July 21, 2016

The Legend of Enoshima

Located near the former military capital of Kamakura, Enoshima is a great add-on to any itinerary. It has both fun and spiritual attractions.

A statue of a dragon at Enoshima's Ryuko-myo in Kanagawa Prefecture

Though very popular with the locals, the island of Enoshima and its neighboring quaint beach town are easy to miss. Overshadowed by alternatives like Kyoto or nearby Kamakura, the area is actually of great historical significance. While Enoshima is mostly known for its bustling beach culture now, the area was actually a very popular pilgrimage during the Edo period (1603–1868).

The beauty of the island has been captured by artists like the famous artist Hiroshige and the poet Basho. Central to the island allure is the tale of the goddess Benzaiten and the five-headed dragon Gozuryu. In this article we will be following the roots of this legend. After much exploration I have managed to narrow the entire journey down to a one-day excursion. Nevertheless, this itinerary leaves little room for dilly-dallying. If you’d rather enjoy the slower pace of life, I highly suggest completing the entire journey over the course of two days.

Ancient Myths & Enoshima’s Origins

The legend of the Enoshima Engi with Benzaiten and the dragon Gozuryu

In 1047, the Buddhist monk Kokei chronicled the dark history of Enoshima island and the surrounding area of Koshigoe. Collectively known as the Enoshima Engi, the work recounts local folklore about the origin of the island. The writings assert the prehistoric village of Koshigoe was plagued for a thousand years by the gigantic five-headed dragon Gozuryu. Today, Koshigoe is written with different characters yet the original “child-death-overcome” Kanji combination was thought to have come from the dragon’s appetite for small children.

The Enoshima Engi claims the area of Koshigoe was once racked by violent storms and relentless earthquakes. When the madness finally came to an end and the clouds cleared, a heavenly maiden descended from the skies. Just before she touched the surface of the water south of Koshigoe, a mysterious island arose from the depths which would serve as her home. If legends are to be believed, this island is in fact Enoshima and the residence of its maiden, the goddess Benzaiten, the patron goddess of water, eloquence, music and knowledge.

Continuing with the myth, the dragon is said to have been watching Benzaiten’s arrival. Upon laying eyes on her, the Gozuryu fell madly in love and immediately asked for her hand in marriage. However, Benzaiten was wise to the dragon’s evil ways telling him she would only consider his proposal if he vowed to help the people of Koshigoe. From that moment on, Gozuryu devoted himself to protecting the area he had once terrorized. Benzaiten eventually recognized Gozuryu’s good intentions and the area of Koshigoe prospered as it had never done before under their dual protection.

When Gozuryu’s time in this world finally came to an end, the dragon laid himself down near Fukasawa village (now located in modern day Kamakura). Legends declare Gozuryu’s body was so massive that his head stretched all the way to where the Ryuko-ji temple complex now stands (we’ll be heading there later). Folklore reports Gozuryu continues to protect the area; if you look closely at the shape of the hills between Kamakura and Enoshima you can make out the dragon’s shape.

Getting to the Shonan Area & Enoshima

Koshigoe Station near the island of Enoshima in Kanagawa Prefecture

There are about as many ways to get to Enoshima as there are to skin a cat. The best route always depends on where you’re coming. The fastest way will be to make your way to Katase-Enoshima Station from Shinjuku via the Shonan-Shinjuku Line and Odakyu Line. You could also take the Yokosuka Line to Ofuna Station and then enjoy the famous Shonan Monorail to Shonan-Enoshima Station. Just be sure to keep an eye out for the train fanatics who can always be found photographing the rail.

If you’re interested in fully pursuing the Enoshima Engi legend, I suggest starting your travels in Kamakura. The station can be reached via the aforementioned Yokosuka line from either Tokyo or Shinagawa Station. This route will allow you to take the charming little Enoden Line to present-day Koshigoe where you can begin the journey at its roots. Should you opt to follow my advice, be sure to keep the mythology of the area in mind as you make your way towards Enoshima.

Introducing the Isle of Enoshima

The island of Enoshima as seen from the Shichirigahama Beach in Kanagawa Prefecture

Finally, it’s time to make our way to Enoshima. The island is located about a kilometer off the coast and is connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge known as Benten-bashi or “the Bridge of Benzaiten.” You’ll need to duck under the main road and come up on the other side through a tunnel. Just be sure you’re on the right side as it is the only one with a pedestrian walkway. There are usually a decent number of people also heading to the island so just follow the crowd if you get lost.

Once you reach the island you’ll have two options to explore. Immediately on your left there will be a number of restaurants and a path that leads toward the island’s marina. If you’re hungry, feel free to grab a bite but I suggest waiting until you’re deeper on the island. There are some venues with killer views if you hold off until you reach the other side of Enoshima.

The marina is not of much significance to us right now so head straight and up the slight slope through the bronze torii gate. This street is known as Nakamise Street and it can often be quite crowded. The path is lined with a wide variety of small shops peddling all sorts of delectables. Keep your eyes out for an adorable little post office that is tasked with distributing mail to those who live on the island.

