Down history lane: what to visit in Kamakura & why


1) Kamakura was the capital from 1192 to 1333. Visit it for an understanding of the early feudal age atmosphere during the Kamakura period, and early samurai-warrior culture (when samurai warriors were fierce but lacked finesse of later great samurais).


The history: In the 10th century, the emperor only had ceremonial and cultural affairs and real power lay in the hands of the Fujiwara clan. After the decline of the Fujiwara clans, power struggles ensued between the Taira and the Minamoto clans. The struggle ended in a battle in 1159 that defeated the Minamoto clan. In the executions that followed, Minamoto Yoshitomo’s third son’s (Yoritomo) life was spared and the boy spent his days in the Izu-hanto peninsula temple. However, as soon as he was old enough, he began to gather support for a counterattack on the enemies of his clan. In 1180, he set up his base at Kamakura which was far enough from the Kyoto capital and which was easy to defend being enclosed by the sea on one side and wooded hills on the other.


After a series of victories, Minamoto Yoritomo became appointed the shogun of Japan in 1192 and he governed the country from Kamakura. At the peak of Yoritomo’s reign, the city had a population of around 120,000. What is seen a city is a shadow of its former glory since the city has been repeatedly been destroyed by fire, and other natural disasters like tsunami.


2) This was the period of the Mongol invasions at the helm of Kublai Khan***.

After Yoritomo’s death, power fell to the Hojo clan who ruled Japan from Kamakura for over a century until finally in 1333, the clan fell to the forces of Emperor Go-daigo. The reason for the defeat were that the Hojo clan had been weakened by the cost of maintaining defences against threats of raids by Kublai Khan in China.


This apparent restoration of imperial authority was however, also illusory, and power still lay in the hands of another of Japan’s clans, but the capital shifted back to Kyoto. During the Nambukocho civil war period, Kamakura became the Ashikaga shogunate’s military government’s headquarters for eastern Japan. Kamakura only disappeared as a power center into rural backwaters after mid- 1400s. Though it revived as a pilgrimage centre during the Edo period when the Tokaido highway became heavily traveled.


3) Buddhism in Kamakura

It is in Kamakura that you can understand the evolution of Buddhism in all its forms in Japan.


In the 6th century, Buddhism that had established itself was of the Mahayana school which believed that enlightenment was available to those who had the ability to follow the eight-fold path of Buddhism…as disclosed by Buddha (Gautama) himself in his sermon Lotus Sutra.


Five centuries later in the Kamakura period, Buddhism spread to all of Japan. Then the people became disillusioned with the institutions of Buddhism and the monastic orders believing that enlightenment through their own efforts would not be possible.


History then entered the Mappo Age or Later Age, during which Zen and the Pure Land schools of Buddhism flourished as alternative Buddhist philosophies.


Later Age Buddhism believed that salvation came by devoting oneself to Buddha Amida, that all who called on his infinite mercy would achieve salvation in the Pure Land after death. This was very popular with the lower orders of society or commoners since it was a “soft” option and did not entail the rigors of following the eight-fold path.


Pure Land Buddhism contrasted with the rigors and discipline of Zen Buddhism, a Chinese import, which required meditative practice to bring out the Buddhahood of the individual through reaching the empty centre of the self. Zen means meditation. Zen found support among the ascendant warrior class and is important because it is seen as contributing to the foundations of the samurai ethic.


Zen and Pure Land schools flourished from then on, developing the different sects of the Rinzai and Soto schools, and revitalized Buddhism during the Kamakura period.

All major Buddhist sects active in Japan today trace their roots to the Kamakura period.


4) You can see the Chinese influences, actually Indian and Tibetan as well.


Note: ***The Mongol invasion: From 1266 onwards, emissaries from the court of Kublai Khan began arriving in Japan demanding tribute and that Japan acknowledge Mongol sovereignty in return for peace. The message was reached the newly installed 18 year old Hojo regent Tokimune in 1268, who was angry at the insulting tone of Kublai’s message, so defense preparations were begun immediately in Kyushu and offshore islands. During the Mongol invasion of 1273 the samurai got the worst of it at the hands of Mongol forces which employed coordinated mass cavalry tactics and explosive missiles. The evening of the initial landing however, a huge storm arrived to save the situation and the Mongol forces returned to Korea. In 1275 and 1279 new groups of the Khan’s envoys arrived with new orders to “stop all useless resistance” but they were beheaded at Katase Beach or Tasu no Kuchi and the heads savagely stuck at the water’s edge as a warning to Asia’s most feared conquerors. The second invasion in 1281 was the largest naval invasion in history prior to modern times with 150,000 Mongol, Chinese and Korean invaders. This time the Japanese were better prepared, held their own, until another kamikaze “divine wind” arrived to turn back the invaders.





Engakuji temple: Founded in 1282, it is one of 5 main Rinzai Zen temples in Kamakura. Rinzai’s distinguishing feature of Zen Buddhism is its use of riddles, stories concerning the lives of Zen masters and formal Q & A answer drills as aids to attaining enlightenment. 2 things to see – the San-mon Gate and the Engakuji bell, the largest bell in Kamakura cast in 1301 are reminders of the temple’s former magnificence.


Kenchoji temple, has the second largest bell in Kamakura (2 m high) but reputedly the most beautiful bronze bell in eastern Japan and a National Treasure cast in 1255. See it for the Dragon King Hall is a Chinese-style building. The huge gates are splendid and the gardens are magnificent. The Hall of Law is used for zazen meditation. Kenchoji is in a valley full of impressive cedars. There is also several very ancient juniper trees. In the desire to make Kamakura the cultural match of Kyoto, a famous Chinese priest called Tao Lung (Doryu in Japanese) was invited to come and teach Zen. He became the first person given the title of zenji (master of Zen) in Japan (his grave is supposedly located in the hillside to the right of the bell tower).


