Historical Overview

MainhallThe roots of the Temple stretch back to the mid-eighth century. A great priest in Kyoto by the name of Gyoki (668-749), who was famous for his philanthropic activities and well known as a Buddha-statue sculptor, was travelling here at a time when the village was infected by an epidemic. Very concerned about the epidemic, Emperor Shomu {sho-moo} (701-756) instructed Priest Gyoki to built a small temple here to exorcise the evil spirit and pray to god that the sick people get well quickly. Emperor Shomu was an enthusiastic missionary of Buddhism and founded the world-famous Todaiji in Nara.

Priest Gyoki was really energetic and there are more than 1,200 temples in Japan, which were more or less associated with him. For the outstanding virtue, he was conferred the title of Daibosatsu, or the Great Bodhisattva by the emperor. As a matter of fact, Priest Gyoki was a promoter of temple construction and is said to have erected as many as 49, including Todaiji.

The Temple will perhaps remind many Japanese of Yoshitsune Minamoto (1159-1189), half brother of Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of Kamakura Shogunate. Yoshitsune was a younger brother of Yoritomo by a different mother. At the time of the battle fought by Yoritomo against the Taira Clan, Yoshitsune rendered distinguished services as a chief commander of the Minamoto forces driving the Taira troops way down to the western end of the Honshu Island. There are plenty of heroic episodes in connection with his performances, many of which were dramatized in Noh and kabuki plays. Most famous among them may be the Noh play Ataka and its Kabuki version Kanjincho. Because of his tragic fate, Yoshitsune has long been sympathized by many Japanese.

Gate to TempleOne of Yoshitsune's misfortune occurred right at the Temple in 1185. After winning a landslide victory over the Taira Clan, he tried to triumphantly return to Kamakura from Kyoto bringing important POWs of the Taira. When he reached here at Koshigoe village, however, Yoritomo refused to meet him. Koshigoe was then the nearest post-town to Kamakura in the ancient high-road spanning 480 kilometers between Kamakura and Kyoto. Yoritomo ordered him not to come in beyond Koshigoe. One of the main reasons was that Yoshitsune had gone too far into the imperial court, coming into friendly terms particularly with Retired Emperor Goshirakawa (1127-1192), who held real powers in the court, to the extent that Yoritomo could no longer tolerate. In fact, Yoshitsune was granted one of the highest honors from the Retired Emperor without getting Yoritomo's approval in advance. The honor entitled him to be treated like a court noble in Kyoto. His behavior must have seemed disloyal to Yoritomo.

Yoshitsune wrote the famous letter called Koshigoe-Jo, or a letter written in Koshigoe, addressed to Yoritomo and appealed how loyal he had been to Yoritomo, how he contributed to the victory over the Taira Clan and what a pivotal role he had played in keeping Kamakura secure. However, Yoritomo did not forgive him. Yoritomo had to demonstrate his firm intention to punish whoever, be it his brother or children, did not follow his order, or broke the samurai code. Yoshitsune could not help but give up seeing his elder brother, and returned to Kyoto in grief, where he harbored antipathy against Yoshitsune made up his mind in the end to fight against his merciless brother.

Knowing Yoshitsune's attempt, Yoritomo ordered his men to capture Yoshitsune and kill him. Yoshitsune and his suite turned fugitives from then on and narrowly eluded Yoritomo's pursuers. Nowhere else to go, they went up to Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture, falling back on his former patron Fujiwara Clan, where he had been under their custody earlier for six years in his boyhood. However, the former chief of Fujiwara had already been dead and the new head was no longer helpful to Yoshitsune for fear that protecting Yoshitsune might provoke Yoritomo's hostility. Yoshitsune's whereabouts was soon known to Yoritomo. Driven into a corner, Yoshitsune was finally forced to kill himself together with all his retainers. He was only 30 years old.

To certify Yoshitsune was really killed, Fujiwara's samurai brought Yoshitsune's decapitated head preserved in a liquor tub to Kamakura. Identification of his head took place right here at Koshigoe in summer of 1189. As it had been about six weeks since the decapitation, Yoshitsune's head was decomposed and barely identifiable. From this fact, legend has it that it was dummy's head and the real Yoshitsune escaped to Hokkaido and then to mainland China becoming Genghis Khan (1162?-1227).

