Kamakura was the capital and religious center of Japan from the 12th-14th centuries. The city is scattered with medieval Shinto shrines and numerous Buddhist temples, including temple Kaizō-ji, which dates back to 1253.
Due to the fact that flowers bloom all year long on its grounds, Kaizō-ji is commonly known as “the Flower Temple”, but it is also popular for its Sokonuke-no-i, a legendary “bottomless well” located in front of the gate.
Of course the well is far from bottomless, and it originates from a 13th-century poem written by a local samurai’s daughter, who attained spiritual enlightenment when her bucket’s bottom broke and fell beside the well. The Sokonuke-no-i was named one of the Ten Wells of Kamakura in 1685 and has maintained its fame ever since.
In its golden days, the Temple had more than 10 structures, but today, there are only a few.
There is a Noh play entitled Sessho-seki or “A stone that kills animals”, which originates from the legendary story of the founding priest Shinsho Kugai, better know as Priest Gen’no. Once upon a time when Emperor Toba were ruling Japan, he was annoyed at one time by a mysterious disease. Soothsayers declared that his sickness was caused by a white fox, and the fox was a transformation of his daughter. The Emperor banished the white fox down to Tochigi Prefecture, and later ordered a faithful retainer of Yoritomo Minamoto, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, to kill the fox. After the killing, the fox transformed into a stone, that was called Sessho-seki, since all animals that touched it died instantly. Hearing this story, the founding priest of the Temple came down to Tochigi to deal with the murderous stone. As he neared the Sessho-seki, he found a great deal of skeletons scattered around it. Chanting sutras with strong willpower, he struck a blow on the stone by a hammer, that was crushed with his one blow. The spirit of the stone departed in peace and thereafter no people or animals were killed.
Curious fact, today, the hammers used by masons are called “Gen’no”, which was named after the posthumous name of the founding priest himself.
In the southwest corner of the courtyard is the Yakushido Hall, which enshrines some statues. The most popular is the wooden statue of Yakushi Nyorai, commonly referred to as the Physician of Souls, sitting on the lotus-flower pedestal, and its two attendant statues of Nikko Bosatsu and Gakko Bosatsu, forming a beautiful Yakushi Trinity. The Yakushi statue holds a head of another Yakushi Nyorai statue in its bosom.
According to the legend, the founding priest often heard a baby crying sadly at night out of nowhere and he once searched the source of the weeping. It led him to a nearby cemetery, and he found a shining tombstone under which the sorrowful cry came from. He chanted sutras to ease the soul of the baby who, hearing the chant, stopped crying. The next day, the priest found a head part of Yakushi Nyorai statue under the tomb. He made a statue of Yakushi Nyorai anew, and embedded the head part he found (measuring only 18 centimeters long) into the bosom of the new statue. That is what we see today at this hall. It is also called Naki Yakushi (Weeping Yakushi) in honor of the legend.
The temple’s more mysterious attraction, however, lies near the back. Known as, Jūroku-no-i, or the Sixteen Wells, it’s a cluster of sacred wells dug inside a small, well-hidden grotto roughly two-meter high and 16-square-meter space dating back to medieval Japan. Dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon-bosatsu, and the deified monk Kōbō-daishi, the grotto is thought to have been constructed as part of the temple during the 14th century or perhaps earlier. But the exact purpose of the wells is unknown. Some claim that the number is inspired by the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts, while others suggest the grotto may have been used as a burial cave. And what it is certain is that the clean water in each well has never run dry.
All in all, the Sixteen Wells are an enigma still today, and may remain so for a long time, if not forever. But even without the knowledge of their real purpose, it’s a fascinating little piece of the history at time of samurai.
Images from web – Google Research