If you continue on Nakamise Street you will reach a vermilion torii gate. This is the start of Enoshima Shrine. On the left you’ll notice a ticket counter. Here they sell passes for the escalators installed on the island that will allow you to skip the stairs. It’s quite pricey at about 1,000 yen per person. If it’s not the middle of summer and deadly hot out I suggest you skip the pass and just take the stairs. You will not only burn some calories but also get to see more of the area.

Introducing Enoshima’s Three Shrines

A map of the attractions on the island of Enoshima in Kanagawa Prefecture

History claims the roots of Enoshima Shrine go back as far as 552. The shrine is of great importance to the Hojo clan which rose to power during the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Legend tells that Hojo Tokimasa, the first regent of the Kamakura shogunate, once visited the shrine to pray for prosperity and received a prophecy from a mysterious woman (likely Benzaiten). This mysterious being is said to have left behind three draconic scales which Hojo Tokimasa adopted for his family’s crest. When you see this mark throughout Enoshima and the surrounding area, know that it signifies the Hojo clan and its ties to the myth of Enoshima and the dragon.

According to historical documents, the original shrine was built on the backside of the island where the caves have been carved out by erosion. We will be venturing into their shadowy depths later on in this journey and we will visit the spot where the initial Enoshima Shrine stood. Today’s shrine is actually a collection of three smaller ones and shown on the above map. Individually known as Hetsuno-miya, Nakatsuno-miya, and Okutsuno-miya, these shrines are each typically visited in turn.

The First Two Shrines on Enoshima

A stone relief of Benzaiten and Gozuryu that was commissioned for the 1450 anniversary of Enoshima Shrine

The first shrine is Hetsuno-miya which can be reached by following the stairs up through the massive turret-like structure known as Zuishin-mon. The tower is said to be based on the mythological underwater Ryugu-jyo palace, the undersea fortress of the dragon god Ryujin. For a random bit of trivia, Katase-Enoshima Station is also said to be based on the motif of Ryugu-jyo. After passing under the Zuishin-mon, you’ll find a stone relief of Benzaiten and the dragon that was commissioned for the 1450 anniversary of Enoshima Shrine.

Continue upwards until you reach the Hetsuno-miya. Originally build in 1206 by the third shogun of the Kamakura government, Hetsuno-miya was rebuilt in 1976. There are many minor attractions surrounding this shrine so be sure to check out the following:

  • Purification Chinowa
    A grass wheel located on the right side of the shrine. Users who pass through are said to be purified. Read here to learn the proper procedures.
  • Benzaiten’s Honden
    Next to the shrine there is a special building dedicated to Benzaiten. Visitors can enter the shrine for a small fee of 150 yen.
  • An Odd Offertory
    Hetsuno-miya has a rare coin pouch shaped offertory box. Most Shinto shrines use a standard cubic shaped box so this interesting quirk is unique to Enoshima.
  • Dragon’s Pond
    As with the Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine in Kamakura, it is said that washing money and offering it to the goddess will double the amount donated. If you wish to give it a try, put your coins in the basket for washing then toss them into the offertory in the middle of the water.

After exploring all of Hatsuno-miya, follow the path at the back toward the next shrine. The road leads through some flower gardens and a small turtle pond. You can either take the stairs or ride the escalator up to Enoshima’s second shrine, Nakatsuno-miya.

Of the three shrines comprising Enoshima Shrine, Nakatsuno-miya is by far the most ostentatious. This brilliant shrine was originally built in 854 by the Buddhist monk, Ennin. The structure was rebuilt by the fifth Tokugawa shogun in 1689 and the again refurbished in the 1990’s. Historically, the shrine has had deep connections with the kabuki world; the two stone lanterns at the shrine’s entrance were donated by major theaters during the Edo period (1603–1868).

Exploring the Deeper Portions of Enoshima

A dragon statue sits on top of Enoshima’s Wadatsumino-miya in Kanagawa Prefecture

After leaving Nakatsu-miya the path leads up to the Cocking Gardens and the Sea Candle. If the weather is good the Sea Candle has a beautiful view of the Shonan area. Occasionally, when the skies are clear there’s also a stunning view of Mt. Fuji. Should you get an early start and have the time, I highly suggest popping in for a quick look.

Continuing on the path you will pass several shops selling sweets and souvenirs. Press on until you pass an old ryokan and your field of view opens to the Yama-no-Futatsu valley. Here you will see how Sagami Bay’s relentless waves have hacked away the mountainside. If you’re lucky you can also catch a hawk or two soaring aloft on the winds.

After admiring the work of Mother Nature, climb the remaining stairs and keep your eyes out for a small ice cream shop on the left hand side. They have a wide variety of unique flavors such a wasabi and Japanese mustard for the more adventurous. If you have been taking the stairs, as per my advice, you have permission to indulge in whatever wacky options you feel like trying. I personally like the shirasu (whitebait) one!

