Enoshima Island is a small island off the eastern coast of Japan in the Sagami Bay, not far from the city of Kamakura in the Kanagawa prefecture. The island has a circumference of about four kilometers and it is linked to the main land by the 600m Enosima-ohashi Bridge which runs parallel to the Katagase-gawa River. From Kamakura, the Enoshima Dentetsu train bound westwards for Fujisawa will bring you to Katase-Enoshima station in less than half an hour while allowing you to enjoy the coastal scenery at a relatively measured pace. From Katase-Enoshima station, you will just have to walk south-west for a few minutes and cross the Enosima-ohashi Bridge.

And our path turns sharply to the right, and winds along cliff-summits overlooking a broad beach of dun-colored sand; and the sea wind blows deliciously with a sweet saline scent, urging the lungs to fill themselves to the very utmost; and far away before me, I perceive a beautiful high green mass, an island foliage-covered, rising out of the water about a quarter of a mile from the mainland--Enoshima, the holy island, sacred to the Goddess of the sea, the Goddess of beauty. I can already distinguish a tiny town, gray-sprinkling its steep slope. Evidently it can be reached to-day on foot, for the tide is out, and has left bare a long broad reach of sand, extending to it, from the opposite village which we are approaching, like a causeway.

Lafcadio Hearn, Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan

Getting to Enoshima

Enoshima main street
the street leading to Enoshima Jinja

As often in Japan, the contrast within a place can be really unsettling and you might find yourself wondering if you came to the right place when you see the hordes of chocolate-tanned surfers accompanied by their bleached haired girlfriends. Enoshima (江ノ島) is in fact one of the closest beaches to Tokyo and it becomes a very popular destination between the beginning of July and the end of August for all the surfers-alike, even though there is not much surfing to actually be done there. You are nevertheless in the right place so keep walking a bit further from the beach, towards the center of the island. The street leading to the shrine is very lively and it is bordered by numerous souvenirs shops, traditional restaurants and ryokan (Japanese traditional inns) and in itself; wandering through its many shops can be worth of a few good minutes of your time. If you plan to return to the main land via the ferry (at the back of the island) don't worry, there are plenty of other restaurants, shops and vending machines all throughout the island.

main gate of Enoshima jinja
the main gate of Enoshima Jinja

At the end of that street, you will find a red tori which leads, via a steep stairs, to the Enoshima Shrine main gate. If you don't feel like taking the steep stairs and slopes, this is also where you can take the Enoshima Escar, an escalator that will take you to the top of the island for ¥300. The way down is done by foot however. The Enoshima Shrine is actually composed of three distinct shrines. Each of them is dedicated to one of the Shinto sea Goddesses of the Munakata trio; Tagitsuhime, Ichikishimahime and Tagirihime. The Goddesses are thought to have been originally worshiped in a small shrine built inside one of the two Iwaya caves by the Emperor Kinmei (510 – 571). They were however subsequently relocated in 853 to a more sturdy building, the Nakatsu-no-miya which is at the center of the island. This temple is still visible (it is one of the three shrines that compose the Enoshima Shrine) it and serves as the base for the temples present today.

Kamakura Shogunate (鎌倉幕府, Kamakura bakufu)
The Kamakura bakufu was a military government headed by the Shogun (将軍 commander of force charged of subduing the barbarians) in place of the Emperor between 1185 and 1333.

Around the sixth century, according to the Buddhist mythology, the island is thought to have emerged from the bottom of the ocean after a violent earthquake triggered by the power of the sea Goddess Benzaiten (裸弁財天 Hadaka Benzaiten). Benzaiten is also credited for taming the five-headed Dragon that had been threatening the region before her arrival. Mesmerized by her beauty; the Dragon even sworn to do good and become her messenger if she accepted to marry him. The whole island is therefore dedicated in its entirety to the Goddess. Benzaiten is originally a Buddhist deity and many Buddhist priests used to retire to the island's caves in order to meditate. The Goddess was later syncretized with Shinto and invited to the temple by Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the first Kamakura Shogun. His interest probably had quite a lot to do with the fact that Benzaiten was considered at the time to be the Goddess of naval war.

The naked Benzaiten of Enoshima
The naked Benzaiten of Enoshima

The faith in the Enoshima Benzaiten was even further strengthened by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who used to visit the sanctuary often and even made it the official prayer hall of the Tokugawa family. Later on, Benzaiten became the Goddess of entertainment and wealth which is actually much closer to what was originally believed about her in China. Today, Japanese people are still commonly seen washing coins and even bank notes in the shrine's pond in order to attract the favor the Goddess and gain fortune. It is also not unusual to see celebrities come over to the shrine in order to make a wish for success.

