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Kamakura’s Sixteen Wells on the grounds of Kaizo-ji Temple. Photo source: Phlizz / Atlas Obscura

Kamakura’s Sixteen Wells: One of the Mysteries of Kazo-ji Temple

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The Juroku-no-i, or Sixteen Wells in English, is a group of sacred wells at the Kaizo-ji Temple in Kamakura, Japan. The Sixteen Wells are located in a small grotto near the back of the temple. As they are well-hidden, the wells are one of the more obscure attractions of the temple. There are many questions surrounding Kamakura’s Sixteen Wells that have yet to be answered. It is unclear, for instance, as to when they were made, and their original purpose has been lost to history. Nevertheless, there are legends and speculations that attempt to answer the questions posed by Kamakura’s Sixteen Wells.

The Kaizo-ji Temple and its Sixteen Wells are located in Kamakura, which was once the political capital of Japan. Kamakura is situated in east-central Honshu, in Kanagawa Prefecture. The city, which lies to the southwest of Tokyo, is surrounded on three sides by mountains. On the city’s fourth side is the Sagami Bay, which gives Kamakura direct access to the Pacific Ocean. Thanks to the mountains and the ocean, Kamakura is a natural fortress.

Before Kamakura’s Sixteen Wells: The Kamakura Shogunate

Originally, Kamakura was a small fishing village. Towards the end of the 12 th century, it rose in prominence as it became the capital of the Minamoto clan . When Japan’s first shogunate was officially created in 1192, the shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, made Kamakura his seat of power. Japan’s first shogunate, known as the Kamakura Shogunate, lasted until 1333. The era in Japan’s history between 1192 and 1333, incidentally, is known as the Kamakura period. Not long after Yoritomo’s death, the shoguns became mere figureheads, as real power fell into the hands of their Hojo regents. Nevertheless, Kamakura remained Japan’s political center until the end of the shogunate.

As the de facto capital of Japan, Kamakura was also a center of the arts and culture. One of the most important cultural achievements of the Kamakura period is the establishment of several new schools of Buddhism in Japan, especially Jodo Buddhism and Zen Buddhism . Zen Buddhist teachings resonated with the values of the ruling samurai class, and hence received patronage of the elites. The support for Buddhism by the ruling class during the Kamakura period is reflected in the fact that of the city’s 65 temples, many were built between 1192 and 1333. The city also has 19 Shinto shrines . Considering the number of Buddhist and Shinto religious sites in the city, it is unsurprising that Kamakura became popular amongst pilgrims as well.

The History of Kamakura’s Kaizo-ji Temple

Kamakura’s Kaizo-ji Temple is located in the northern part of the city’s Ogigayatsu district. The temple is known also as the Temple of Flowers, as flowers bloom on its grounds year-round. Kaizo-ji Temple was originally built in 1253 and belonged to the Shingon school of Buddhism at that time. It was founded by Fujiwara no Nakayoshi at the request of Prince Munetaka, the sixth Kamakura shogun. It was a huge religious complex and had 10 buildings on its grounds. In 1333, however, Kaizo-ji Temple was completely destroyed, as a result of the war between the Kamakura Shogunate and supporters of the emperor. In the following decades, the site of the former Kaizo-ji Temple was left untouched.

In 1394, Ashikaga Ujimitsu, the second Kamakura kubo, or Kanto kubo (a title equivalent to Shogun Deputy) ordered Uesugi Ujisada to rebuild Kaizo-ji Temple. The new temple, however, became a Zen Buddhist Rinzai school temple. Another difference between the old and the new Kaizo-ji was size: the new temple was much larger. It is unclear, however, whether the new temple was modelled after its predecessor or not. In any case, the Kaizo-ji Temple that visitors see today is the one that dates from the 14 th century.

