25th February: Kamakura – Tokeiji

Steps to Main Gate

Next we visited Tokeiji, Japan’s first and probably the World’s first women’s refuge, just across the road from Engaku-Ji at Kitakameruka.



Kakusan, wife of Hojo Tokimune, the eighth Kameruka era regent founded Engaku-Ji in 1285 as a Rinzai Zen nunnery.  Initially it was to pray for the soul of her dead husband but she also came to offer refuge to women who wanted to escape from their husband.


In Feudal Japan at the time,  a husband could divorce his wife at any time with a brief written declaration but the wife had no right for divorce no matter what happened.  However, if she were to abscond and make it to Tokeiji, then her husband could not claim her.  She could then stay at Tokeiji without having to become a nun.  After three years (later reduced to two), she could claim a divorce and Tokeiji could also force husbands to accept a divorce before that time.


Tokeiji fulfilled this role for over 600 years.  In 1873, the new Meiji government passed a law to allow divorce and established a family court.  Tokeiji no longer had a role as a refuge and after the last Head Nun died in 1902, it ceased to be a nunnery.  It then became part of Engaku-Ji with a male Head Priest.


Offerings in a cemetery beyond the Temple


The old and the new

25th February: Kamakura – Engaku-Ji

Stairs leading up to the Somon or Outer Gate of Engaku-Ji

After returning from Hokkaido, I had a free day in Tokyo.  This was mainly to allow a bit of leeway in case there were any problems with the return flight from Hokkaido.  Rather than spending it in Tokyo, though, I elected to take a short train trip south to Kamakura, the administrative capital of Japan from 1192 to 1333.  Brian, who was along on the Hokkaido tour, came with me.


Sanmon or Main Gate, looking through to the Butsuden, or Main Hall

First stop was Engaku-Ji, a Zen Buddhist temple very close to the Kitakamakura railway station.  The temple was founded in 1282 to salve the souls of those lost during the wars against the Mongols, both Mongols and Japanese.

The Mongols under Kublai Khan attempted to invade in 1274 and in 1281.  In both times, they attempted a landing in Kyushu, close to Korea.  The first time, they were initially successful in a land battle but withdrew to their ships when the weather worsened and most of the ships were then lost in a typhoon.  The second time, they appeared in even greater numbers but the shore they were attacking had been fortified and they were thrown back.  Then another typhoon arose and sunk most of the Mongol fleet.  This was made worse because they had tried to economise and most of their fleet were river boats rather than ocean-going ships. As well as representing a fortuitous salvation for the Japanese, this was the high point of Kublai Khan’s territorial ambitions.  (Typhoon = kamikaze = divine wind).


Buddha and lanterns


Boatsu (or Bodhisattva) seated on Lotus Leaf



The Buddha (or is it a Boatsu?), Boatsu and Dragon above are in the Butsuden or Main Hall.  The head part of the Boatsu is original, dating from the early 14th century; lower parts were restored in 1625.  The Boatsu itself is 2.6 metres high, seated.  Much of the gold leaf is gone but it is not deemed appropriate to restore it.  The dragon is on the ceiling, painted in the early 20th century.  The building itself was recreated to the original design after the previous one became severely damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.  Most of the complex has been rebuilt at one time or another after damage from fire or earthquake.

Sanmon or Main Gate from the other side


Dai-Hojo Gateway

The Sanmon was rebuilt in 1783 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of the founding priest Mugaku-Sogen.  The gateway just above is a side entrance to the Dai-Hojo or Living Quarters for the Chief Priest.


Kannon statues at Dai-Hojo


Kannon engraving at Dai-Hojo


Kannon engraving at Dai-Hojo

There are many statues and engravings of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, in the courtyard of the Dai-Hojo.  Any of the images will look better if you click on them to see them larger on a dark background but that particularly applies to the two engravings above.


Dai-Hojo altar


Ancient tree

The tree is in the courtyard beside the Kannon statues.  If I had been able dial in the weather, I would have had the tree in heavy fog and either covered in snow (unlikely here) or in spring or autumn.



Myokochi means Pond of Sacred Fragrance.  It was designed by the founding priest though remodeled in 2001 and probably quite different from the original.  The building behind is the actual residence of the current Chief Priest.


Entrance to Shariden


Entrance to Shariden (further in)

This is the entrance to Shariden, the centrepiece of the entire Temple.  It is the oldest building in the Temple and the only building in the Temple designated as a National Treasure, partly as the oldest Chinese-style building in Japan.  Limited access is available on two days each year only.

The original building, which no longer exists, was built in 1285 but destroyed by fire in 1563.  This building was built in the early 15th century as the main hall of a nunnery but fell into decay after the Head Nun was abducted by local warlords in a battle in 1556.  Some decades later, the Temple itself took over the building and restored it.


Blossoms and Mural

The blossoms and mural are in the entrance hall of a sub-temple, further on from Shariden.  This view was only available from a distance.  I know where the building is but can’t tell you of its name or its history.  There are seventeen subtemples in the complex and there have been as many as forty-two.