Great Buddha (Daibutsu) was completed in 1252, and is Kamakura’s most famous sight. The 11.4 m tall statue is out in the open but was originally housed in a huge hall that was washed away by a tsunami in 1495. It is cast in bronze, but the statute was once golden all over. Yoritomo was inspired to construct it after visiting the one in Nara …which is bigger but the Kamakura one is considered artistically superior.


Hasedera Kannon temple. 2 things usually not to be missed by tourists here.

1) The first, Kannon, the goddess of mercy, a Boddhisattva, is a Buddha who has put off enlightenment in order to help others along the same path. The Kannon has a reputation for compassion and mercy so that people like to call on her for help in times of trouble. The carved 11 faced Kannon is very ancient dating from the 8th century. The 11 faces are actually 1 face and 10 minor faces, the latter representing 10 stages of enlightenment. The 11 faces supposedly allow the Kannon to cast an eye in every direction and to maintain vigilance for those needing her help. At 9.3 metres tall, the statue is the tallest wooden statue in Japan.

2) The pleasant garden has an interesting collection of Jizo, the patron saint of travelers and souls of dead children. The statues are clothed to keep them warm by women who have lost children by abortion or miscarriage. Jizo statues are very much a part of folk culture and can be seen everywhere in the countryside in Japan.


Zuisenji temple should be visited for its zen gardens…the concept that has impacted gardening, landscaping and architecture throughout the western world. One is a flowering one, the other is a rock-and-water zen masterpiece by Soseki himself. The two gardens are said to represent two sides of reality…opposite but in harmony. Founded by Muso Soseki one of the most distinguished priests of the Rinzai sect. The temple was formerly ranked 2nd among Rinzai temples.


Other spots to visit:


Visit the National Treasure Museum to see Kamakuran art and Kamakura bori Museum for temple lacquerart. Kamakura is famous for its ancient arts and crafts such as kamakura-bori is a temple art related to zen, which is the production of a distinctive type of lacquerware intricately careved with floral and geometric designs developed in Kamakura in the 13th century


Shakado Yagura There are many yagura caves with tombs, burial crypts and prison cells in Kamakura, but they are rare in the rest of Japan for some mysterious reason, probably reflecting the early Chinese influence. The Shakado is a sight to see—a towering tunnel dug out of solid rock forty feet high by order of the Kamakura government


Sugimotodera was founded in 734 so that it is the oldest temple in Kamakura. It is usually visited for the sight of the two scary-looking guardian deities flanking the gate. It is also visited for the thatched roof hall and azalea-viewing in the spring.


Gongoro-jinja is home to the tomb of Gongoro (-Kegamasa)- sama, who was sort of the Goliath of the samurai of Japan. Lots of legends about this Goliath that will appeal to children and inspired by this Japanese Goliath is chikara mochi a kind of Japanese rice dumpling, is sold around here …that is eaten for strength.


The Gongoro story goes like this: While fighting for the Minamoto in battle in Tohoku in 1083, the Goliath-like samurai was shot in the eye by an enemy arrow. One of his fellow warriors put his foot on Gongoro’s face trying to pull out the shaft. Upon this, Gongoro drew his short sword out and tried to stab his aid thundering, “It is an honorable fate for a true bushi (warrior) to be killed by an arrow, but under no circumstances can he tolerate having his face stepped on.” Legend has it that Gongoro and his men got the arrow out somehow. And so he fought on, turning the tide of the battle and ending the day in victory.


Across from Kenchoji temple is the Ennoji temple which is interesting as it is Temple of Hades. The deity to be gaped at is the Hag of the Styx (Shozuka no Bab Datsu Eba), a realistic masterpiece. This is the old hag who makes little children sent into limbo to pile up stones on the banks of the Sai no Kawara river and who torments them until merciful jizo-san arrive to save them.


Good Books to read with kids:


The Story of Sculpture: From Prehistory to the Present (Masters of Art series) Francesca Romei, Giacinto Gaudenzi) has a chapter on sculpture in Japan. Read this in conjunction with visits to the Great Buddha and the Hasedera Kannon, as well as examinations of any other wooden statue deities.


Buddha by Demi Picturebook on the life of Buddha


The Weather Factor: How Nature Has Changed History by Erik Durschmied has a fascinating account entitled “The Divine Wind” detailing how the Mongol invasion might have occurred.

The first two are children’s books. While the third is written for adults, the desginated reading is action-filled and totally accessible to children.

If you visit the jizos at Hasedera, read also Bamboo Hats for Jizo ; Girl From The Snow Country by Masako Hidaka (for preschoolers); Hats for the Jizo (Kasa Jizo) kamishibai version by Miyoko Matsutani; Six Jizos and Hats; Sedge Hats for Jizo ; Origin of the Jizo; Kasa Jizo by Akaba Suekichi (award winning); Kasa Jizo (online version)





Getting There:

Take the Odakyu line (either the Romance Car or express trains will serve) to Katase-Enoshima station. Buses and trains run frequently between Kamakura and Katase Enoshima. From Shinjuku station. Alternatively, from Tokyo station the Tokaido line goes to Ofuna station. At Ofuna change to the Shonan monorail to Shonan Enoshima station.

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