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Kenchoji

Official Name Kofukuzan Kencho Kokoku Zenji {Pronounced koh-foo-koo-zan ken-cho koh-kok-zen-gee}
Religious sect Kenchoji School, Rinzai (Zen) Sect, Buddhism
Founded in 1253
by Tokiyori Hojo {toh-key-yoh-re hoh-joe}
Founding priest Doryu Rankei {doe-ryu ran-kay) (Chinese: Lan-hsi Tao-lung)
Main object of worship Statue of Jizo Bosatsu {gee-zoe bo-sah-tsu}
Address 8, Yamanouchi, Kamakura, Kanagawa 247-0062
Area size Approximately 20 hectares
Location 1,100 meters southeast of Kita-Kamakura Station
Time needed to get there 15 minutes from the Station
Admission 300 yen
Open 8:30 to 16:30, year round
Phone number 0467-22-0981
Fax number 0467-25-6316
Restrooms Available

Historical Overview



Kenchoji was the first zen temple erected in Kamakura and the pioneer of Zen Buddhism in Japan. It ranks first among the Five Great Zen-Temples in Kamakura and is the head of the 500-odd branch temples belonging to the Kenchoji school of the Rinzai Zen sect. It used to have seven main buildings and 49 sub-temples in its golden days. Records show that at the memorial service for Sadatoki Hojo {sah-dah-toh-key hoh-joe} (1271-1311), the Ninth Hojo Regent, held in 1323 at Engakuji for his twelfth anniversary of death, 388 priests joined it from Kenchoji, and further narrate that more than 1,000 people were living in this compound back then. As were the cases in other temples, however, all of original buildings were destroyed by a series of disasters such as fires, earthquakes and civil wars. To be specific, the earthquakein 1293, the fires in 1315, 1414, 1426 etc. ravaged most of the structures and the present ones were either rebuilt recently or brought from outside Kamakura.

Tokiyori Hojo (1227-1263), the Fifth Hojo Regent and the founder of the Temple, was an ardent devotee of Zen. Since there was no Zen master in Japan, he looked for an excellent Zen priest in China. Hearing Zen was getting popular in Japan, Priest Doryu Rankei (1213-1278), a Chinese Zen master under the Sung Dynasty born in Zhejiang Province near Shanghai, left China in 1246 at age 33 to teach Zen in Japan. He first stayed in Kyushu and then went to Kyoto before coming to Kamakura. In Kamakura, he started serving in Jufukuji at first, and then was invited to Kenchoji by Tokiyori Hojo to officiate as the founding priest. In 1262, he moved to Ken-ninji in Kyoto, which also belonged to the Rinzai sect and ranked third of the Five Great Zen Temples in Kyoto.

The post of the second chief priest of Kenchoji was succeeded by Funei Gottan {foo-ney got'an} (1197-1276), another Chinese Zen priest and fellow priest of Rankei. Back at the time, China was invaded by Mongol and the Mongolian rulers clamped down on Buddhism. Rather than staying in China, he challenged to expatriate himself to Japan and propagate Zen. When he first faced the main object of the Temple, he was quoted as having said, "Since Jizo Bosatsu ranks below me, it is he who should kneel to me". With the support of Tokiyori Hojo, he was happy in Kamakura, but suddenly returned to China upon the death of Tokiyori.

Priest Rankei came back to Kenchoji as the third chief priest. Unlike Priest Gottan, he learned the Japanese language quickly and was later naturalized as a Japanese citizen. He spoke Japanese so fluently that he was suspected as a Mongolian spy in 1271 when Mongolian envoys visited Japan, and was sent to a remote town near Mt. Fuji twice. The suspicion was later dispelled and the honorable title of Daigaku Zen-ji {dye-gak zen-gee} (Zen Master of Great Realization. "Ji" means a teacher, not a temple in this case) was conferred as his posthumous title, the first priest ever receiving such a Buddhist name. He is also known as a good disciplinarian and trained his disciples with asceticism. The Temple keeps an old document entitled Codes of Conduct for Zen Priests written by him, which is, by the way, a National Treasure. His tombstone called "Daigaku Zen-ji Tower", stands at the rear of the right-hand hill in the Temple's grounds.

