February 27, 2018

Benzaiten & the Fox

Found in the ever-historic Kamakura, the neighboring Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine & Sasuke Inari Shrine are some of the area's best hidden gems.

A fox statue at Kamakura's Sasuke Inari Shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture

As you may have gleaned from the headline, today we’ll be journeying back to one of my all time favorite spots in Japan, Kamakura. I’ve traversed many of Japan’s diverse prefectures but few places have managed to so capture my heart. Kamakura’s close proximity to Tokyo is undoubtedly a major factor for my repeat visits yet this area has more than enough to lure wanderlusts like myself to return again and again. From the island of Enoshima to Kamakura’s ancient shrines and sacred temples, the locality alone is easily sufficient to keep one eagerly entertained for days.

Despite the wealth of attractions within the Kamakura area, only a few are well known to foreign visitors. For this reason, Kamakura tends to be considered as only a day trip destination by most tourists. This is a real shame as Kamakura was once the military capital of Japan from 1185–1333. Hence, Kamakura is the keeper of historical pasts and stories that parallel the ancient chronicles of Kyoto and Nara.

On that note, I’d like to introduce two neighboring hidden gems within Kamakura. The first, Sasuke Inari Shrine, is an experience similar to Kyoto’s much larger Fushimi Inari Shrine. The second, a Shinto and Buddhism hybrid that stands as one of a kind, is Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine or Zeniarai Benten for short. Note that the latter honors the goddess Benzaiten and allegedly has the power to double the money you donate to the shrine — but more on that later.

Getting to Seaside Kamakura

The sign for Kamakura Station in Kanagawa Prefecture

For starters, you’ll need to make your way to the Kamakura area. This can easily be done by hopping on the JR Shonan Shinjuku Line or the JR Yokosuka Line. To determine which works better for you, refer to Hyperdia or a similar service. The entire trip from central Tokyo should take you just under an hour. Note that many people use these train lines to commute to and from work so try to avoid weekday peak travel times.

Once you’re in Kamakura, you’re going to want to head out of the station’s North Exit. From there, continue heading straight. Eventually on your right hand side, you’ll come across an extremely posh Starbucks (which by the way happens to be one of my favorite places to write). After passing by it, the road will duck under a tunnel in the mountain. Just put one foot in front of the other and continue to stay the course.

A vending machine in Kamakura where you need to turn to reach Sasuke Inari Shrine and Zeniari Benten Shrine

After passing through the tunnel, you’ll want to continue heading straight until you encounter the sign pictured above. From here, make a hard right onto a side road. Soon thereafter you’ll come to the spot where you need to turn for Sasuke Inari Shrine. The shrine’s entrance can be an easy miss so just let this Google Map guide you. I found cellular service to be spotty in this area so be sure to make a screenshot backup just in case.

Kamakura’s Sasuke Inari Shrine

A series of torii gates at Kamakura’s Sasuke Inari Shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture

Sasuke Inari Shrine is one of the best kept secrets in Kamakura. Though much smaller than Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Sasuke Inari Shrine faithfully replicates the same “endless torii gate” experience that makes the parent shrine a perennial favorite. What’s more, Sasuke Inari Shrine is also home to thousands of little white fox statues. You’ll find these carnivores scattered throughout the shrine’s grounds. Many statues are tucked into small narrow crevices so be sure to keep your eyes peeled while you explore.

No doubt, Sasuke Inari Shrine is a visual wonder to behold. Besides its majestic presence, the shrine also lays claim to an important historical legacy as well. Supposedly, Sasuke Inari Shrine was created by Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, the man responsible for the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate in 1192. Legend recounts that while in exile in Izu, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo was visited in a dream by an old gentleman from a hidden village in Kamakura. Alternative versions of this saga replace the aging man in Minamoto-no-Yoritomo’s dream with Inari’s fox messengers.

A pair of old fox statues at Kamakura’s Sasuke Inari Shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture

Anyway, regardless of the version, the guest who appears counsels Minamoto-no-Yoritomo on the proper timing to battle his enemies, the fearsome Taira clan. After overthrowing his rivals and becoming shogun, it is said that Minamoto-no-Yoritomo erected Sasuke Inari Shrine in gratitude to the advisor who appeared in his fateful dream. While the current buildings are not original, this shrine clearly has roots dating way back to the rise of the Kamakura shogunate.