Main Hall

The main object of worship is a standing statue of Yakushi Nyorai (Bhaisajya-guru in Sanskrit), or Bhaisajyaguru in Skt., enthroned on the altar in the recess. Though it seems rather new as repaired recently, the original one was fashioned during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333).

In the right and left recesses are several statues including the following:

Jizo Bosatsu, or Ksitigarbha-bodhisattva in Skt.,
Dainichi Nyorai, or Mahavairocana in Skt.,
Amida Nyorai, or Amitabha in Skt.,
Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Sect

In the center of the front altar is a gilded miniature taho-to , often seen at Shingon Sect temples but rarely seen in Kamakura. Taho-to is a two-story building, the ground floor with square structure and the second floor with round one, in which two Nyorai are enshrined, namely Shaka and Taho (Prabhutaratna in Skt.). Before the Meiji Imperial Restoration of 1868, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine had a giant taho-to building in its precincts as it was a huge complex of Buddhism and Shinto.

The main hall consists of three compartments. Each is partitioned by sliding doors, which are acclaimed for the paintings (Kamakura wood-carving) depicting the life of Yoshitsune. Those who are familiar with his life may be interested in them. There are 32 doors all together, and 8 crucial scenes are drawn on them.

The rear room of the left compartment is for the mortuary tablets of the parishioners. The ceiling are coffered and each grid is made of Kamakura Bori, or wood-curving totalling 48 pieces with 6 by 8 grid-spaces. Mostly flowers are engraved.

The Temple keeps some treasures related to Yoshitsune. One of them is a letter draft of Koshigoe-Jo, which was, according to the Temple, written by Benkei Musashibo (?-1189), the devoted and Herculean retainer of Yoshitsune with martial skill. Legend asserts that when Benkei was writing the letter, he was disturbed by noisy chirping of grasshoppers. He yelled in a voice of thunder to make them stop chirping. Not has chirping of grasshoppers since been heard of in the Temple. The draft is on display in the Temple's office, not real one but a copy of actual size.

From the left-side entrance, visitors can go into the main hall with some donations. The ceilings of the main hall are coffered and in each grid, there appears a family crest. The Temple lends a 40 by 40 centimeters space to each parishioner on request for 40,000 yen and let them post their family crests.

Other monuments around the main hall

  1. A pond, from which Benkei scooped up water into an ink-stone to write the Koshigoe-Jo letter. Benkei used to be a priest and priests were usually good calligraphers.
  2. A stone, on which the priest Benkei sit. (The photo above.)
  3. A well: Yoshitsune used to wash his hands with its water.

Kanjincho in a Celebrated Kabuki Play

Referring to Yoshitsune and Benkei, a famous kabuki play "Kanjincho" may cross our mind, one of the most famous number in its repertories, and can perhaps be listed on top of the most popular 18 pieces. Kanjincho is literally a hand scroll of subscription lists, whereby priests collect donations for building temples, and record subscribers. In the list, a prospectus is written. The play depicts the best known scene, in which Yoshitsune and his group are on the run, chased after by Yoritomo, from Kyoto to Hiraizumi to seek refuge. Yoritomo on the other hand set up a dragnet at every barrier station nationwide. At Ataka in Ishikawa Prefecture, the group tried to pass the station in disguise of a band of itinerant priests. They were almost successful, but the last follower who was Yoshitsune did not look like a real priest to the Station Chief Togashi as he was hiding his face under a hat. Togashi suspected he might be Yoshitsune and told them to hold on one moment. The band was headed by Benkei, the single-mindedly loyal follower of Yoshitsune. Togashi said to him, "If you are a real priest, you must have a Kanjincho," and asked Benkei to read the prospectus. Since Benkei was a former priest, he was able to recite the words of prospectus, and read them smoothly and calmly to the effect that they were traveling around the country in search of alms for the reconstruction of the Todaiji. After reading, he stepped close to Yoshitsune and began to beat him with a stick, saying, "Damn fool. You are a priest, aren't you?" Togashi was not fooled and almost certain that the last retainer was Yoshitsune. Moved by Benkei's behavior, however, he permitted them to go through the barrier. Later, Benkei knelt on the ground before Yoshitsune and deeply apologized in tears for what an unfaithful things he has done against his boss.