Eighth Hojo Regent Tokimune {toh-key-moo-neh} Hojo (1251-1284), son of Tokiyori, invited Sogen Mugaku {soh-ghen moo-gah-koo} (1226-1286), another Chinese priest, in 1279 from China as the Priest Rankei's successor. Priest Mugaku was nominated as the founding priest of Engakuji, but also served as the chief priest of Kenchoji.

After the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), the Temple continued to receive support from the governments of the time. For example, the Five Great Zen Temple system was initiated by Yoshimitsu Ashikaga {yo-she-me-tsu ah-she-kah-gah} (1358-1408), the Third Shogun of the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) when he was in power, and Kenchoji was ranked as the first of them. However, it did not flourish as it had been before. Fires and earthquakes gave dire damages, destroying all of existing structures. In particular, the fire in 1414 wrought the worst damage ever and the Temple lost almost all of its assets. In 1591, Ieyasu Tokugawa {e-eh-yah-soo toh-koo-gah-wah} (1542-1616), the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, began to give financial aid to Kenchoji and it was able to revive to a certain extent, and some of the present structures were brought here from Tokyo by the help of the Tokugawa Shogunate. In the late Edo Period (1603-1868), the Tokugawa Shogunate introduced a parishioner system called danka {dan-kah} in an attempt to oppress Christians. It required every person to register at a temple and the temple took care of funeral and other religious services for all those parishioners, who in return made monetary offerings to the temple.

Thus, temples were financially able to get by until the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1868. It was another tuning point for the temples. With the newly established imperial government designating the Shinto as the state religion, Buddhist temples throughout Japan began to decline. Kamakura replete with old temples went downhill from year to year and was turned to a deserted village in the end. A photo taken at Wakamiya Oji (the main street of Kamakura) in the early Meiji Period (1868-1912) shows the area is mostly covered with rice paddies and a few thatched-roof poor farmhouses. However, opening of the railway in 1889 connecting Tokyo with Kamakura gave a big opportunity for the temples as well as village of Kamakura to revive. Today, as one of the oldest and largest Zen temples, Kenchoji attracts over a million visitors a year and the parking lot near the entrance is often occupied by cars and sightseeing buses.

