlightenment by repeating it again, again and all over again….
Towards end of the 1250s he eventually moved to Kamakura (at that time the capital of Japan and residence of the Shōgun’s military government), in order to teach his understanding of Buddhism. In his eyes this was of the utmost importance, as he believed that Japan was troubled by natural disasters and the Mongolian invasions only because the government and the people did not follow what he believed was the true Buddhism.
It should come as no surprise that he didn’t make himself a darling for those in power. No wonder we will see some witnesses of these most strenuous times in Nichiren’s life, before he was eventually banished to the Izu (伊豆 / いず) peninsula in the south west of Kamakura, and later (1771-1274) to the island of Sado (佐渡島 / さどしま) off the west coast of Japan in the Japanese Sea. The last years of his life he spent in a self-imposed exile on Mt. Minobu (身延山 / みのぶさん) in the Yamanashi prefecture (山梨県 / やまなしけん) (in the West of what we call Tōkyō today). On this mountain you’ll also find the main temple of the Nichiren Buddhism, which was erected at the location of this simple hermitage.
So much about this – after all, one wants to know a little about the person on whose trail one is taking a stroll. But not to worry: Walks in Kamakura are not necessarily an exhausting trip into the world of religion and politics (or the inevitable combination of both). They are more of the „unwinding“ kind, the kind that lets you enjoy the landscape as well as the grand witnesses of moved times and a past that wasn’t all that peaceful.
And – I admit it without blushing – I’d always prefer a walk in Kamakura to a sightseeing tour in Kyōto.
On the map below you’ll see that there are far more interesting things along our way than I’m describing here. Hence, it may very well be possible that it’ll take you considerably longer than the two hours it took me (one way). The map is anyway only shown here to give you a rough overview. In Kamakura the signposting is usually most reliable (indicating the distances between the sights in metres). There is only one exception on this described way: The final and somewhat „high point“ of our walk, the Kōmyō temple, is just I tiny bit hard to find (at least I wasn’t able to find any signposts – even on the occasion of my second visit)
Should you wish to follow my example and walk the entire way as indicated above, I recommend comfortable shoes and decent fitness. There are some steep steps on the way (but, of course, you may just as well skip them.).
Starting at Kamakura station (鎌倉 / かまくら) the prelude is provided by the
1) Myōhon-ji (妙本寺 / みょうほんじ) (Chōkōzan (長興山 / ちょうこうざん)
The area around the temple is known as Hiki valley or Hiki gulch (Hikigayatsu / 比企谷 / ひきがやつ), formerly the location of the residence of a vassal of the first Shōgun of the Kamakura era, Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝 / みなもとのよりとも) (1147-1199), Hiki Yoshikazu (比企能員 / ひきよしかず) and his clan’s. The previously powerful Hiki clan was destroyed when the army commanded by the Hōjō clan put in all its power to make sure that Hōjō Tokimasa (北条時政 / ほうじょうときまさ) would become the third Shōgun of the Kamakura era.
However, the youngest son of Hiki Yoshikazu, Yoshimoto (比企能本 / ひきよしもと), managed to escape from the fights. He became a fervent follower of master Nichiren. The lotus- or meditation hall (法華堂 / ほっけどう) of the temple was built by Yoshimoto in 1260, right on the grounds where his family’s residence had existed before. With this building the foundation of the Myōhon temple was laid.
Nevertheless, his temple is not only worth a visit because of its magnificent buildings, but also because of its lush vegetation and flowers from spring to late summer. But, in the first place, it is a gem, because of its tranquil atmosphere. Should you wish to gain a little distance from the world, this is the right place for you. It’s one of my dearest places in Kamakura.
(No admission fee)
Just 150 metres further, the next station is waiting for us, the
2) Jōei-ji (常栄寺 / じょうえいじ), also called Botamochidera (ぼたもち寺/ぼたもちでら) (Eunzan (慧雲山 / えうんざん)
When Nichiren was a prisoner of the Shōgun, he was brought through the city on his way to the execution place (Tatsunokuchi / 龍ノ口の刑場 / たつのくちのけいじょう) at the Ryūkō temple in Fujisawa. On that occasion he also passed the old Jōei temple. Legend has it, that an old woman approached him and offered him „botamochi“ (ぼたもち), a treat made from rice and sweet, red beans. Coming from this act of mercifulness, today’s Jōei temple also bears the name „Botamochidera“ (Botamochi temple).
