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Five Zen Temples of Kamakura

Luke Kinsella

by GoWithGuide travel specialist:Luke Kinsella

Last updated : Feb 28, 202111 min read

Things To Do

Kamakura is a place famous for Zen Buddhism. This style of Buddhism blossomed in this area around the end of the 13th century. These days, there are many Zen temples in the Kamakura area, and we have selected the top five for you to experience the world of Zen Buddhism, and the art of meditation:

Hokoku-ji Temple

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At the end of the 12th century, political rule by the military class took root in Kamakura and lasted until 1333. In the Kanto region at Kamakura, which was the capital city longer than Tokyo, even now retains many historical buildings giving an air of the old capital. In the background of those times, Hokoku-ji is a Zen temple belonging to the Kencho-ji school of the Rinzai sect that was built in 1334, after the demise of the Kamakura shogunate. Also known as the Bamboo Temple, it has attracted many tourists on weekends as a famous place with a beautiful bamboo garden forest.  

Once you pass the sanmon gate, head for the Hon-do main hall while viewing the beautiful moss garden. In the back, the famed bamboo grove of Hokoku-ji unfolds before you. The large grove is amazing with 2000 splendidly maintained bamboo stalks soaring up into the sky. If you walk on the narrow path along the forest, you’ll forget the hustle and bustle of the city through the chirping of small birds and the scent of the bamboo, and there will be a heartfelt serenity. There is a teahouse in the bamboo grove where you can enjoy a cup of matcha tea while leisurely looking at the garden. You will want to savor the tea as it is served on a tray made in the Kamakura-bori style, a type of traditional handicraft of Kamakura as you also enjoy it with your eyes.

Historically speaking, the Rinzai monk Tengan Eko established the teahouse Kyukoan as a place of study on the site which was the beginning for the temple, where he spent a quiet life as he indulged his taste in poetry. In addition, it was also the family temple for the Ashikaga clan. The Ashikagas were the ruling nobles in Kamakura for 90 years but were defeated in war, and with Yoshihisa Ashikaga committing ritual suicide at the temple, Hokoku-ji was the final stand for the Kanto Ashikagas before their time in history ended.  

This is a temple of the Zen world and tragic stories during troubled times. But its beauty continues to live on even with the passage of time.

Admission: ¥ 200 

Guidebook from Planetyze about Hokoku-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Hokoku-ji Temple
Tours of Hokoku-ji Temple

Zuisen-ji Temple

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he Zen Buddhist monk who designed the temple, Soseki Muso, is a famed gardener who had also taken care of the gardens at temples such as Kyoto’s Saion-ji and Tenryu-ji. The wild rock garden has been designated as a Place of Scenic Beauty by the national government.

Soseki Muso was an extremely venerated monk who was called “The Teacher to Seven Emperors” as a national teacher of Zen through 7 generations of Emperors. He was also revered as a designer of gardens for many temples. At Zuisen-ji, he created the garden through sculpturing techniques by making a hill behind the main hall and a waterfall and pond halfway up the bedrock, placing a bridge where he had scooped out a part of the central island and creating a reservoir for the waterfall. Since the large hole, known as Tennyoto, and the pond had been buried in mud for a long time, the area was excavated and restored to basically its original state when it was first constructed according to old drawings. It is also said that the building of the shoin (study) garden began by being aware of the scenery to be seen from inside the building. Because a majority of the temples of Kamakura do not have gardens, the rock garden at Zuisen-ji, representing nature with only rocks and water, is well worth seeing.

As the place name “Momiji-ga-Yatsu” (Valley of Autumn Maple Leaves) would indicate, the area is known for its beautiful fall foliage. The highlight is from late November to early December when even in Kamakura, it’s fairly late for the fall colors. The whole of the temple grounds is a national Historic Site in which the temple path in superb combination with the depth of the forest, the optimally-sized grounds, and the trees making use of the mountain scenery are points of attraction. The plum trees share the same level of fame with the autumn leaves. Going past the entrance gate are lines of plum trees. With the peak time being from mid-February, there is the enjoyment of viewing Japanese allspice, the Natural Monument of winter jasmine, weeping plum, red-blossomed plum, white plum and various other types of plum blossoms.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 200 / Child: ¥ 100

Guidebook from Planetyze about Zuisen-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Zuisen-ji Temple
Tours of Zuisen-ji Temple

Engaku-ji Temple

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Even among the Zen temples of the Kamakura Era when the samurai class flourished, Engaku-ji is a historic temple that has been ranked as the second of Kamakura’s Five Mountains. The gently-sloping vista is first-rate and the changing colors in the fall are especially splendid.

The construction of Engaku-ji began in 1278 during the Kamakura Era which was under the authority of the warrior class. At the time, the most powerful man in the nation, Tokimune Hojo, invited the Chinese monk Sogen Mugaku to establish Engaku-ji.

The origins of the temple lay in the desire to spread Zen Buddhism to the world and also to mourn for those who had died protecting the nation during the Mongol invasions. It was here that not only the Japanese soldiers who had sacrificed themselves but also the Mongol warriors who had died were mourned. Once past the Sanmon main gate which was built to make use of the small valley topography, you will face the Ohojo guest house and the Butsu-den main hall where the principal image of Buddha is enshrined as the slope gently rises. The beauty of the placement of the buildings is splendid and you can feel the breadth of the magnificent space.

