Esteemed as the first Zen training monastery of its kind back in 1253, Kencho-ji Temple’s still reigns supreme, taking the number one spot in Kamakura’s five highest-ranked Zen temples.
This Chinese ranking, known as the Five-Mountain System (or “Gozan”), was introduced towards the end of the Kamakura Period and, in turn, Gozan temples flourished as artistic and literary centers for the nobility and samurai class.
While the founder was a powerful Kamakura shogunate, the first head priest at Kencho-ji Temple was Rankei Doryu, a Zen holy leader hailing from China, who instituted strict teachings upon his young novices.
After passing through the temple’s outer gate (“So-mon”), Kencho-ji’s towering entranceway, with its intricately carved wooden columns and sweeping curved roof, will stop you in your tracks. It’s known as the Enlightenment Gate.
The curvature of a temple’s roof is supposed to repel demons and spirits, but in fact, serves a more practical purpose: to repel rain and snow.
The Buddha Hall, while possessing a serene atmosphere, also has an interesting backstory, once serving as an execution ground dubbed “Hell Valley”. A large, weathered and wooden Jizo Bodhisattva statue stands in the hall’s center. Believed to redeem lost souls who have fallen into the realms of hell, this peacefully seated Jizo statue is said to guide these wandering spirits back to the gates of paradise.
Other highlights include the Zen Hojo Garden whose pond delineates the kanji character for heart (“kokoro”), as well as a grove of ancient 750-year-old juniper trees.