But Nichiren, the one who was persecuted because of his rather revolutionary toughts on Buddhism and the society, miraculously escaped the execution. That’s why to the day the Jōei temple is celebrating the 12th of September of every year by distributing „botamochi“, just like the old lady had done for Nichiren. No wonder, the temple is particularly busy on this day, as the visitors are keen on getting hold of one of those „life-saving“ botamochi.
On most of the other days of the year, its more the tranquil atmosphere of this very small temple and the lush, almost tropical vegetation of its garden, that characterize it. Furthermore, there is even a tiny Shintō shrine on the temple’s grounds (something not seen that often any more, since both religions were forcefully separated during the time of the Meiji Restoration).
The temple, as we see it today, dates back to a foundation in 1606.
(No admission fee)
And because it’s so inconspiculously standing along our way just 50 meters away, why don’t you also have a look at the
3) Yagumo Jinja (八雲神社 / やぐもじんじゃ)
This Shintō shrine was founded back in 1083 by the great-great-grandvater of the first Shōgun of the Kamakura era, Minamoto no Yoshimitsu (源義光 / みなとものよしみつ), as a kind of branch shrine of the Yasaka shrine in Kyōto. It reminds the visitor on the terrible epidemic of its time. Who would think that this is the oldest of all shrines of Kamakura? And just in case you ever wondered where Lady Gaga got one of her first hair styling ideas from….
(No admission fee)
So, we continue our walk to the next point on the map, the
4) Myōhō-ji (妙法寺 / みょうほうじ) (Ryōgonzan (楞厳山 / りょうごんざん)
At this location Nichiren (日蓮 / にちれん) had is first hermitage after he had left his family in Awa (安房 / あわ) (now, southern part of the Chiba prefecture) to teach preaching in Kamakura. He called this hermitage “Matsubagayatsu Goshōan” (松葉ヶ谷御小庵 / まつばがやつごしょうあん) (“small hermitage at the pine valley“).
During the times of Nichiren’s persecution this hermitage is said to have been destroyed by his opponents by malicious arson.
Only in the year 1357 Ryōgon Maru (楞厳丸 / りょうごんまる), also known as Nichiei (日叡 / にちえい), a son of the Prince Morinaga (actually: Prince Moriyoshi / 護良親王 / もりよししんのう), built the Myōhō temple at this location. The temple did not only have the purpose of giving the souls of his father and mother a peaceful resting place, but also to use this very special location to provide a place of worship of the great sect founder Nichiren. That’s why also the temple mountain of Myōhō-ji is called Ryōgonzan (楞厳山 / りょうごんざん).
From the list of name-changes I’ve written about so far, one could tell that modern laws preventing money laundering would have had little effect in old Japan….
By the way: The great main hall of the temple is made of zelkovia wood, donated by the Hosokawa clan (a noble family from Kumamoto, Kyūshū).
The temple’s grounds stretch out up the mountain, which can be climbed over quite a number of stairs (some of them covered with moss in an almost surreal way). There are at least two reasons why one should not shy away from the slightly daring stairs (especially in upper section of the path): First of all: on the top there is the cenotaph of the Prince Morinaga (but don’t expect anything spectacular). And secondly, the top of the mountain offers a fascinating view over Kamakura and the Pacific (on very clear day’s also Mt. Fuji is supposed to be visible) – and that can by all means be called spectacular.
Interestingly, only the Japanese pamphlet handed out to visitors at the entrance contains some information about the proper behaviour on holy grounds. The English pamphlet lacks those helpful hints. Well, just do as you would at any other religious place – and not just because it’s the Myōhō temple – treat it with respect.
(Admission fee: 300 Yen)
Another 100 metres further, we are reaching the next sight, the
5) Ankokuron-ji (安国論寺 / あんこくろんじ) (Myōhokekyōzan (妙法蓮華山 / みょうほけきょうざん)
Just like the both neighbouring temples, Myōhō-ji and Chōshō-ji, also the Ankokuron-ji claims to exist right at the spot where Nichiren had his „small hermitage at the pine valley“. In the case of Ankokuron-ji it’s a small cavern, the“Gohōkutsu“ (御法窟 / ごほうくつ) or „Nichiren Iwaya“ (日蓮岩屋 / にちれんいわや) (Nichiren’s Cavern). This cavern is supposed to have been the core element of the hermitage in 1253 across the main hall of today’s temple.