Kaizo-ji Temple and the ‘Killing Stone’

In addition to building the Kaizo-ji Temple, Ujisada invited Genno Zenji, known also as Shinsho Kugai, to be the temple’s founding priest. There is a legend called Sessho-seki (‘Killing Stone’) that is associated with Genno Zenji. According to legend, the Sessho-seki is a magical rock that has the power to kill anything that came into contact with it.

Prince Hanzoku terrorized by a nine-tailed fox (Utagawa Kuniyoshi / Public domain)

Prince Hanzoku terrorized by a nine-tailed fox (Utagawa Kuniyoshi / Public domain )

Originally, the stone was a nine-tailed fox, who, according to one version of the legend, transformed itself into a beautiful woman named Tamamo no Mae . The woman served in the imperial court in Kyoto and gained the favor of Emperor Toba. One day, the emperor was struck by a mysterious illness. Eventually, the emperor’s sickness was connected to the nine-tailed fox. Mae’s true identity was discovered by a diviner named Abe Yasunari, and a long fight ensued. The fox spirit was defeated and fled from Kyoto. When the emperor learned that Mae had escaped to Nasu, in Tochigi Prefecture, he sent an army to kill her. When the nine-tailed fox was finally killed, she transformed herself into the Sessho-seki stone.

The anger harbored by the fox spirit gave the rock the power to emit toxic fumes, which killed anything that came too close to it. This went on for a long time, until the arrival of Genno Zenji. When the priest heard of the story, he decided to deal with the problem himself. After purifying himself, the priest went to the Sessho-seki. In one version of the legend, Genno Zenji chanted a sutra, and repeated it until Mae came out of the rock as a column of white smoke. Her spirit gradually disappeared, after which the rock broke into three parts. Two of the fragments flew away, while the third remained at the site. In another version, the priest chanted the sutra, and broke the rock into three parts by striking it with a hammer, thus allowing the spirit of Mae to depart in peace. The second version of the story claims that the rock lost its power after the departure of Mae’s spirit. However, in the first version the remaining stone fragment continued to emit toxic fumes, though much weaker than before.

The main hall of Kaizo-ji Temple, Kamakura. The Main Hall (Tarourashima / Public domain)

The main hall of Kaizo-ji Temple, Kamakura. The Main Hall (Tarourashima / Public domain )

Other Notable Features of Kamakura’s Kaizo-ji Temple

Kaizo-ji Temple has several notable features including the Yakushido Hall building. Although the hall was transferred to the temple from the Jochi-ji Temple in 1776, there is a legend that connects it to Genno Zenji. According to this legend, the priest could hear a weeping baby at the temple every night. Therefore, he decided to seek the source of the crying, and discovered that it came from under a gravestone behind the temple. Genno Zenji chanted a sutra as an offering to the infant’s spirit, and the weeping stopped for good. The following day, the priest returned to the site, and dug up the grave. In the process of doing so, he unearthed the head of a Yakushi Nyorai (‘Medicine Buddha’) statue. Subsequently, Genno Zenji made a new Yakushi Nyorai statue and placed the head he found in its bosom. The statue has resided in Yakushido Hall since that time.

Kaizo-ji Temple altar showing the two Bosatsu attendants, Nikko Bosatsu and Gakko Bosatsu, flanking the Yakushi Nyorai statue (Daderot / CC0)

Kaizo-ji Temple altar showing the two Bosatsu attendants, Nikko Bosatsu and Gakko Bosatsu, flanking the Yakushi Nyorai statue (Daderot / CC0)

In addition to this statue, Yakushido Hall also houses two Bosatsu attendants, Nikko Bosatsu and Gakko Bosatsu, who flank the Yakushi Nyorai statue. Each of the attendants are flanked by six of the Juni Shinsho (‘Twelve Guardian Generals’), who serve as protectors. To the left of the altar are two large mortuary tablets which were made in memory of those who contributed to Kaizo-ji Temple. Both tablets have era names inscribed on them, one corresponding to the year 1423, and the other to 1515.

