Definitions

Zeniarai Benten shrine

Zeniarai Benten shrine

Popularly known simply as Zeniarai Benten, is the second most popular spot in Kamakura, Kanagawa prefecture after Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū even though a visit means a 20-minute walk from Kamakura station. This beautiful 800-year-old shrine is unusual for a number of reasons, the first being the fact it's completely surrounded by high rock walls. Completely invisible from the outside, it can be reached only thorough a tunnel. Because of the irregular ground it was built on, its various buildings stand at different heights and are connected by stairways.

Those unfamiliar with Japanese history will find Zeniarai Benzaiten confusing. The shrine has literally dozens of torii (Shinto gates), but also plenty of Buddhas. The scent of incense, normally used only by Buddhist temples, is also present. The reason is that Zeniarai Benzaiten is an excellent example of the fusion of Buddhism and Shinto elements (Shinbutsu shūgō) that used to be the norm in Japan before the Meiji era, when most shrines were forced to get rid of all their Buddhist objects. Zeniarai Benten is one of those which, unlike Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, were able to retain them.

But what makes it unique, and is also probably the main reason why over 900,000 people a year come here, is that the water of the spring inside Zeniarai Benzaiten's cave is supposed to have the power to multiply the money it comes in contact with. Many people come here specifically to dip their yen in the spring, probably more for fun than greed. Inside the cave where the spring is baskets and ladles are available expressly for that purpose. This unique tradition of coming to wash your coins began in 1257 when Hojo Tokiyori came here and washed his coins with the spring's water, expressing the hope that they may be doubled. People heard the story, and the tradition was born.

According to the sign at the entrance of the tunnel, the shrine was founded in 1185 when Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199), first of the Kamakura shoguns, on the day of the snake in the month of the snake dreamed of the kami Ugafukujin who told him that "In a valley to the northwest, there is a miraculous spring that gushes out of the rocks. Go there and worship Shinto's kami, and peace will come to your people." He found the spring and built a shrine for Ugafukijin. Later, the Shinto kami was fused with Buddhist goddess Benzaiten (Sarasvati in Sanskrit). The reason the two came to be considered one and the same is that Ugafukujin is the god of harvest, so peasants used to come here to wash their seeds in the hope of improving harvests, while Sarasvati is the incarnation of a river. The two have therefore in common the element of water.

The main object of worship is a stone snake with a human head, sacred to Benzaiten. This snake is hidden inside the shrine, however there is another, wooden one next to the spring inside the cave.

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