According to the legend, it was in this cavern, where Nichiren wrote is famous (and, for him, fateful) petition „Risshō Ankoku Ron” (立正安国論 / りっしょうあんこくろん) („about the protection of peace in the country and the distribution of the true law“), which he wanted to hand over to the former regent of Kamakura, Hōjō Tokiyori (北条・時頼 / ほうじょう・ときより) (1227-1263) on July 16th 1260.
On the 27th of the following month, his hermitage was attacked by his opponents. This incident made it into the books of history as the „Matsubagayatsu persecution“.
There is another caven on the temple’s grounds, behind the main hall – the so-called „cavern on the south-side“, „Nanmenkutsu“ / 南面窟 / なんめんくつ), where Nichiren is said to have found refuge as well.
The Ankokuron temple’s further features are his flowers and the gorgeous foliage in late autumn.
There is a pretty legend surrounding the cherry tree next to the „small hermitage“ (Goshōan / 御小庵 / ごしょうあん). It says that it grew from Nichiren’s cane. That’s why this cherry tree is called „Myōhō Zakura“ (妙法桜 / みょうほうざくら / cherry tree of the lotus sutra). It’s one of Kamakura’s acknowledged „natural treasures“.
Please observe: On days with only a few visitors, your are expected to buy your admission ticket yourself. There is a little donation box and the ticket cards, not too obviously placed on the left side behind the main gate.
(Admission fee: 100 Yen – or more, if you wish to do so)
Sorry, the following map of the temple is in Japanese and German only…
The next temple is about 200 metres away, across the railroad tracks connecting Kamakura with the neighbouring Zushi (逗子 / ずし). It’s the
6) Chōshō-ji (長勝寺 / ちょうしょうじ) (Sekiseizan (石井山 / せきせいざん)
When Nichiren returned to Kamakura from his banishment on the Izu peninsula (伊豆 / いず), he found a place to stay on the grounds of the residence of Nagakatsu Ishii (by the way: „Nagakatsu“ is another way to read the kanji for „Chōshō“). Hence, the year 1263 is regarded as the year of origin of this temple.
Originally, this temple’s name was „Honkoku-ji” (本圀寺 / ほんこくじ). However, the Honkoku-ji was transfered to Kyōto (京都 / きょうと) in 1345 by the order of the first Ashikaga Shōgun, Ashikaga Takauji (足利尊氏 / あしかがたかうじ). Thereupon, a new temple was built by priest Nissei (1289-1369) just on the same spot, giving it the (slightly altered) name of the grand sponsor: „Sekiseizan Chōshō-ji” which it still bears today.
Among the many buildings on the Chōshō-ji’s grounds, the lotus-hall (Hokkedō / 法華堂 / ほっけどう) deserves to be mentioned, because it is an important cultural asset of the Kanagawa prefecture. It’s said to be built towards the end of the Muromachi era (second half of the 16th century). However the most eye-catching piece is the bronze statue of Nichiren (created in 1922), which dominates the central court of the temple with it’s height of four metres. Nichiren is being guarded in all four directions by bronze statues of the Shitennō (四天王 / してんのう) – the style of these „four heavenly kings“ may – at least to my absolutely non-authoritative mind – not really fit to the realistic look of Nichiren’s statue, but therefore they are even more terrifying. Nevertheless, also the statue of the Nichiren doesn’t quite depict what one would call a „nice uncle“. If this statue reasonably reflects the priest’s appearance, it doesn’t take much fantasy to imagine that he was quite a potent opponent for the other religious leaders and secular authorities of his times.
There is a rather special ceremony at the Chōshō-ji on February 11th every year: At the end of a 100-days-period of strict asceticism and fasting, young Nichiren priest come to the temple (quite a few of them usually totally exhausted from the ritual fast) and have, just dressed in a loincloth, ice-cold water poured over their body – at a time of the year, when temperatures are freezingly cold even in Kamakura.