Shinbutsu bunri
In Japan, imported Buddhism and indigenous Shintoism were always tightly intertwined within the Shinbutsu shugo system of belief. Many buildings served both as Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines but the amalgamation of Shinto kami and Buddha became formally forbidden during the Meiji restoration as a nationalistic attempt to conserve the indigenous nature of Shinto beliefs, as opposed to foreign Buddhism. This separation has not been completed and small Shinto shrines are still found in most major Buddhist temples.
The popularity of the Buddhist Goddess reached such proportions that it managed to somewhat undermine the cult around the original Shinto deities of the Enoshima Shrine. However, these divinities came back in the forefront during the Meiji restoration when Shinto became the state religion and when most of the Buddhist structures were removed (including the Benzaiten statues) or simply destroyed because of the passing of an imperial law Shinbutsu bunri (see text beside). In the end, the freedom of religion act that was officially signed in 1947 put an end to that policy and opened the way to the restitution of the two statues that can fortunately be contemplated today.

Enoshima Jinja

Hetsu-no-miya Jinja (Shrine at the Edge)

Hetsu-no-Miya Jinja
Hetsu-no-Miya Jinja

Hetsu-no-Miya Jinja is the first shrine to be reached after passing the main entrance gate. It was founded in 1206 by the third Kamakura Shogun Sanetomo Minamoto (1192-1219) and it is dedicated to the Shinto Goddess Tagitsuhime. One of the most striking features of this temple is that is hosts the statue of Benzaiten, visible in the octagonal wooden Ho-an-den building (entrance fee: ¥200) and very unusually represented completely naked playing a Biwa (a short necked, fretted kind of lute). The hall also hosts a second Benzaiten statue which harbours eight arms and was carved earlier on than the nude one, probably during the Kamakura period. During the Edo period, both statues used to only be exposed to the public once every six years, which obviously caused much affluence to the temple as well as providing significant earnings for its administrators.

Nakatsu-no-miya Jinja (Shrine at the Middle)

Nakatsu-no-miya Jinja
Nakatsu-no-miya Jinja

This crimson Shinto shrine is the oldest of the three shrines making the Enoshima Jinja. It was erected in 853 by the Buddhist priest En-nin which illustrates rather well the early Japanese tendency of merging Shintoism and Buddhism, and this, as early as the eighth century. To give some perspective, Chinese Buddhism is thought to have been first introduced to Japan in the sixth century by the way of Korea. The stone lanterns which decorate the shrine were donated by several renowned kabuki actors in the Edo Period. The lintel is carved with representations of dragons and turtles which are found all through the island.

Okutsu-no-miya Jinja (Shrine of the Deep)

The all-seeing turtle of Okutsu-no-miya Jinja
The all-seeing turtle of Okutsu-no-miya

Tagirihime is the Shinto Goddess of the Munakata trio enshrined in this temple. According to the legend, she spends the winter in the cave underneath and only occupies the shrine from April to October. The ceiling of the oratory is decorated with a painting of the giant turtle Happo Nirami no Kame whose very peculiar eyes seems to look in all directions and to follow as you move around. The actual painting is a replica of the masterpiece conceived in the Edo period by renowned artist Hoichi Sakai painted by his disciple Kayo Kataoka. In Buddhist mythology, the Benzaiten Goddess is said to also have retired in this shrine, which is the closest one to the sea amongst the three Enoshima shrines, when the summer heat was becoming too uncomfortable in the rest of the island.

Other places of interest

The grave of Kengyo Sugiyama (1610-1694)

South view from the top of Enoshima island
South view from the top of the island

This is the tomb of Kengyo Sugiyama (real name: Waichi Sugiyama), a blind man who confined himself in one of the Iwaya Caves for 21 days to meditate in order to gain better acupuncture technique. While he was there, he impaled his foot on a pine needle that was stuck in a bamboo tube which made him think of using a small pipe in order to guide acupuncture needles into his patients' skin more accurately. This methodical proved very successful indeed and it earned him the gratitude and recognition from the fifth Shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709). The Shogun even granted him the name of Kengyo, the highest title given to a blind man. Sugiyama died at age 84 by tripping over a stone which is now called the "Stone of good Luck" and is still visible.