Zen Buddhism was greatly supported during the Kamakura Era, and it is evident that the size of Engaku-ji reflected the size of Hojo’s largesse. Within the wide temple grounds, there are many buildings of great historic value such as a seminary for practicing monks, a similar Zen facility for laymen, and the National Treasures of Shari-den Hall and the Great Bell. The culture and art during the era was beloved for their realistic simplicity and fortitude reflective of warrior culture, so it is hoped that you will fully appreciate the texture of the simple yet beautiful construction of this old temple that retains the scent of Japan’s Middle Ages.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 300 / Child: ¥ 100

Guidebook from Planetyze about Engaku-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Engaku-ji Temple
Tours of Engaku-ji Temple

Tokei-ji Temple

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In an era when women could not divorce, Tokei-ji gave refuge to many women who fled to the temple under a law allowing divorce. Currently surrounded by lush greenery, it has been given three stars in the Michelin Green Guide.

Kakusan-ni, the wife of the 8th shogun regent in the Kamakura Era, Tokimune Hojo, established the temple in 1285. The second-ranked institution in a network of five nunneries known as Amagozan, an Emperor’s daughter, a female member of the Toyotomi family and other noblewomen worked as chief priestesses at the temple. Kakusan-ni ran the temple under a divorce law through which if women suffering from spousal abuse remain at the temple for 3 years, then the marriage could be nullified. Since there were many instances in which women would seek refuge from their husbands by entering the temple, Tokei-ji was referred to as the “refuge temple” or the “divorce temple”. Countless numbers of women were saved for 500 years up to 1872 through this women’s claim to divorce. When the temple ended this role, male monks took over and spread the word of Zen as a Zen temple.

Within the temple, there is the Matsugaoka Treasury which displays the valuable assets of the temple. You can learn a variety of knowledge about the divorce temple through its history and exhibits such as the Mikudarihan, a divorce letter. From February to March every year, the customary Tokei-ji Buddhist Statue Exhibition is held. During this period, you can view without making any reservations the statue of the Suigetsu Kannon, known for its feminine beauty; usually reservations would be needed at other times of the year. Tokei-ji is known as a temple of flowers, and a variety of flowers bloom throughout the year. Especially during June when irises and conandron bloom, the teahouse Byakuren-sha is open where special seating is provided for guests who cannot normally sit in the formal seiza style during the tea ceremony. You can enjoy the flowers at leisure.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 200 / Child: ¥ 100

Guidebook from Planetyze about Tokei-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Tokei-ji Temple
Tours of Tokei-ji Temple

Kencho-ji Temple

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Kencho-ji is Japan’s oldest Zen temple which has been in existence since the 13th century. Calmly sense the world of Zen while walking through the large grounds of the solemn temple and viewing the garden of the chief priest.

Kencho-ji Temple is located between Kamakura and Kita-Kamakura Stations, surrounded by trees and nature in a quiet place. From the 12th century going into the 13th century, Kamakura was going through an age of control by the warrior and a time when learning, culture and religion were flourishing. It was in this region that numerous temples were being constructed. Among these temples, Kencho-ji is famous for being the first Zen temple in Japan to be built and is ranked the first among Kamakura’s Five Great Zen Temples. Tokiyori Hojo, who was the most politically powerful figure during that time, was also the founder of the temple. Hojo enthusiastically worshiped Buddhism and he tackled the still-new learning of Zen religion with a passion. At the time, he met Lanxi Daolong, a Buddhist monk who had come over from China and Hojo requested that a temple be founded, so Kencho-ji was started in 1253. Daolong admonished the practicing monks to place priority on the rituals based on strict regulations. The “Rules of Zen” are still importantly preserved as a National Treasure. Later, due to the 1293 Kamakura Earthquake and fires in 1315 and 1416, the original structures of the temple were almost all lost, but with repeated reconstruction, the temple has managed to survive and even now, Kencho-ji continues as a central presence in Zen Buddhism. There are a number of buildings upon the large temple grounds built upon the hilly mountain. Thanks to reconstruction, Japan’s first Zen temple has continued to be praised for its majesty. The placement of its structures: the outer gate, the main gate, the main hall, the lecture hall and the chief priest’s chambers were placed in a straight line as would be the case in Chinese Zen Buddhism and have been preserved in that state since the temple’s founding. In addition, the beautiful garden of the chief priest which was transported from Kyoto is a must-see. The story behind this garden is that it was designed by Soseki Muso. Muso had been behind the design of many famous gardens such as those for Kyoto’s World Heritage sites of Saiho-ji and Tenryu-ji Temples, and as a Zen Buddhist monk himself, he was known as a genius garden designer who revealed the world of Zen in his creations.

The world of Zen blossomed in Kamakura. If you have an interest in Zen, it’s recommended that you try participating in zazen (Zen meditation) sessions that are held for foreigners in English. At the sessions which last up to about 2 hours, you learn the basics from the monks of Kencho-ji after which you can experience a true zazen session. Since prior application is necessary, please check the details on the homepage for Kencho-ji before participating.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 300 / Child: ¥ 100

Guidebook from Planetyze about Kencho-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Kencho-ji Temple
Tours of Kencho-ji Temple

Written by Luke Kinsella

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GoWithGuide’s writers are passionate travel specialists sharing unique tips and essential information for global explorers.

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