(No admission fee)
As mentioned above, from here the way gets a bit unclear, as there are no signposts to be found (well, at least I couldn’t find them…). But if you walk ahead in a south-western direction for about 20 minutes, you’ll inevitably reach the final and probably most impressive spot of our little walk, the
7) Kōmyō-ji (光明寺 / こうみょうじ), (Tenshōzan Renge-in (天照山蓮華院 / てんしょうざんれんげいん)
The Kōmyō temple in Zaimokuza (材木座 / ざいもくざ), is a particularly pestiguous temple, which was ranking the highest of all Kantō Jūhachi Danrin Jōdoshū (関東十八壇林浄土宗 / かんとうじゅうはちだんりんじょうどしゅう)-temples during the Edo period (1603-1868).
Nenna Ryōchū (記主禅師燃阿良忠 / きしゅぜんじねんなりょうちゅう) is said to be the priest who founded this temple, and Hōjō Tsunetoki (北条経時 / ほうじょうつねとき) (1224-1246), the fourth regent of the Kamakura-Shōgunate, his sponsor.
It was in the year 1243 when Tsunetoki had a temple built for Ryōchū in the western part of Kamakura (Sasukegayatsu / 佐助が谷 / さすけがやつ), just next to the Sasuke Inari Jinja (佐助稲荷神社 / さすけいなりじんじゃ), as shrine which still exists today. This temple was called Renge-ji (蓮華寺 / れんげじ) (temple of the lotus blossom). When this temple was moved to its present location, it was also re-named to Kōmyō-ji.
The grand main hall was built in 1698 and is registered as an important national cultural asset. It is regarded as the largest „modern“ temple buildings in Kamakura. And, together with the Kenchō-ji (建長寺 / けんちょうじ) and the Engaku-ji (円覚寺 / えんがくじ) in the north of Kamakura, it is one of the most gorgeous representative of temple halls.
However, the inner gate of the temple is not less impressive. Originally it was built in 1553 as one of gates of the Tusugaoka Hachiman-gū (鶴岡八幡宮 / つるがおかはちまんぐう) (located in the north of Kamakura station). During the Meiji Restoration, when a stringent segregation of Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines was imposed on the country, the gate was moved to its present location and renovated in 1868. If you think: „The gate is in a rather good shape for its age“, you’re right, because it was completely renovated in 1998. This gate has been designated an important prefectural cultural asset.
Just recently (2010, during my first visit to the Kōmyō-ji) the board walk in front of the Kishu-garden on the north-side of the main hall was renovated. The Kishu-garden was designed in the 17th century by nobody less than the famous garden designer, Kobori Enshū (小堀遠州 / こぼりえんしゅう) who also gained fame in conjunction with the Imperial villa in Kyōto (Katsura Rikyū / 桂離宮 / かつらりきゅう), the Imperial Palace in Kyōto and the Nijō Castle in Kyōto. But if you know that the Kōmyō-ji enjoyed the Emeror’s particular support, you’re not surprised to hear that only the best of the country were good enough when this temple was concerned.
Quit unorthodox for a temple of the Jodo sekt, the Kōmyō-ji also displays a landscape garden made of sand, gravel and rocks, as they are usually hosted by Zen temples. The Kōmyō-ji’s „Zen“-garden is called Karesansui (枯山水 / かれさんすい) (garden without water) and can be found on the south side of the main hall.
(No admission fee)
But there is something else that sets the Kōmyō-ji and its large grounds apart from the other temples and shrines in Kamara: It’s the only one that is located just upon the shore of the Pacific – only separated from the beach of Kamakura by the coastal road.
Hence, after such a long walk full of culture and impressions, it virtually suggests itself, also to pay the beach a visit. Watch the surfers – or jump into the ocean’s waters yourself. Letting the day gently fade away on the beach is probably just a treat for the soul as admiring the magificent witnesses of old times.
For further information on Kamakura, please also have a look at:
Kamakura (鎌倉) (1) (Engl./dt.)
– Japans alte Hauptstadt mal ganz anders
– Japan’s old capital seen from a different angle
Kamakura (鎌倉) (2) (Engl./dt.)
– Natur & grandiose Architektur
– Nature & magnificent architecture
Kamakura (鎌倉 (3) (German only)
– Auf den Spuren des großen Sektengründers Nichiren und des Lotos-Sutra
Oder: Und wieder ist es jenseits der touristischen Trampelpfade am schönsten.