Yasaka Jinja

Map of the island in the shape of a Biwa
Map of the island in the shape of a Biwa

This shrine is a smaller version of the Yasaka Jinja in Kyoto where the divinity Susano-o is venerated. Every 14th of July the Ten-no-sai festival is held in order to prevent summer epidemics which usually have high incidence due to the warm and wet conditions. This is also where Mikoshi, some portable shrines, are paraded from the see to the land up to the shrine. This festival marks the real beginning of summer for the locals.

The Samuel Cocking Garden

These botanical gardens were established by the British merchant Samuel Cocking (1842-1914) when he purchased most of the uplands in the name of his Japanese wife following the confiscation by the Meiji government during the Shintoism and Buddhism Separation Order (Shinbutsu bunri). The now named Samuel Cocking Garden still exists today albeit in a lesser form due to the damage caused by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 to the main 660 square meters greenhouse. The garden can be visited for a small ¥200 fee. There, a nice view of the island from the 120 m high light-house/observation tower, the Enoshima Sea Candle, can be enjoyed for ¥300.


Saifukuji Temple
Saifukuji Temple

The Saifukuji (Enoshima Daishi) is the first and only Buddhist temple to have been reconstructed on the island, more than 125 years after the end of the Emperor Meiji-endorsed policy of methodic destruction of Buddhism. This rather massive temple belongs to the Shingon sect. Most notably, it hosts a 6-meter-high statue of Red Fudo. Ceremonies aimed at exorcising evil spirits through the burning of a sacred fire are often led by the Chief Priest, Ekan Ikeguchi (1936-) who holds the title of Dai-Ajari (Great senior monk). You can enter and watch the ceremony for free, provided that you do not disturb the service and that you can cope with the dense smoke that occupies the room. At the fourth floor of the building is the Gome Hall where several purification ceremonies are performed by the monks of the sect. I was lucky enough to visit the temple right during one of the ceremonies and took some footage that you can watch below.

Chief Priest, Ekan Ikeguchi performing a ceremony

The southern coast of Enoshima Island

Iwaya Caves

Enoshima Hojo kamon
Enoshima Hojo kamon

The Iwaya Caves are accessible via a 220-steps stair carved in stone. As most of the rest of Enoshima Shrine, an amalgam of Shintoism and Buddhism is visible, particularly in the first cave (152 meters long) with the enshrinement of Shinto deities; the Munakata trio of Goddesses as well as the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, while at same time, numerous Buddhist statues can be found disseminated throughout the corridors. The second cave (56 meters long) is dedicated to the Dragon God, protector of the fishermen. A statue of the deity is present at the end of the corridor. A dragon is supposed to have lived in the cave and to have appeared before Tokimasa Hojo (1138-1215), the father-in-law of Yoritomo Minamoto and who promised him to protect his offspring. The dragon left behind him three scales which are the inspiration for the Hojo kamon (crest). Admission to the caves costs ¥500 and entitles you to bring with you a small candle during the visit which adds to the mysterious atmosphere of the place.

Enoshima Cliffs

Enoshima Cliffs
Enoshima Cliffs

The south of the island displays abrupt cliffs that level into a quite large platform of rock just above the waterline, providing much tidal pools that make the delight of children hunting for crabs. You will also see quite a lot of fishermen enjoying this convenient access to the sea, away from the noisy sunbathers. This is the location where you can take the Bentenmaru boats, the ferry travelling back and forth from the island to the mainland dock in order to return without having to walk all the way back. The cruise takes between 5 and 10 minutes and costs ¥400. From the cliffs leading to the caves, in low tides, one can try to spot the Kameishi, a stone in the shape of a giant turtle which seems to be swimming out of the Dragon God's cave. The Kameishi is said to have been carved by the stonemason Kametaro Nakamura.

Video of Enoshima

To go further:

About the author
Guillaume Erard
Author: Guillaume ErardWebsite:
Founder of the site in 2007, Guillaume has a passion for Japanese culture and martial arts. After having practiced Judo during childhood, he started studying Aikido in 1996, and Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu in 2008. He currently holds the ranks of 4th Dan in Aikido (Aikikai) and 2nd Dan in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu (Takumakai). Guillaume is also passionate about science and education and he holds a PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology since 2010. He currently lives in Tokyo and works as a consultant for medical research. > View Full Profile

Tagged under: Enoshima Kanagawa Kamakura
comments powered by Disqus


Enter your email address:

to receive an Email at each publication.