か is for Kamakura 33 Kannon Pilgrimage


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If you’re looking to add a little zest to your temple- and shrine-hopping, including a pilgrimage in your itinerary is a good way to go. Called meguri in Japanese, Japan’s got plenty. Some are short, some long; some consist of various single-temple objects of worship, while others will take you across cities or regions; some are just temples, while others are a mishmash of temples and shrines: basically, there are all sorts of meguri, and you’re bound to find a few as you move from place to place.

Doing  a pilgrimage is also a great way to increase your motivation if you already collect stamps in a goshuincho (honourable stamp book), but are a little blah on filling your book up.

Goshuincho (or nokyocho, which are similar) can be purchased at medium- to large-sized temples and shrines, and at some stationery stores. Just be careful if you go the stationery-store way — I read that there have been cases where these books have not been accepted by temple or shrine staff.

There’s no need to be a devout Buddhist or Shintoist to hop on the meguri-train — anyone and everyone is welcome to purchase a goshuincho, and collect the goshuin (stamps). If you want to really look the part, you can even buy a special hakue — white pilgrim’s coat — to wear, though I’d only recommend that for the more devout pilgrim. Normal clothes, however, are perfectly acceptable on your quest. (Within reason — these are religious sites, after all.)

Kamakura is home to several pilgrimage routes, like the popular (and quick to finish) Seven Gods of Fortune pilgrimage, the Twenty-Four Jizo pilgrimage, and today’s focus, the Thirty-Three Kannon Reijo pilgrimage.

In Japan, Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimages are fairly common. According to Kamakura City’s webpage on its Kannon-sama pilgrimage, the first Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimage — the Saigoku Sanju-San Sho — was established in the 12th century in the Kansai area, followed by the Bando Sanju-San Sho pilgrimage in the Kanto area in the 13th century. (NB – other sources suggest these pilgrimage routes were established many centuries earlier.) From there, Thirty-Three Kannon pilgrimages took off, spreading around the country.

Why 33? Religious texts say that there are 33 manifestations of Kannon, so apparently, that’s why there are usually (but not always!) 33 stops on Japan’s Kannon pilgrimages. The Kamakura pilgrimage doesn’t include all 33 manifestations, however — it’s just 33 important temples dedicated to Kannon-sama.

I’ve only just started this pilgrimage, and I’ll update this post as I make my way around the city.

For a complete list of the 33 temples, and their number on the pilgrimage, see the map below. Temples don’t need to be visited in order, but do try to make Sugimoto Dera your first stop for an extra little “first stop” stamp.






す is for Sugimoto Dera

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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.

くis for Kuzuharaoka Jinja

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Kuzuharaoka Jinja (sometimes referred to as Kuzuharagaoka Shrine) owes its existence to the execution of Hino Toshimoto, a scholar famed for his poetry.

Hino, a court official loyal to Emperor Go-Daigo, was twice caught plotting to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate. Though released the first time, he was found guilty and sentenced to death the second time. In June 1332 (the exact day varies depending on the source — in fact, the year does, too), Hino was executed where the shrine now stands.

Roughly 555 years later, Kuzuharaoka Shrine was established, with the spirit of Hino Toshimoto the object of worship.

The shrine sits mid-way along the Daibutsu-Kuzuharaoka hiking path that runs from Jochi-ji (Jochiji Temple) in Kita-Kamakura to the Hase area of Kamakura, near the Great Buddha of Kotoku-in (Kotoku Temple). It has a small water garden with fish, turtles and water irises, a spot to smash some little clay plates against a large stone (¥100 per plate), and a picnic area under tall trees. (Beware the crows!)

Though the shrine is not one of the main hydrangea-viewing shrines, it should be. The grounds are covered in hydrangea bushes, and during the rainy season (late May/early June to late June/early July), the shrine is covered in blossoms. The grounds also have quite a few cherry trees and bushes from the rhododendron family (whether azaleas or rhododendrons, I’m not sure — I never get it right).

The big draw at Kuzuharaoka Shrine is the enmusubi ishi, or marriage-/love-knot stone. The enshrined deity is Daikoku-sama, who in addition to being one of the Shichi Fukujin (Seven Gods of Fortune) is also known as a god of matchmaking. Not surprisingly, the ema or votive plaque at Kuzuharaoka is in the shape of a heart.

け is for Kencho-ji

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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.

か is for Kaizo-ji

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Just six hundred metres from Eisho-ji is a temple that blooms year round. Kaizo-ji, founded in 1394, is most famous for its bush clover, which blooms in September. The temple, of the Kenchoji school of Rinzai Zen Buddhism, is also a great spot for plum-blossom viewing and koyo (fall foliage).

Behind the main temple building is a large garden with a pond. Though it’s not often open to the public, visitors can see the garden from the yagura (cave tombs) to the left of the main shrine building.

Another building houses the main objects of worship (Yakushi Nyorai among others), which are on display rather than locked up like at some other temples.

Near the yagura is a path that leads to a grotto with sixteen small wells, each roughly 40 centimetres deep and 70 centimetres in diameter. What were the wells used for? The Kamakura Today website says the following:


What were those wells used for? Nobody knows for sure. The established view by the archaeologists is that they were used for burying ashes of the departed, but the Temple denies it saying each well represents a Bosatsu or Bodhisattva and the sacred water was dedicated to those Bosatsu.


