kamakura: the zen temple of engakuji   4 comments

Sunday, July 2:  After lunch, we get on the train for one stop to Kita-Kamakara to visit Engakuji, one of the leading Zen temples in Eastern Japan and the second of Kamakura’s five great Zen temples.   The temple was founded in 1282 by the high-ranking priest, Mugaku Sogen (Bukko Kokushi), who arrived in Japan from China, where he was born.  He committed himself to ascetic practices to become a priest at the age of 12.

The temple’s patron was Hojo Tokimune of the Kamakura Shogunate, who played an important role in the battles against Mongolia.  Engakuji was built mainly to honor the war dead from both sides of the conflict.

The first main structure encountered upon entering the temple grounds is the Sanmon main gate, which dates from 1785.  The framed calligraphy reading “Engaku Kosho Zenji” was written by the retired Emperor Fushimi.  Statues of the Eleven-Faced Kannon (Bodhisattva) and the Sixteen Lakans (Saints) are on the upper floor.

I love encountering old weathered temples and gates in Japan.  So many temples and buildings are shiny and spiffy because of being rebuilt after Japan’s fires, earthquakes and wars; it’s always nice to find an original building.

Sanmon (Main Gate)

Engakuji endured several major fires as well as periods of decline.  Priest Seisetsu at the end of the Edo Era (1603 – 1868) reconstructed the monastery to consolidate the foundation into Engakuji’s present form.  In the Meiji Era (October 23, 1868 to July 30, 1912), many unsui (zen novices) and koji (lay trainees) came to practice Zen meditation, making Engakuji the center of Zen gatherings in the Kanto area. Today, with its Zen meditation halls, variety of Zen meditation sessions, and summer courses, this temple is loved by many and is known as “The Temple of Spirit” (From a pamphlet distributed by the temple).

Sanmon (Main Gate)

details – Sanmon (Main Gate)

The Butsuden Hall, or Main Hall, beyond the Sanmon Gate, peeks out from behind a stand of junipers. The original was destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923; the 1964 hall was reconstructed of reinforced concrete. Its actual design, though, is an exact copy of an old plan from 1573.  On the ceiling is a painting of a dragon among clouds, Unryu no Zu (kcn-net.org: Kita-Kamakura area).

the Butsuden, or Main Hall

Dragon on the ceiling of the Main Hall

Dragon painting

A seated statue of Hokan Shaka Nyorai in the center of the hall was made in the late Kamakura period (1185/92-1333). The attendants, Bonten (梵天) and Taishakuten (帝釈天), were made in 1692 (kcn-net.org: Kita-Kamakura area).  Hokan Shaka Nyorai is the principal object of worship of Engakuji.

Hokan Shaka Nyorai

screen in the Butsuden

storm drain patterns 🙂

Kojirin is a Zen meditation hall for Koji, or lay trainees of Zen.  Here Zen meditation sessions are held for the public.


hydrangea-lined pathway at Engakuji

on the grounds of Engakuji

Shozokuin is a hermitage honoring the grave of the founder and Zen Master, Mugaku Sogen (Bukko Kokushi).  It was built in the 5th year of the Koan Era (February 1278 – April 1288).  Today, it is a Zen training hall for Zen novices.


monuments at Engakuji

monuments at Engakuji

monuments at Engakuji

Originally, the Hojo, or Abbot’s Quarters, was a lounge for the abbot of Engakuji but it is now used for numerous functions such as religious rituals, Zen meditation sessions, sermons, the Summer Lecture Series, and the Autumn Treasure Exhibition.




The Shariden is a sacred hall that holds a tooth of the Buddha offered to Minamoto no Sanetomo by Noninji of China. Built in the Kara style introduced from China in the Kamakura Era, the beauty of this building’s architecture has led it to be designated as a National Treasure.

Shariden (National Treasure)

other buildings on the grounds of Engakuji – photo by Tobias Manthey

Monuments at Engakuji

Back to the Sanmon, or Main Gate

After walking around the grounds of Engakuji, Tobi and I take the train back to Fuchinobe where we part ways.  On my bicycle, I make a stop at Gourmet City for some groceries and then crash at my tiny apartment, turning on the air conditioning full blast and sprawling out on my futon. Every time I come into my apartment after a full day out, it’s like an oven because the air-conditioning always cuts off automatically after 3 hours.  I usually turn it off myself before leaving because even if I leave it on for 3 hours, which I have often tried to do, it still cuts off early enough that plenty of heat has time to accumulate in the apartment.  Oh, this miserable summer weather in Japan.  How I despise it!

Total steps today (Hasedera, Daibutsu and Engakuji): 12,708 (5.39 miles). 🙂


4 responses to “kamakura: the zen temple of engakuji

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  1. The buildings are so beautiful, especially set in such lovely gardens.

  2. The setting is beautiful, Cathy, and I love the dragon painting on the ceiling. 🙂 🙂
    Not long till your next adventure. Everything still going well at home?

    • You’re right, Jo. The setting for Engakuji is beautiful, plus I love that it’s a real Zen temple that offers Zen meditation, although I sadly was never able to participate. All is going okay at home; mostly a lot of physical challenges for Sarah, Adam and myself (accidents, sickness and spider bites!). I’ll write about them in a cocktail hour soon. At least we’ve booked our trip for September 22- October 7, but I need to do a lot more reading to prepare.

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