Annual Observances

February 3 A bean-throwing ceremony.(Setsubun) It takes place at Hansobo. Headed by the chief priest, many resident priests follow him, and after rituals, they throw beans. Usually, we throw them shouting "Fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto" {foo-koo-wah-woo-che o-nee-wah-soh-toh}, meaning "In with good fortune, out with demons". But, here in Kenchoji, they say only "Fuku wa uchi, Fuku wa uchi". Kenchoji would respond to even demons should they knock the door.
June 16 Memorial Service for Zuiken Kawamura. During the Edo Period, there were several big fires in Tokyo destroying most of wooden houses, but fires always brought a big chances to make money for clever merchants. A case in point was the fire broke out in early 1657, by which nearly 100,000 people were killed. An ambitious merchant named Zuiken Kawamura {zooy-ken kah-wah-moo-rah} (1618-1699) never overlooked the chance. What he did immediately after the fire was to buy out all of available wood, thereby he made a huge profit. Later, he greatly contributed to enhancing civil engineering including river control. If anything, he was the Japanese counterpart of the Robber Baron, but a pious Zen devotee at the same time. He made a sizeable amount of donation to Kenchoji and was buried here with his tomb located near the path between Shoto-in and Hansobo. In commemoration of his distinguished contributions, the Temple holds a memorial service for him on this day.
July 15 Segaki (seh-gah-key) or requiem mass for the departed souls. Particularly for those who died leaving no one to take care of their death. If translated precisely, it is a feeding festival for hungry ghosts (famished devils or Preta in Skt., which is one state of Six Existence in thenetherworld.) Food is offered to the souls while sutra is chanted. In Kenchoji, it takes place twice, one at the Main Hall followed by the other at Sanmon, and the latter is called Kajiwara {kah-gee-wah-rah} Segaki. Legend relates a story way back in the 13th century, when Priest Rankei was the chief priest. One summer, the moment he finished Segaki, a samurai warrior rushed in and asked if he was in time. Priest Rankei told him it was just finished. "Oh, it's too bad. I should have attended it by all means", said the samurai. Seeing him so regret, the Priest held the Segaki all over again just for him. At the end, the samurai thanked him sincerely and left declaring he was the ghost of Kagetoki Kajiwara {kah-ghe-toh-key kah-gee-wah-rah} (?-1200), a faithful and immediate retainer of Yoritomo Minamoto, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate. From then on, Kenchoji has been hosting Segaki twice on this day. Since the one for Kajiwara takes place at the sanmon gate, it is also called sanmon Segaki.
August 23 and 24 Memorial service for the founding priest. At the time Priest Rankei passed away in 1278 in the Temple, his funeral was held strictly in Chinese way. Ever since, the traditional practice has been honored. Sutras are chanted in Chinese pronunciation. One of the most important annual events for the Temple.
September 28 Memorial Service for Bamboo Whisks. Known as Chasen kuyoo {chah-sen koo-yoh} in Japanese. For tea ceremony, a stirrer is an important tool to make tea and it is deftly made with bamboos. Zen is closely associated with the ceremony and both have many in common. It is no exaggeration to say that the art of tea was developed with Zen Buddhism. To show appreciation for this symbolic tool used at the ceremony, the Temple holds memorial service on this day.
October 5 Memorial service for Daruma {dah-roo-mah} Bodhidharma. Born in India, Bodhidharma is the founder of Zen Buddhism. Though his birth year is not known, it is believed he died on October 5, 528. Legends say the priest attained enlightenment after meditating nine years in a cave, but lost his arms and legs in the process. Hence, the Daruma dolls are made without arms and legs like a basket case. In Kamakura, Kenchoji and Engakuji hold a memorial service for him. Bodhidharma used to put a warmed stone into his bosom to stave off hunger. In memory of his ascetic practices, Zen priests do not have dinner on the eve of the day. In Japan, there is a lunch-box type food called Kaiseki {kye-seh-key}, which is interpreted as "a stone in one's bosom", meaning a simple food just to appease the appetite momentarily.
November 3 Treasure-Airing. Once a year in early November, the Temple exhibits its treasures for connoisseurs' convenience inside the Hojo hall for three days including November 3, a national holiday (Culture Day). It's called Homotsu Kazeire {hoh-mo-tsu kah-zeh-e-reh} or the Airing of Treasures to free from insects. During the three-day period, we can go through the Karamon Gate to enter the Hojo, with an additional fee of 500 yen. The Temple exhibits major treasures, mostly ancient paintings, writings, statues, Buddhist altar-fittings etc. A catalog for this exhibition reads there are 69 sets of treasures on display. A number of items that we often see only on print media can be viewed with our own eyes. Another benefit for touring the hall is that visitors can worship and view the statue of Crowned Shaka Nyorai real close. The exhibition hall, which is floored with tatami mat, and therefore, visitors have to take their shoes off, tends to be crowded. At every corner, a young trainee priest sits in lotus position like a guard man. (But, I once witnessed one of them was apparently dozing.) In the end, we will be invited to a beautiful tatami-mat room, an annex to the Hojo and called Shiunkaku (she-um-kak), where a powdered tea will be served for every visitor. This building is pretty new and gorgeous, completed in the mid-1990s. Most amazing are its restrooms. My wife told me that the women's toilets were equipped with sound arresters, like the ones in famous department stores', to muffle the noise during micturition. It sure helps save water consumption (environmentally friendly?), but needs extra electricity. Installing 6-liter toilets is a remote possibility in this country. Buddhist temples, those of Zen in particular, keep restrooms always clean since they believe it is also an important place for training. In fact, there are three places for Zen Buddhists to keep completely quiet; toilet, bath and dining room. You could hear a pin drop if you are in a dining room where 100 Zen priests are eating.
November 23 Haiku party to commemorate anniversary of Tokiyori's death. Haiku {hi-koo} is the shortest form of poem, which consists of 17 syllables. According to Dr. R. H. Blyth (1898-1964), who was born in England and came to Japan in 1924 to learn Japanese literature, "A haiku is the expression of temporary enlightenment, in which we see into the life of things." Zen concept goes well with haiku as both emphasize simplicity and austerity, and therefore, haiku is loved by many Zen Buddhists. The annual haiku party is held here on the day Tokiyori died. Incidentally, Dr. Blyth rests in the graveyard of Tokeiji.
December 31 Year-end rituals and prayers.


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