Visit Engakuji: Autumn in Kamakura

Koyo season is upon us, and probably the best location around Kamakura to marvel at the beauty of autumn leaves is the quiet temple of Engakuji (円覚寺). Today, we’ll stroll around the temple complex and discuss some of the history of the Shogunate of Kamakura and Zen Buddhism.

Walking from Kita Kamakura station
The main entrance to the temple

Engakuji is located just next to Kita-Kamakura train station. In November, you can spot it from the lush amber colors and the queue of people who are trying to take a mediocre picture of the autumn foliage. The temple is actually a Zen monastery founded eight centuries ago, which is deemed important enough to be registered as a candidate in UNESCO’s world heritage sites. As for the who ordered the construction of the temple, it was the almighty Hojo clan, the de-facto rulers of the Shogunate through a web of marriages and conspiracies. The occasion was that Hojo Tokimune successfully repelled the Mongolian invasion. Interestingly, the word Kamikaze (lit. divine wind) came to be from the powerful storms that fell on the Mongolian fleet, thus protecting Japan.

The gate in front of the ticket booth

Since Engakuji is such an important cultural property, an entrance fee is in place for its preservation. Stepping in, the visitor is greeted by the great ‘Mountain Entrance’, the Sanmon (山門). Although a wooden structure, the roof is covered with copper and the inscription is a work of some ancient Emperor. As a pilgrim, you are expected to walk through the gate and break through the earthly bondages, in order to reach a state of emptiness, without substance and without wants. Other notable structures are the giant bell and the main hall, with an impressive ceiling mural that depicts a dragon. Thankfully, the temple complex spans a large area, so there is a dozen of other structures to explore. Large junipers and other trees are decorating the landscape in between the buildings.

The Sanmon gate
An autumn-themed decoration for the purification fountain (chozu-ya in japanese)
The main hall

Looking to the left of the main hall, you are going to spot two buildings with a characteristic thatched roof. The first one (and more impressive) is the Senbutsudo, a hall used for meditation and recitation of Sutras. Next it stands the Kojirin, a more modest hall were trainee monks and newcomers can practice meditation. Zen meditation sessions, called Zazen in Japanese, are held regularly at the temple grounds, some of which are also available online (thanks Covid).

Senbutsudo hall for Zen meditation
Kojirin meditation hall for trainees

The monk that actually established the monastery under Hojo’s command, was a Zen monk who came from China as an immigrant, to become the advisor of Hojo Tokimune. China was always the origin of many traditions, culture, religions and art forms that were adopted from high-class Japan. Affluent Japanese leaders always tried to preserve the flow of information and novelty from China. The temple complex of Engakuji was established following the Chinese system of ‘Five Mountains and Ten Monasteries’ or Gozan for short, which were founded by the government and operated as bureaucratic centers for the Shogunate. The famous Tenryuu-ji temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama, with its own extremely pretty mural of a dragon, is one of Kyoto’s Gozan temples. Tokei-ji (which I described in a recent post) was a part of an equivalent system of nunneries. By imbuing religious morality into state authority, the Shogunate leaders managed to use Gozan temples as ministries and assign to the monks the burden of state affairs.

View from above, at the staircase to the small cemetery
The path towards the Shariden

Here, I came across a scene that I’ve found in other old temples around Kamakura, a group of caves with statues placed inside. This kind of ‘primitive’ adoration fascinates me, because the monks always made sure to construct verandas to view the caves from afar, instead of getting closer. It is like the gods are ascetic monks requesting silence and solitude. There are also two ponds, the larger Myokochi and the smaller Shinji pond. The latter is part of a Zen garden. You can spot such gardens from the white pebbles, the stone elements and the subjugation of greenery.

The side of Myokochi pond
Caves close to Jutokuan
A Zen garden at Hojo

At the inner garden of Hojo, there are approximately 100 Kannon statues standing still. I didn’t count them myself, but I can assure you that they are many. I tried to notice the expressions of each one, because all are different with each other, but some were too eroded by the rain to judge. However, I really liked the wooden carvings at the door, depicting two great dragons with open wings flying above the sea. The large juniper tree in the middle was supposedly planted from the Chinese founder of the temple himself, as this building was traditionally the living quarters of the head priest.

Some of the Kannons
More of the Kannons
A dragon flying above the sea
A dragon emerging from the water

Ascending higher to the depths of the complex, you can find a small cave, a power spot of sorts. That’s Byakurokudo, the location where the founder gave his first sermon at the opening of the temple. A herd of white deer appeared to attend the sermon and listen to his teachings. This miraculous event was commemorated in Engakuji’s name, by adding the prefix Zuirokusan (瑞鹿山, temple of auspicious deer) to the full name ‘Zuirokusan Engaku Kōshō Zenji’.

The spot where white deer appeared
Wooden Ema for wishes

The inner-most structure is Obaiin, a small temple devoted to Kannon, with strong ties to the Ashikaga shogunate. A half-burnt wooden statue of Kannon(?) greats you on the way in. The small garden is surprisingly calm and pretty. This is the end of the path, but a cafe serves maccha tea and other refreshments just below Obaiin. There was a story about spoons that I came across at that cafe, but it is impossible to recall it now. There is an additional entrance fee at this area, probably because Hojo Tokimune is enshrined at this place, and the building is essentially a mausoleum of the Hojo clan. After paying, you receive incense sticks to burn as offering in front of Hojo’s grave.

The garden of Obaiin
A wooden statue of Kannon
A view of Kamakura from Engakuji

This was our short stroll for today. I hope that you enjoyed the color palette of Japanese autumn. Regarding the next topic, I’m still considering whether excursions to Nagoya or Kyushu should be given priority. Additionally, I’ll try to add a few suggestions for autumn hikes around Tokyo. If you liked this post, please share it with your friends. Until next time!

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Τα πεύκα στη θάλασσα

Τον προηγούμενο αιώνα έγιναν κάποιες ανακατατάξεις και φτιάχτηκαν άλλες τρεις τριπλέτες αξιομνημόνευτης ομορφιάς, αλλά ο παλιός είναι αλλιώς.…


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