Inside one of the cave grottos of Kaizo-ji Temple (Daderot / CC0)

Genno Zenji is also credited with the rediscovery of the Sixteen Wells, another important feature of the Kaizo-ji Temple. The wells, however, are less well-known than Yakushido Hall, due to their obscure location near the back of the temple. To the left of the Yakushido Hall is a footpath, and 50 m (164 ft) down the path is a small grotto carved into the cliff, where the wells are located. Incidentally, there are several more caves carved into the cliff to the left of the temple’s main hall. The grotto covers an area of 16 m 2 (172 ft 2) and is about 2 m (6.6 ft) high. In the grotto are sixteen circular wells arranged in a four-by-four square. As each well has a diameter of 70 cm (27.6 in), and a depth of 40 cm (15.7 in), it may be more appropriate to view them as ‘shallow holes in the ground.’

There are a few more noteworthy features in the grotto, apart from the wells. In a niche in the back wall, for instance, there is a statue of Kannon Bosatsu (‘Goddess of Mercy’). In front of her is a small image of Kukai, known also as Kobo Daishi. To the left of the statue of Kannon is another vertical niche, which once held a stone tablet that was carved with an image of Amida-sanzon-raigo-zu. This is a depiction of the Amida Buddha and an attendant Bosatsu as they descend to welcome a believer into the Pure Land at the moment of death. This is a rare artefact, as it is inscribed with an era name which corresponds to the year 1306. Therefore, the stone tablet is today kept in the Kamakura Kokuhoukan Museum.  

According to popular belief, the sixteen well were dug by Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, hence his image in the grotto. As time went by, however, the wells were buried, and people forgot about them completely. When Genno Zenji became the founding priest of the new Kaizo-ji Temple, he rediscovered the grotto and the wells. He removed the sand and earth from the cave, cleaned the wells, and filled them with water. It is believed that the wells have been filled with water ever since, and that they have never run dry, even during the hot summer months. Additionally, curative powers have been attributed to these wells, and many sick people are said to have been healed by its waters.

Kamakura’s Sixteen Wells Are Still A Mystery Today!

The purpose of Kamakura’s Sixteen Wells remains a mystery even to this day. Some view the number of the wells as significant, and interpret them as representing the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts, which is found in the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the grotto was originally used as a burial cave, and that the wells were used to hold the ashes of the dead. This is not entirely impossible, considering that rock-cut tombs, known in Japanese as yagura, are found in large numbers in Kamakura. The Mandarato Yagura, the largest known collection of yagura in Japan, for example, is located in Kamakura. This necropolis contains more than 160 graves and is spread out over three tiers on a 10 m (32.8 ft) cliff. Yagura were a type of burial reserved for samurai and Buddhist monks. Occasionally, the remains of wealthy merchants were buried in this manner as well. In the case of the Sixteen Wells, there is no conclusive evidence that it served as a yagura, since there are no records of human remains found there.

The Sixteen Wells are not the only wells at Kaizo-ji Temple. There is another famous well at the temple – the Sokonuke-no-i (‘Bottomless Well’ or ‘Well with no Bottom’), which is located to the right of the entrance of the Kaizo-ji Temple. There is a legend surrounding the well that takes place during the Muromachi period (the era after the Kamakura period). The legend begins with a lady of the Uesugi clan becoming a helper at the temple. One day, as the lady tried to draw water from the well, the bottom of her pail dropped out, and she immediately achieved enlightenment. An alternative version of the legend replaces the lady of the Uesugi clan with Chiyono, the daughter of Adachi Yasumori, a 13 th century samurai.

Although the Sixteen Wells are situated in an obscure part of the Kaizo-ji Temple, they are certainly worth a visit. While the original purpose of their creation may never be known, the wells will probably continue to be treated as a sacred site by believers. Kamakura’s Sixteen Wells, which have existed for centuries, will likely remain a place for believers for many more centuries.

Top image: Kamakura’s Sixteen Wells on the grounds of Kaizo-ji Temple. Photo source: Phlizz / Atlas Obscura

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                     

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