Once you’ve marveled over the variety of ice cream options, make your way down the path toward the final shine, Okuno-miya. The first thing you will notice is the ancient looking stone torii gate marking the shrine’s precincts. According to some historical records that chronicle the area’s past, the torii was actually donated to the shrine by the first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate in 1185.

There is little to distinguish the Okuno-miya shrine from the other’s we have encountered thus far. In bygone years, the goddess Benzaiten was enshrined here for the summer rather than in her normal home within the caves. Next to Okuno-miya you’ll find Wadatsumino-miya which is pictured above. Though this shrine to the dragon was only recently built in 1994, it is visually impressive and makes for a great photo. The small cave is generally open to the public during the day.

Another area to check out nearby is the Ryuren-no-kane or the Lover’s Bell of the Dragon. The bell was placed on the island in 1996 to honor the legendary myth of Benzaiten and Gozuryu. Similar to the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris, lovers who latch a padlock to the fence and ring the bell are said to be forever bound together much like the two deities in the legend

Venturing Into Enoshima’s Caves

The Enoshima Iwaya Caves on the backside of the island in Kanagawa Prefecture

At this point you might want to consider getting something to eat. If you follow the staircase down the backside of the island you will find several family run shops nestled among the cliff face. Many of these venues have balconies overlooking Sagami Bay and make for the perfect place to rest up for the second half of this epic journey. Again try the shirasu whitebait which is a local specialty!

After eating your fill we will be venturing toward the Enoshima Iwaya pictured above. Since ancient times these caves have held special significance and only recently have visitors dared to venture inside. Older residents who grew up in the area tell tales of how only the bravest of the brave would dare to venture near the caves and even then, no one would risk going inside.

The path will take you down a very steep staircase and open up to the backside of Enoshima. This area facing Sagami Bay is known Chigogafuchi. While the caves have been a holy location for centuries, Chigogafuchi actually rose from the sea during the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Chigogafuchi means “servant child in the temple abyss” and the name is derived from a tragedy involving two children from Kamakura who committed suicide here during the Edo period (1603–1868).

The Enoshima Iwaya Caves and the roots of the island’s myth can be found just past Chigogafuchi. It’s 500 yen to enter but the caves are totally worth it. Originally a place of spiritual training and enlightenment, they have long remained an attraction and have been featured in Hiroshige’s famous ukiyo-e art. The island was traditionally only open to those traveling on pilgrimages; many faked religious motives just to visit the island’s legendary caves. Today, two of the caves are open to the public.

A candle of Benzaiten that is used to illuminate the Enoshima Iwaya caves

The Iwaya caves are separated into two parts. The first series of caves leads to a fork. Before entering deep within the caves an attendant will pass you a candle with the image of Benzaiten (pictured above). While there should be ample lighting to make your way, the candle adds an extra layer and makes it easier for others to see you in the darkness. The roof of the cave is very low so mind your head else you bite your tongue!

The left hand fork leads to a crevasse that is said to be connected all the way to the “hole to hell” at the Narusawa Ice Cave near Mt. Fuji. On a hot summer day the chilling wind blowing through the breach will send a chill down your spine. The right hand fork will take you to the original location of the first Enoshima shrine where Benzaiten is said to have taken up residence thousands of years ago.

A stone turtle swims back to the dragon gods palace outside of the back of Enoshima

After exploring the first cave follow the small footbridge over the waves to the second cave. Be sure to keep your eyes out for the turtle shaped rock pictured above. A stonemason from the Edo period (1603–1868) carved this shape out of the rocky shore and it has indeed stood the test of time. Legend states the turtle appears as if he is returning to the underwater palace of the dragon god Ryujin who we met earlier at the Zuishin-mon gate.

After taking in the view, continue into the next cave. In this second abyss you’ll find a dragon waiting for you at its deepest recesses. Next to this statue is a small drum. It is said that one’s wish will come true if one strikes the drum twice and the statue lights up an equal number of times.

There’s Still More to the Enoshima Area

A dragon sculpture at the temizuya of Ryuko-ji in Kanagawa Prefecture’s island of Enoshima

At this point, you will have viewed the treasures and folklore of Enoshima island. After leaving the caves you can take the Benten-maru boat back to the mainland or make the trek back on foot. Nevertheless, there are two more areas associated with our tale that are worth checking out if you’re up for it.

  • Ryuko-ji
    This Buddhist temple is located at the very site where the dragon Gozuryu is said to have rested his heads before his body transformed into the mountains. During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), the grounds were used by the shogunate for executions and the energy still lingers today. Ryuko-ji temple is also famous as the place where Nichiren, founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, was imprisoned and almost executed. The temple can be easily reached on foot from Enoshima Station.
  • Ryuko-myo
    This final shrine is quite out of the way but worth if for closure on our tale. It is here, amidst the hills separating Enoshima and Kamakura, that the dragon Gozuryu is enshrined in death. The easiest way to get to the shrine is to hop on the Shonan Monorail and take it to Nishi-Kamakura Station. From there it’s just a short hike up a steep hill. If you actually make it to this shrine, you might want to either congratulate yourself for completing the entirety of the journey (or alternatively, question your sanity).

Until next time travelers…