Date: 30th November 2017
Next stop on my Kamakura Autumn Foliage Trip following Engaku-ji is Meigetsu-in (明月院), the temple famously known as Ajisai-dera (Hydrangea Temple) for the beautiful hydrangea that blooms on the temple grounds during June.
The temple was founded in 1160 as “Meigetsu-an” (Bright Moon Hermitage) by Yamanouchi Tsunetoshi to mourn his father Toshimichi, who died in the Heiji rebellion, a battle between the Minamoto and Taira clans.
In 1256, Hojo Tokiyori, the 5th shikken (regent) of the Kamakura Shogunate, retired from his position as regent at the age of 30 and entered the Buddhist priesthood under the name Kakuryobo Dosu, following the leadership of Rankei Doryu, posthumously Daikaku Zenji (Lanxi Daolong). Daikaku Zenji is a Chinese Zen Buddhist monk who founded Kencho-ji, the highest rank temple of the Kamakura Gozan (Five Great Zen Temples), following the invitation of Tokiyori in 1253. Tokiyori chose the site of Meigetsu-an to built a small Buddhist temple Saimyoji (northwest of current Meigetsu-in), but the temple was abolished when he died seven years later. His tomb can be found on the temple grounds on where Saimyoji once was.
Tokiyori’s son, Hojo Tokimune (whom I have mentioned about in my Engaku-ji post) constructed a new temple called Fukugenzan Zenkokoshozenji (Zenkoji) near Saimyoji. The temple’s founding priest was Misshitsu Shugon, the 5th generation dharma successor to Daikaku Zenji. The founder’s hall, Soyu-do with a thatched roof was built around 1380 enshrining Shugon and now designated as Kaisando.
In 1380, Ashikaga Ujimitsu, Kamakura’s government 2nd Kanto Kubo (Shogun Deputy), instructed Uesugi Norikata to expand Zenkoji by constructing new buildings and sub-temples. At the side of the temple you can see a yagura cave (tomb caves), which is of the largest in Kamakura. At the center is the tomb of Uesugi Norikata. Meigetsu-in became the family temple of the Uesugi clan in the Yamanouchi district of Kamakura (better known today as Kita-Kamakura). A statue of Uesugi Shigefusa, the founder of the Uesugi clan can also be found in Meigetsu-in.
Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the 3rd shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate ranked Zenkoji the first among the ten great Buddhist temples in Kanto region. Meigetsu-an was renamed to Meigetsu-in and designated as a sub-temple of Zenkoji. Zenkoji was though abolished following the Meiji Restoration when shinbutsu bunri, the separation of Buddhism and Shintoism came into effect. Following this policy, haibutsu kishaku (the expulsion of Buddhism in Japan) was triggered, leading to the destruction of many Buddhist temples. However Meigetsu-in was retained, now belonging to the Kencho-ji school of the Rinzai Zen sect. of Buddhism.
The main hall, Shiyoden was rebuilt in 1973, enshrining Sho Kannon. You might read on some sites saying that the statue is of Nyoirin Kannon, and yes, the statue was thought to be that of Nyoirin Kannon until 1992 when they then determined that it was actually a statue of Sho Kannon. The 54 cm-tall wooden statue was sculptured back in 1309 and was first enshrined at Jionji, only to be transferred to Meigetsu-in in 1520.
The round window of the main hall, Satori no Mado, Window of Enlightenment provides a great view of the inner garden behind.
In front of the main hall is a karesansui (dry landscape) garden, representing Mount Shumisen of the Buddhist cosmology.
Meigetsu-in is also home to one of the Ten Wells of Kamakura, the Kame no I.
You would also notice the rabbit motifs around the temple, which came about from the name of the temple, which means bright moon or harvest moon. There is a Japanese folklore of rabbit pounding mochi / rice cakes on the moon, thus the association of rabbits.
As mentioned above, Meigetsu-in is famous for its hydrangea, drawing a large crowd especially during the weekends. I am making a trip here this year to see it for myself. You can also see other flowers aside from hydrangea here e.g. narcissus, Chinese violet cress, peach blossoms, and lily magnolia. From the end of May to mid June, the iris garden behind the main hall is accessible for an additional 500 yen.
Since I was here when the leaves were just turning colors, I need to say that the temple is worth the visit for its maple leaves (though some of the leaves here were still green during my visit!). The inner garden is also open during the height of autumn foliage from late November to early December for an additional 500 yen.
If you are a first-timer to Kamakura, I recommend avoiding Meigetsu-in and Hasedera during the hydrangea season (or even weekends). I came here on a weekday and it was packed, not to mention Kamakura is a very popular option for school trips! Should not let the rain, heat and the crowd cloud the experience of visiting this city which is rich in history, being at the center during the Kamakura shogunate.
Opening hours: 09:00 – 16:00 (08:30 – 17:00 in June)
Admission fee: 300 yen, 500 yen in June (additional 500 yen for inner garden from end of May to mid June for the iris garden, and from end of November to early December for the autumn foliage)
Meigetsu-in is just an 8-minute walk from Kita-Kamakura Station on the JR Yokosuka line. Kita-kamakura station is about 50 minutes away from Tokyo station via the JR line (800 yen).
A combined visit with Engaku-ji and Kencho-ji is recommended.