27th January: Kyoto – Ryoanji

On the way back from Kinkaku-Ji, I visited Ryoan-Ji, a Zen Temple mainly famed for its dry rock garden.

From left to right: Stairs up to the gate to the temple, taken from the road; a very old tree in the lower garden with a supporting structure; a gate inside the temple complex to a garden closed to the public

Lower garden with ducks.

The garden and pond dates back to the 12th century. The red structure you can see through the trees is a Shinto gate associated with a shrine dedicated to Benten, a goddess of luck.

The overall site was a Fujiwara estate during the Heian era (794-1185), in other words, the era of Classical Japan when the capital moved from Nara to Heian-kyo (later Kyoto). The Fujiwara were the dominant administrative family of the time and female members often married Emperors.

Above, on the left, the bamboo pipe and ladle are for ritual purification. On the right, is a group of stones from Ryoanji's rock garden.

You can see variations of the bamboo pipe and ladle on the left at many temples. Sometimes they are only for cleansing of the hands and sometimes for drinking the water.

Ryoanji zen rock garden

The Ryoanji zen rock garden, one of the most abstract of zen rock gardens, was constructed in the late fifteenth century. It is designed to be viewed from a long verandah that we are at one end of. There are fifteen stones and it is not possible to see any more than fourteen from any position along the verandah. It was designed this way because fifteen is said to be a perfect number and the garden demonstrates that perfection is not possible.

GPS location (green arrow).

Lower pond and garden

Returning from the rock garden, here we are again at the lower pond and garden. I presume the building is part of the Shinto shrine (access was not possible).

Suburban train at level crossing

Walking back to my lodgings, I had to stop at a small level crossing for this train. This is a suburban line by a private railway (not Japan Rail). Notice how close the train runs to the houses and the car parked on the other side of the tracks gives you an inkling of how scarce and tight parking places can be in Japan.

27th to 29th January: Kyoto – Shunko-In and Myoshin-Ji

While in Kyoto I stayed in the zen temple Shunko-In in the Myoshin-Ji complex.


I started my first day in Japan with a Zen meditation session.  There were spaces for about twenty people but there was just me and the Abbot.  I was facing a view of the zen garden while fine snow swirled down outside the window.  Perhaps some things are not meant to be captured in a photograph.

Part of a sliding panel in Shunko-In temple by Egaku Kano, dating to the 17th century

I experienced meditation some decades ago, mainly as a consequence of living rather than  as an organised activity, and I had also read about Zen.  Zen is not so much a faith as a way of living.  The meditation is not as formal as in some other forms of Buddhism, rather a simple way to free your mind from thoughts to assist you to experience directly and to appreciate the pervasive nature of change.  Though I didn’t encounter them here, Rinzai Zen also specialises in koan or enigmatic aphorisms that challenge rational thinking as part of the process to self-knowledge.

A corner of the zen garden at Shunko-In

The Abbot mentioned two aspects of Zen that I either was not aware of or had forgotten.  One is that Buddha is not held to be a God and so all statues of Buddha are small.  Another is that there is no belief in reincarnation.

Another interesting thing he said is that people generally think that the lines in the sand or gravel are there to look pretty whereas their primary purpose is as a form of meditation for the person who creates them.  You have to have your mind in the right space to be able to draw them regularly and coherently.

Entrance to a temple in the Myoshin-Ji complex, showing a nice contrast between the old and the new.

GPS location (green arrow).

Temple bell, door and roof at Myoshin-Ji Complex

The courtyard to a Zen Buddhist Temple in the Myoshin-Ji complex

Europeans in Medieval Japan

The Portuguese brought Christianity to Japan in 1549 and the Spanish followed on soon after.  After 50 or 60 years there were around 200,000 adherents including some in the highest ranks of daimyo (feudal lords).  However, the Shoguns came to realise that the Christians pledged allegiance to their God as a higher allegiance than to the Emperor and so they were ruthlessly suppressed and many executed.  After 1637 those few who were left were in hiding.  The centre of covert Christianity was in the southern island of Kyushu and when the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, the remains of a cathedral featured amongst the ruins.  Less than 1% of Japanese are Christian today.

Details of a Christian bell in the Shunko-In temple, dating from 1577. The Abbot's father hid it during World War 2 to prevent it being melted down for munitions.

In 1600, an Englishmen called William Adams  arrived in Japan on a Dutch ship with a few surviving crew members, all starving and scurvy-ridden.  After a few months, Adams established a close relationship with Tokugawa Ieyasu, notwithstanding initial pleas by the Portuguese for Adams’ execution.  Ieyasu was Regent at the time and soon to become the first Tokugawa Shogun.  Adams became a special advisor to Ieyasu on Western technology and trade, built him a Western ship and was later made a feudal lord.  Due to his influence, both the Dutch and the British received trading rights though the British withdrew after 10 years because they brought the wrong goods and were unable to make a profit.  After the expulsion of the Spanish and the Portuguese until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Dutch maintained the sole European trading outpost from an island in Nagasaki harbour.