Kamakura’s Kencho-ji | Exploring the Heights of Zen Buddhism

A lantern in front of a massive gate at Kamakura's Kencho-ji temple complex

It’s no secret that I am a big fan of the coastal town of Kamakura. Way back when I was getting started with sourcing content, the area was a regular haunt for me. Since then, I’ve watched the area sprout into a popular attraction with a fair bit of clout overseas. Seeing Kamakura has become rather mainstream though, it breaks my heart when people limit themselves only to the well known spots. Tragically, people view this area of Japan (which used to be the country’s military capital for around two-hundred years by the way), as little more than a mere day trip from Tokyo. Little do they know how much they are missing out on by only visiting the popular shrine Tsurugaoka Hachimangu and the Great Kamakura Buddha at Kotoku-in.

On that note, in today’s article, know that we’ll be taking a look at a somewhat lesser known allure in Kamakura. Known as Kencho-ji, this historic Buddhist temple is by no means obscure (at least not when compared to some of the other remote spots that I patron on this blog). In fact, Kencho-ji is known to be one of the five great Zen centers in Kamakura. What’s more, this sprawling complex is regularly considered to occupy the top tier of this already exclusive list. Erected early in the Kamakura period (1185–1333), Kencho-ji has a longer historical legacy than most modern nations. These days Kencho-ji a shadow of its former self; nevertheless, the temple still has many structures to explore.

Why is this eminently important temple not more well known to foreign tourists? Honestly, it’s hard to say. While there are certainly a good number of non-Japanese visitors, it’s not like this pioneering enclave for Zen Buddhism has anything near the foot count of Asakusa’s Senso-ji. Though it’s a shot in the dark, I’d say that Kencho-ji’s relative obscurity is more than likely a consequence of its location. Whereas many of Kamakura’s notable attractions are nestled between Sagami Bay and the surrounding mountains, Kencho-ji can be found on the outskirts of the city up in said foothills. For this reason, the temple sits well removed from the popular tourist routes.

How to Get There

The JR Yokosuka Line bound for Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture

Speaking of logistics, let’s pause for a second to discuss Kencho-ji’s exact whereabouts. As previously mentioned, you’ll find this gargantuan temple complex in the hills of the Kamakura valley. The easiest way of accessing the complex is on foot via the sleepy Kita-Kamakura Station. Found one stop before the more commonly accessed Kamakura Station, this residential point of disembarking is easy to miss. Though the area has the facade of being a local neighborhood, Kita-Kamakura Station allows for great access to many of the region’s major Zen temples. Kencho-ji is of course chief among these.

The journey to Kita-Kamakura Station is thankfully quite eventful. If you’re coming from central Tokyo, all you need to do is hop on the JR Yokosuka Line and you’ll be there in under an hour. Alternatively, Kita-Kamakura Station is also serviced by the Shonan-Shinjuku Line. As always, refer to Jorudan or a similar service to calculate the best connections for you. Depending on where you’re coming from in Tokyo, which of these two train lines is faster can greatly change. Once you’re in Kita-Kamakura, Kencho-ji can be reached in approximately fifteen minutes on foot.

Note that admission to the Kencho-ji complex will run you 500 yen. While this fee runs a bit above the average, know that you can easily spend a few hours perusing the grounds. As such, it’s quite the fair price when you think about it in terms of activity costs per hour…

Kencho-ji’s Main Areas

Kencho-ji’s massive Sanmon gate in Kamakura

Kencho-ji sits at the bottom of a valley which extends deep into the forested hills behind the main areas. Upon entering the temple, you’ll first encounter Kencho-ji’s massive Sanmon gate. Built in 1754, legends claim this structure was financed with funds collected by a racoon dog who raised the capital by transforming himself into a monk. Allegedly, he did so to repay Kencho-ji’s attendants for their kindness; even today, the gate is often referred to as the Tanuki gate in homage to this tale. Wild animals aside though, passing under the Sanmon gate is said to alleviate any and all worldly attachments such as addictions.

Once visitors to Kencho-ji clear the Sanmon gate, they will soon find themselves with the temple’s bell to their right. This bell was cast nearly eight hundred years ago and is designated as a national treasure. To put that in perspective, during the 13th century, Europe was smack dab in the middle of the crusades and the Mongols were consolidating control over much of Asia. That’s f@$#ing old! Be sure to give this bell it’s damn due diligence and admire the masterpiece that has staunchly stood the test of time. Apparently, empires rise and fall but Buddhist temple bells endure.

An old Buddhist statue inside one of the many halls at Kamakura’s Kencho-ji

Anyway, past Kencho-ji’s bell, you’ll find a number of buildings that you can pop in. Many of these feature Buddhist statues of worship. As with most temples, photography is strictly prohibited. Please don’t be that tourist who breaks protocol for a cool selfie. I’ve outlined the reasons why temples ban photography in this article. The short version, for those who don’t have time to give it a read, is that you’re supposed to be put into the presence and humbled by the splendor of the effigy. So, with that said, here’s a list of what I suggest checking out at Kencho-ji…

  • The Buddha Hall
    Known as “Butsuden” in Japanese, here you’ll find a jaw dropping impression of the Bodhisattva Jizo. The building itself once to belong to Tokyo’s temple of Zojo-ji and was moved to Kamakura in 1647.
  • The Dharma Hall
    Supposedly this structure is the largest wooden temple building in all of Japan. It houses a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. I’ve also read many public ceremonies are held here.
  • The Karamon Gate
    This gate also formerly belonged to Tokyo’s temple of Zojo-ji and was moved to Kamakura along with the Buddha Hall noted above. The gate is covered with gold leaf and is quite the spectacle to behold!

Oh, before moving on, one thing I want to absolutely urge you to check out is the ceiling of the Dharma Hall. It’s painted with a lovely image of a guardian dragon. Somehow, the artists who made the image have created an optical illusion such that the creature’s watchful eyes follow you wherever you go. While I am not superstitious or anything, it might be wise to be on your best behavior while checking out this part of Kencho-ji. Just saying…

Other Nearby Attractions

A statue of a tengu up in the hills behind Kamakura’s Kencho-ji

In addition to the main areas of Kencho-ji itself, there are also a number of other treasures scattered about the hills behind the temple. While it’s a good ten minutes hike up some stairs, those who put in the effort will be rewarded with the chance to see Hansobo. This shrine was erected to protect Kencho-ji and is a great example of how Shinto and Buddhism were once syncretically intertwined. One peculiar feature to note about Hansobo is that the stairs leading up to the shrine are lined with a number of Tengu statues. These fearsome creatures are often said to be the protectors of ascetics.

While Hansobo has a killer view of Mt. Fuji, there’s an even better observation deck planted a bit further into the hills. You’ll need to brave a few more stairs but the stunning vistas that await you are more than worth the additional effort. Not only will you be treated to unobstructed views of Mt. Fuji, you’ll also be able to see the entirety of the Kencho-ji complex as well. While the hike up here is rather ruthless during the humid summer months, the trek is particularly pleasing in mid-autumn when the leaves are reaching their most vibrant hues.

Before ending, hiking enthusiasts should also make note that you can locate the start of the Tenen Hiking Trail around the observation deck. From here, it’s about an hour or so over to the semi-secluded Zen temple of Zuisen-ji. For all you outdoor enthusiasts with a bit of time to kill, I have heard the scenic hike trails through a wooded valley. Personally, I’ve yet to appreciate this adventure so let me know how it goes if you make the journey.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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