Written by Nathan
Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine - The Miraculous Water Of Kamakura
Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine is one of the small, hidden shrines in Kamakura, Kanagawa prefecture. Surrounded by beautiful nature, this shrine is famous for its good fortune bringing waters and for the fascinating legend of its creation.
Out for a leisurely hike through the parklands of historic Kamakura, I noticed people entering a hole in the hillside, halfway down a steep concrete road. Of course, I followed, and what I found on the other side was a real treat indeed.
What and Where Is Kamakura?
The Kamakura area (in the Kanagawa Prefecture, a little under 90 minutes from central Tokyo by train, and well under an hour from the vibrancy of Yokohama’s Minato Mirai district) is saturated with historic significance and a former de facto capital of the nation during the period of the same name which lasted between 1185 and 1333. It was at the time of the Kamakura Period that the samurai first emerged from a feudal Japan, spawning warrior tales and great military advances.
Today, this is the Japan that Japanese people and Westerners alike romanticize about. There is an abundance of both Shinto and Buddhist temples in Kamakura, but the one which happened to catch my eye is a unique blend of both.
If Japan reinvented itself post World War II, it was for the second time. The Meiji Restoration during the second half of the 19th century being the first. Before this time, it was more common to find shrines belonging to both the native religion, Shinto, and Buddhism, than one or the other. However, the Meiji government (1868 - 1912) set about making laws which effectively separated Buddhism from traditional kami (Shinto spirits) worship. The Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine is among a minority of remaining examples which still offer a marriage of the two.
The Zeniarai Benten, as it is popularly known, also happens to be one of the most-visited attractions in Kamakura, perhaps only behind the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu - a shrine of supreme importance, flanked by museums and the famous 1000-year-old ginkgo tree.
The Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine
The sign at the entrance to the shrine tells me it was built in 1185. According to a legend, the founder of the first Kamakura Shogunate, Minamoto no Yoritomo, was instructed by a deity named Ugafukujin to seek out a “miraculous spring” at the shrine’s eventual location and worship there, which would bring peace to the land. With the spring discovered, Yorimoto built a shrine to Ugafukujin, a kami with the body of a snake and the head of a human.
Perhaps the coolest thing about the place from a purely aesthetic standpoint is that it seems the only way in, and back out, is via a long tunnel. Hopefully it doesn’t detract from the hidden-secret-like vibe of the experience when I mention that said tunnel was only carved out in 1958.
Zeniarai – The “Money Washing Water”
On the other side of the tunnel, I found a secret garden of Buddhist statues, torii (traditional Japanese gates which mark the site of a Shinto shrine), and gardens permeated with the scent of incense, all of which were surrounded by high rock walls. A pair of komainu (temple-guarding lion-dogs which bear much resemblance to similar creatures from Tang dynasty China) kept their eyes on me as I admired the tranquil waterfall just beyond them.
Inside a small cave, I noticed that people were putting their money into small sieves, letting the water from the spring inside it wash over their hard-earned notes and coins. Curious, I asked a kind-looking young lady (who turned out to be a local), why on Earth a sane adult would do such a thing. My new friend Mayu offered an explanation, and here’s where things get a little more tangible.
Mayu said that the cave is named Okugū and the water which flows through it is every bit as miraculous as Ugafukujin ensured shogun Yorimoto it would be. For centuries, people have been washing their money in the water during spring, as it is said this will ensure it doubles in the summer.
As I washed my money, I cursed the fact I hadn’t thought to bring more than the 6000 yen (about 52.00 US dollars) I happened to have in my wallet. Then, a redeeming thought came to mind of the clever hashtags I could use on Instagram, such as “#moneylaundering”. Like I’m the first person to come up with that...
Getting To The Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine
There’s a myriad of different reasons to visit Kamakura and you’ll discover so many of them on foot once you alight at either Kamakura Station or Kita(north)-Kamakura Station. You’ll find the Zeniarai Benten Shrine along a walk of around 30 minutes from either station.
While there is no real other point of reference in the immediate vicinity (or a bus route, for that matter), the beauty of the shrine and its surroundings is best appreciated along the Daibutsu Hiking Course; an easy hike you’ll find starting from the south, just north of Kamakura station at the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) statue of Kotokuin Temple, or from the north, just south of Kita-Kamakura Station at the Jochiji Temple.
To Sum It All Up
If Japan, to you, means samurai, shrines and a rich, complex history, then Kamakura is where your thirst will be quenched and, should you need a kicker, there are also sand beaches. While there, seeking out the Zeniarai Benten Shrine is must, as is taking as much money as possible. For what is washed during spring, will double in summer.