Dating to 734 CE, Sugimoto Dera is considered Kamakura’s oldest temple — and it looks the part. The stairway going from the niomon to the hondo is uneven and moss-covered, and the grounds have an earthy, ancient feel to them.
The primary object of worship at Sugimoto Dera is Kannon-sama. The temple is home to three large statues of the Eleven-Faced (or Eleven-Headed) Kannon, which, legend has it, have escaped a fiery destruction on two occasions — once by their own power. As they sought refuge beneath a grove of cedar trees, the temple came to be known as Sugimoto Dera — sugi meaning cedar.
Unusually for temples, it’s possible to enter the hondo and have a close-up look at many of the temple’s treasures. Hats and shoes must be removed, and photography is not allowed, but even if you have laced shoes, it’s worth taking them off to have a look around.
In a corner of the shrine grounds, next to red-bibbed Jizo-sama, visitors will find a collection of stone gorinto, or five-tiered stupas. These are to memorialize samurai who died in a battle between imperial forces and what was left of the Hojo clan — regents of the Kamakura Shogunate, which fell in 1333 — in 1337. Behind the temple was a fortress, from which the battle spread onto temple grounds. Over 300 samurai were killed in the battle.
The temple is the first stop on two separate Kannon pilgrimages, the Bando Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimage and the Kamakura Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimage. As a result, a number of pilgrim items are on sale in the hondo, including the white hakue coat that pilgrims often wear. More evidence of pilgrims is visible in the form of votive slips pasted like stickers all over the niomon and hondo. These are senjafuda, and they bear the names of pilgrims, as well as their place of origin and other information, as a record of their visit.