Favourite Places in Japan: Zeniarai Benten in Kamakura

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Continuing with my posts about my favourite places in Japan, I’m going to write a bit about another – Zeniarai Benten (銭洗弁天) in Kamakura. I’ve only ever been there twice (I think) – once in 1990 and then again in 1993, so I’m due another visit (when I will hopefully I will be able to get some higher quality photos than the ones I have at the moment).

Many tourists travel to Kamakura, once a capital of Japan, and now famed for its 65 temples and 19 shrines.  However, most visit only a handful of these, and tend to go to the more well known, such as Engakuji, Tsurugaoka Hanchimangu, and the Daibutsu (‘Great Buddha’).  In keeping to the well-worn tracks of the many Japanese and foreigners, however, people miss some of the more enchanting sites and the true feeling of Kamakura.  I have been to Kamakura several times, and although I too have visited the most popular sites (though not the Daibutsu yet), it is a smaller shrine in the hills to the north west of Kamakura station, that I believe one gets the best feeling of serenity and beauty.

Zenarai-benten is a small shrine dedicated to Benten, a goddess of good fortune.  The belief is that if you wash your coins here your wealth will be increased, particularly if the Snake (one of the Oriental signs of the zodiac) is in the ascendant. This is due to the story of a dream Minamoto Yoritomo (who established his military government in Kamakura in 1192) had on ‘Mi-no-hi’ (‘Day of the Snake’), where he was informed that if one drew water at the shrine and then prayed to the gods, the world would prosper peacefully.  Apparently it does work for some people, as the torii leading up to the shrine were donated by those who were graced with extra fortune.  However, as yet I have not been graced by such good fortune, but this has not ever deterred me from returning whenever I visit Kamakura.

I first visited Zenarai-benten on my second trip to Kamakura.  My previous visit to Kamakura was dominated by the major shrines and temples.  However, the second time I went with a Japanese family who know Kamakura very well.  Having spent an enjoyable morning in the eastern part of Kamakura, we began to walk into the hills from the west side of Kamakura station.  As we winded our way through some of the back streets of the city and up the side of a hill, I remember thinking that at the end of this trek would probably be the most magnificent shrine in Kamakura, that my previous guide had not informed of.

Half way up the hill we stopped and I was told that we had arrived.  I looked around and saw darkness.  The Kamakura trees leaning over the road, combined with a little rain, made the whole area very dull.  Then I noticed a small tunnel and a board.  I had seen many similar boards at other sites around Kamakura and so realised that my friends were almost certainly serious.  I read the notice that gave details about the shrine, shrugged my shoulders (as the notice hardly proclaimed an existence of one of the wonders of the world), and entered the small tunnel.

As I walked out of the tunnel, the sun began to shine and the walls of the hill pulled away to make a bowl shape in amongst the vegetation.  I just stopped in absolute amazement.  It may not be as overwhelming as Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, but it had a character all of its own, a certain ‘natural character’ that is more powerful than anything man-made.  Of course, there are man-made features in this bowl, including a small tea house and souvenir shop, but even they do not seem as obvious and as imposing as the concrete blocks that surround so many of the other tourist sites around the world.

Having taken in the beauty for a while, my friends led me over to the shrine to wash my money.  Although I do not usually tend to go in for making offerings or worshipping gods that I do not truly believe in, I was so overcome by the beauty of Zenarai-benten that I felt it was only right to worship and give thanks to who ever or what ever made the Earth so beautiful.  I also had the idea of receiving greater wealth explained to me by friends, since there was no real information given about this.  So I went and picked up one of the small bowls and placed some of my coins in it, covered them in the special water, and worshipped the gods.

Washing my money in 1990

As we walked through the tunnel back into the real world, it became darker again and the drizzle seemed to return.  Having travelled to many cities and prefectures in Japan, it was wonderful to find somewhere so tranquil and so beautiful, and yet free from the crowds that one usually associates with tourism in Japan.  For those who also enjoy the tranquillity and beauty of Japan, but like to get away from the masses now again (especially if you are spending much time in the Kanto area), I would recommend going through the woods back to Kita-Kamakura station (where most people start their visit to Kamakura), rather than go back down the hill to Kamakura Station.

I took this path after taking my parents to see Zenarai-benten.  The path took us through woodland and away from any feeling that we were close to a city or a major metropolitan area.  After a peaceful stroll away from people, only being disturbed by the sounds of wildlife, we were lead back towards Kita-Kamakura station close to the shrines of Tokeiji and Jochiji.

For those who like to get away from it all, but still get to see some of Japan’s historical past, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to Zenarai-benten and following the meandering path through the woods back to Kita-Kamakura.

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