But what’s this business about a hidden village? Well, according to a Japanese historian, in times gone by, there once was a small settling nearby where the shrine now stands. Historical records hint that this band of people were predecessors to one of the many schools of ninja. The remoteness of the location made it easily defensible and provided the necessary seclusion required to conduct their stealthy work without detection.

As you might imagine, there is little documentation remaining regarding the hidden village. After all, the village didn’t exist as far as the official records are concerned. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that the covert operations emanating from the small obfuscated hamlet were instrumental to the consolidation of power by the Kamakura shogunate. Now, how cool is that!

Kamakura’s Zeniarai Benten

Laddles for washing money at Kamakura’s Zeniarai Benten Shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture

Are you a thirsty venture capitalist who’s looking to double his or her money? Then I have just the place for you! The waters of Kamakura’s Zeniarai Benten are said to have the ability to multiply the value of any money washed in its mysterious waters. Supposedly, this tradition of cleansing coins at the shrine’s springs date all the way back to 1257 when Hojo Tokiyori initiated the practice. During the Edo period (1603–1868), Zeniarai Benten was considered one of the five famous springs of Kamakura and was noted for its high quality water (which, by the way, are said to flow from the aforementioned hidden village).

To reach Zeniarai Benten from Sasuke Inari Shrine, all you’ll need to do is continue a little further down the street. Soon thereafter, you’ll find the complex at the top of a very steep hill (here’s a Google Map just in case). If you happen to be visiting during the blisteringly hot and humid summer months, expect to sweat profusely while making the short but grueling climb. Unfortunately there’s little recourse other than to just muster your strength and struggle your way up the hill.

Zeniarai Benten is partly dedicated to the Buddhist deity Benzaiten, the goddess of everything that flows (including knowledge). Why do I keep saying partially though? Well here is where it gets complicated. You see, as outlined in this piece about the differences between shrines and temples, Buddhism and Shinto only recently became separate religions in 1886. Because of this, one of the historical byproducts is that Benzaiten and the Shinto deity Ugafukujin coalesced into a single syncretic being.

The entrance to Kamakura’s Zeniarai Benten Shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture

In addition to enshrining one of the few remaining examples of a Buddhist-Shinto amalgam, Zeniarai Benten also has several other unusual features going on. For starters, the shrine is completely surrounded by towering rock walls that conceal its presence. The inner areas can only be reached by passing through a narrow rock tunnel or by way of an overgrown hiking path. Today, only the stone underpass is used seeing it is the more convenient of the two paths. Historically speaking, only the trail (which seems to have passed through the hidden village) could be used to reach the compound.

Much like other establishments that honor both Shinto and Buddhist traditions, Zeniarai Benten is more of a collection of halls than a single, massive temple. The shrine’s most visited attraction however is the Oku-gu. Strangely enough, in a rare break with tradition, the Oku-gu is not a building, but yet a cave. Within its depths, you’ll find the spring that has the power to double your money. You’ll want to rent a sieve from the nearby Zeniarai Benten office (for a small fee) that you’ll use to dip your cash in the cave’s sacred waters.

There’s Still More to Kamakura

The giant lantern that hangs outside of Kamakura’s Hase-dera temple complex

As I mentioned in the introduction, both hidden gems make for convenient additions to a Great Buddha visit. While this may seem like a silly claim when first looking at a map, know that there’s actually a backstreet shortcut that you can take. To find it, backtrack as if you were returning to Kamakura Station then, make your way to this point. From there on out it’s a straight shot to Kotoku-in where you’ll discover the Great Buddha sitting in wait.

While you’re in the area, why not also check out the charming Hase-dera temple complex (pictured above)? Though not as “off the beaten path” as Sasuke Inari Shrine and Zeniarai Benten, Hase-dera is a lot less swamped with tour groups than the Great Buddha. Alternatively (or additionally), the Yuigahama Beach is just a few more minutes away on foot. Personally speaking, I find a bit of quiet contemplation by Kamakura’s shores to be the best way to end a long day of exploration.

Until next time travelers…