Kenchoji, nestled in the hills north of Kamakura, is Japan’s oldest Zen training monastery. It was founded by Chinese Zen master Rankei Doryu (Lan-hsi Tao-lung) and constructed by the order of Emperor Gofukakusa, with construction finishing in 1253 (the fifth year of the Kencho era).
Just inside the outer gate, Somon, stands the impressive main gate, Sanmon. This gate was built in 1754 by the chief priest Bansetsu. Tradition has it that in order to repay the kindness of the Kenchoji priests, a tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) transformed itself into a monk to assist with the gate’s construction, and to this day the gate is also known as “Tanuki Mon”.
Along the pathway leading from Sanmon to the main hall, Butsuden, is a Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis) planted more than 750 years ago by Rankei Doryu.
Butsuden — Buddha Hall
Just past the great-grandfather juniper is the Butsuden, an Important Cultural Property. The building originally was a mausoleum belonging to the Shogunate, and was moved to its present location in 1647. The Butsuden houses a large wooden statue of Jizo Bosatsu (Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva) — a rarity for Zen temples — as well as other Buddhist statues.
Hatto — Dharma Hall
Continuing past the Butsuden, we come to the Hatto hall, the largest wooden Buddhist structure in eastern Japan. The ceiling of this hall for public ceremonies is adorned with a vast painting of a dragon, Unryu-zu, created in 2003 by Koizumi Junsaku to mark the 750th anniversary of Kenchoji.
Off to one side of the Hatto is the Karamon gate, another Important Cultural Property which, like the Hatto, was moved to its present location from Zozoji in Tokyo. As its name indicates, it displays the distinctive undulating bargeboard which became popular during the Heian period. Such gates were reserved for the use of the Shogun or for visits from the Emperor.