Myohon-ji: a city retreat
You have to wonder how some of these old temples support the sheer weight of their roofs. Myohon-ji is a perfect example. Its tile roof is massive as it slopes upward to the sky at an impressive angle. The architecture is both beautiful and curious. Apparently, none of the temples use metal fastenings of any sort. Instead, the giant wooden beams fit together with perfect craftsmanship, which allows these structures the flexibility needed to absorb the earthquakes without crumpling to the ground.
Often overlooked by the tourists, Myohon-ji has quickly become one of our favorite temples to visit. After you pass the first gate off the main road, notice the Hiki Gayatsu Kindergarten to your right. Those lucky kids are being schooled in a piece of history. Twice a day, the temple gate becomes the school’s point of arrivals and departures for neighborhood mothers who transport their children by bicycle. These heavy, electric mom bikes with front and rear child seats are the mini-vans of Kamakura.
Soon your sense of being in the city will fade away as you continue walking east towards the temple. There is a ramp to the right, but take the stone stairs for the best approach. At the top you will pass between two stone lanterns and see the red Niten-mon gate that was built in 1840 and houses two large wooden statues. These fierce looking figures are the guardians who protect the temple. In fact, they are just the first of many intricate wood carvings at Myohon-ji.
There is nothing to fear beyond this red gate, however. Myohon-ji is one of the most peaceful retreats in Kamakura. The box canyon that it inhabits is filled with old growth forest. The temple is surrounded by tall cedars that cast a cool shade even on the hottest days. You can walk the veranda of the temple and enjoy the carvings. We have seen people sitting up there with their dogs, enjoying a picnic lunch, or with an easel painting the landscape. Explore further and a short hiking trail leads to an upper cemetery. Tombs of the Hiki family can be found on the right hand side. Minamoto no Yoritomo was very close to the Hiki family and even entrusted them as guardians for his oldest son.
This is Nichiren territory. Myohon-ji is one of the oldest temples dedicated to the priest. Inside the temple is a wooden statue of Nichiren that dates to the 14th century. Outside in the courtyard you will see a large bronze statue of him that was erected in 2002. Nichiren first came to Kamakura in 1254 preaching a new form of Buddhism called the Lotus Sutra, which did not sit well with the other Buddhist priests in town who followed more traditional schools of thought. Nichiren was attacked and exiled from Kamakura several times, but he held tightly to his convictions, which remain today.
As you leave Myohon-ji, pass by the bell tower. At the end of the path and down the slippery steps, make sure to take the stone walkway to the right heading north. Up another flight of steps you will find Jakushido Temple, which seems more Shinto than Buddhist to us, but often the two are ambiguously intertwined. This cute little complex has its own bamboo grove and spring-fed pond.