Kenchō-ji (建長寺) is a Rinzai Zen temple in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, which ranks first among Kamakura’s so-called Five Great Zen Temples (the Kamakura Gozan) and is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan.
These temples were at the top of the Five Mountain System, a network of Zen temples started by the Hōjō Regents.
Still very large, it originally had a full shichidō garan and 49 subtemples.
Kamakura Regent Hōjō Tokiyori was the temple’s main patron during its early years.
The sponsorship was spiritual (he was close to a Zen master himself) as well as political: the Kamakura Gozan, organization of which this temple was head, had an important role in the shogunate’s organization.
The system, to which the Ashikaga added a series of five temples in Kyoto called the Kyoto Gozan, was adopted to promote Zen in Japan however, there as it had already happened in China, it was soon controlled and used by the country’s ruling classes for their own administrative and political ends.
The Gozan system allowed the temples at the top to function as de facto ministries, using their nationwide network of temples for the distribution of government laws and norms, and for the monitoring of local conditions for their military superiors.
The Hōjō first, and the Ashikaga later were therefore able to disguise their power under a religious mask, while monks and priests worked for the government as translators, diplomats and advisers.
Buildings and points of interest
Kenchō-ji originally consisted of a shichidō garan with 49 subtemples, but most of these were lost in fires in the 14th and 15th centuries.
It still is a classic example of a Zen garan with its buildings aligned north to south.
The complex currently consists of ten subtemples.
Its most important structures include (in order from the first gate):
Near the end of the temple’s garden, over a hill stands the Hansōbō, the temple’s large tutelary Shinto shrine.
The enshrined spirit is the Hansōbō Daigongen.
The gongen was originally the tutelary spirit (chinju (鎮守/鎮主)) of Hōkō-ji in Shizuoka and was brought here in 1890 by Aozora Kandō.
The statues on the stairs leading to the shrine represent Tengu, entities similar to goblins which accompany the gongen.
Some of the creatures have wings and a beak: they are a type of tengu called Karasu-tengu (crow tengu) because of the way they look.
On a clear day, from the shrine one can see Mount Fuji to the west, and Sagami bay and Izu Ōshima to the south.
The stones in the garden are full of names: they are those of the faithful who donated to the temple, and which belong to over 100 different religious organizations.
This area used to be the temple’s Inner Sanctuary, which still stands among the trees at the very top of the hill and which can be reached going up the steep stairs that begin on the right of the shrine, in front of the Jizō-dō.
Next to the sanctuary there’s an observation deck from which, on clear days, are visible Kamakura, Yuigahama and Mount Fuji.
Sanmon Kajiwara Segaki-e
On the 15th of July (Obon, or the festival of the dead) Kenchō-ji celebrates the famous Sanmon Kajiwara Segaki-e (三門梶原施餓鬼会) funerary ceremony.
The normal funeral rites take place early in the morning under the Sanmon gate.
Only at Kenchō-ji, they are later repeated expressly for the soul of Kajiwara Kagetoki, a Kamakura period samurai who died during the political turmoil that followed the death of Minamoto no Sanetomo.