Temples in Kamakura always seem small and compact to me. Even if the grounds are large, there are hillsides and towering trees to make them seem not so. Not that I’m complaining, of course — I love Kamakura’s earthy little temples.
Kencho-ji, however, about 1km from Kita-Kamakura Station and 1.5km from Kamakura Station, is anything but small and compact. It’s open and sprawling — the largest in Kamakura, in fact. Its wide sando and grounds are airy and open, and it’s easy to see why it’s the first of Kamakura’s Five Great Zen Temples.
Founded in the mid-13th century, Kencho-ji is not a terribly old temple (for comparison, Kamakura’s oldest, Sugimoto Dera, was founded in 734 CE), though it does sit on the site of an older temple, Shinpei-ji. In ancient times, the valley in which Shinpei-ji (and now Kencho-ji) sits was known as Jigokugayatsu (or Jigokudani, depending on the source) — the Valley of Hell.*
With a name like that, it’s not terribly surprising that the valley was known for something a bit sinister. The beautiful cherry tree-filled grounds upon which you walk were once execution grounds.
To help the souls of the unfortunate, Shinpei-ji had as its primary object of worship the bodhisattva known in Japan as Jizo-sama. Jizo-sama protects those in danger and those who are lost, as well as those who fall down to hell. Nowadays, though, he’s perhaps best known as patron saint of travellers; expectant mothers; children; and babies, including those who die before or during birth. (Hasedera, in the Hase region of Kamakura, has an area dedicated to fetuses, babies and children, and the area is full of Jizo-sama.)
Kencho-ji continues the tradition of having Jizo-sama as its primary object of worship, and a large statue of Jizo-sama sits in the butsuden. In Kamakura: Fact and Legend, Iso Mutsu writes that Jizo-sama is
enthroned upon a mighty lotus; it is carved in wood, lacquered, and originally gilded, but the latter has almost entirely disappeared leaving the dark lacquer, which invests the great figure with a somber and forbidding appearance. (p. 110)
Jizo-sama sits under an impressive ceiling, so make sure to look up when you’re there.
Behind the butsuden is the hatto, where you’ll find Senju Kannon, or One-Thousand-Armed Kannon. The ceiling above Kannon-sama is also pretty amazing.
Beyond the hatto is the hojo, where zazen practice takes place. (A glowing review of a zazen session — yes, there are special sessions in English — can be found here.) Kencho-ji is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan, so anyone with an interest in zazen should definitely try to fit in a session. Behind the hall is a garden — a National Scenic Spot, and benches upon which to relax and enjoy the view.
The road to the left of the hojo leads towards Hansobo Shrine and Shojoken Observation Deck, located at the top of the hills behind Kencho-ji. The walk up involves a lot of stairs, but the view will distract you from your burning quadriceps: after the first set of steps, the remaining hill is studded with tengu, a supernatural creature often depicted with a very long nose. Most of the tengu at Kencho-ji, though, are a bit different — they’re beaked. These raven or crow tengu (Jisho.org calls them “crow-billed goblins”) are an older tengu, more animal than the more common red-faced, long-nosed tengu. They stand guard on the hill, wings on backs, weapons (kendo shinai swords?) in hands. (For more info on tengu, check out Tofugu.com‘s post on the demon/spirits.)
At the top of the hill is Shojoken Observation Deck, where on a clear day, Mt. Fuji is visible. If you hope to see the mountain, it’s best to visit in late fall or winter, as once the temperature rises in spring, Mt. Fuji disappears into a haze that lasts until late fall, bar a few clear early mornings.
The Ten-en hiking course runs past Kencho-ji, with a path leading to it to the right of Hansobo Shrine. It’s a fantastic course — about two or three hours, not too challenging but also not too easy, and runs to Kakuon-ji (shorter hike) or Zuisen-ji (longer hike), both much smaller but still fantastic temples.
*You’ll also find Jigokugayatsu/Jigokudani translated as Hell’s Valley and Hell’s Hollow.