Established: 1394

Pilgrimage: Kamakura 33 Kannon Pilgrimage (temple # 26)

Kamakura 24 Jizo Pilgrimage (temple #15, however, the building that  houses the Iwafune Jizo is not on the main Kaizo-ji grounds, but rather a short walk away.)


Iwafune Jizo (磐船地蔵)

か is for Kakuon-ji

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In her book, Kamakura: Fact and Legend, Iso Mutsu calls Kakuon-ji a “venerable temple of unimposing exterior.” It is indeed quite simple on the outside (though wonderfully peaceful), but inside it houses a number of statues and other items, including two national treasures (the Yakushi Sanzon and the Black Jizo).

While the outer grounds are free to wander, getting a chance to see the temple’s treasures requires joining a tour for about ¥500. The tour takes roughly 50 minutes and is in Japanese. It’s only offered a handful of times a day, and not at all during certain times of the year (August, end/beginning of the year, rainy days), so make sure to google or contact the temple if you’re determined to join. Please note that photography is not allowed.

Founded: 1296 (built on the site a Buddha hall established in 1218)

Festival: Black Jizo festival, August 10

Trivia: Kakuon-ji is home to the Black Jizo, which is Jizo #3 of Kamakura’s 24 Jizo pilgrimage.

か is for Kamakura-gu

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Kamakura-gu is one of Kamakura’s newer shrines, having been founded in 1869 by Emperor Meiji. The spirit of the shrine goes back much further, however, as it was established in memory of Prince Morinaga, who was imprisoned in a cave on the property for seven or eight months before being beheaded in 1335.

While the main shrine grounds are free to wander, the area behind the main shrine building — where the cavern entrance is — requires a small payment. There’s also a garden area; and a glass-walled building containing paintings, a huge statue of Prince Morinaga on a horse, and other knickknacks and oddities, in the paid area.

Kamakura-gu’s Setsubun ceremony in early February is a great one to visit with kids, as it has a special area where they can join the scramble for beans without worrying about being knocked down by bigger kids and adults. The shrine also has a bon festival in August.

お is for Onari Shotengai


Onari Shotengai, out the west side of Kamakura Station, doesn’t get much press, being overshadowed by Komachi Dori, the shopping street out the east side. But it has a lot going for it.

The past year or so has seen quite a few new shops open along the shopping street, including cafes, jewellery shops (with a taiken/workshop option — there’s even the option to make your engagement and wedding bands as a couple. Squeee!), and fanciest of all, Chocolate Bank (located in an old bank, natch), purveyor of fine chocolates, pastries and other chocolate-related goods. Pricey but yummy — and there’s a giant gorilla on the communal table, which my six-year-old daughter assures me is made of solid chocolate (…), sweetening the deal even further. (Non-communal seating is also available.)

Craft shops, a cat-related goods shop, a basket shop, vintage kimono shops (more than one!), bakeries, cake shops, coffee beans, a crêperie, clothing boutiques, a shoe store, flower shops, a Pinterest-worthy interior decor shop (one of my faves!), a liquor shop, a yaoya (greengrocer), a place to get your nails done, your hair done, your photos printed… the list goes on.

And if you’re dreaming of owning a house in the area, there are two real estate agencies with lovely photos in the windows, too. The one even charts the seasons with the help of Anpan Man.

Anpan Man dressed for Setsubun
It’s Setsubun! 

One of the best parts is that it’s not nearly as crowded as Komachi Dori, which is wonderful, especially on hot summer days.

お is for Ofuna Kannon

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We’re finally leaving え, though I’m guessing we’ll be back again eventually. So many え…

But onto お we go.

Ofuna is a funny city, half of it being in Yokohama-shi and half being in Kamakura-shi. Luckily for us and our kana series, the Ofuna Kannon is on the Kamakura side.

Kannon-sama is the goddess of mercy and lord of compassion (depending on whether s/he is being depicted as a female deity or male deity), and she comes in many forms, like the 11-headed Kannon, and horse-headed Kannon. The Kannon in Ofuna is a Byakushozon Kannon, or white-robed Kannon.

The Ofuna Kannon is a newer monument — construction started in 1929. Unfortunately, the lead-up to the war meant that construction was put on pause in 1934. After the war, construction recommenced, and the Ofuna Kannon was completed in 1960. The monument stands 25 metres tall and 19 metres wide, and you can even go inside, where there are several small alcoves containing various figurines, origami cranes, and drawings by children. There is also a small altar to Kannon-sama.

The grounds are home to a flame from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, housed in a stone lantern, as well as stones from ground zero in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The stones are in memory of those who died during the bombings.

On the 18th day of each month (except for May 18), the temple celebrates Kannon Day by offering a one-day Zen school. For more information, please see the website.

Festival: May 18 (観音五月大祭)  and September (Yume Kannon Asia Festival)


え is for Enoden


Or, to use its full name, Enoshima Dentetsu.

Green, purple, blue — both sky and dark, occasionally hawking Coca Cola, with wooden floors if you’re lucky, the Enoden line is Kamakura’s cute little engine that can, ever so slowly, take you from Kamakura to Fujisawa.

Slow, yes — the trip from start to finish takes about 30 minutes, but the view is better than the alternative. On a clear day, Mt. Fuji rises high in the distance, and can be seen between roughly Shichirigahama Station and Kamakura Koko-Mae Station. So, not for long, but still, it’s worth it ambling pace (and cost — it is not a cheap train line).