Monday, January 15, 2018

Zenkoji Temple, Nagano — The "most" unique temple in Japan you’ll ever visit.

       You’ve had enough temple and shrine visits in Kyoto. But Zenkoji is not “just another temple”.
There is a saying in Japanese: "you have to go to Zenkoji at least once during your lifetime". Hence, I have the responsibility to make sure that we wouldn't leave Nagano without paying a visit, and so you know about Zenkoji Temple.
Zenkoji Temple Nagano

       For the past 1400 years, Zenkoji temple has been drawing millions of worshippers to obtain eternity bliss. The temple is one of Japan’s most important pilgrimage destinations,  with the main hall being the third largest in all of Japan (The largest is in Nara, second in Kyoto). It is a designated national treasure, a masterpiece of Buddhist architecture.
Zenkoji Temple Nagano
Zenkoji Temple Nagano
Zenkoji Temple Nagano

       On our way to the temple, the volunteer guide told us wonderful stories about Zenkoji Temple and this is how we realized how unique is this temple. The temple complex was founded in the 7th century, housing Japan’s oldest Buddhist Statue. It is said that anyone who prays here will be granted salvation and passage into the land of happiness afterlife, regardless of religious affiliation, gender, or status. 

The Mysterious Buddha Statue

       We started the tour in the main hall itself. Wrapped up and stored in a box behind the main altar, the main Buddhist Image is a hibitsu, a Buddhist statue completely hidden from the public (including the chief priest of the temple! ) in 654 and has never been on public display ever since.
       The commandments of the temple require the absolute secrecy of the holy statue. Only a replica of it (Maedachi Honzon) is shown publicly every 6 full years for a few weeks (during a ceremony called Gokaicho) in Spring, the last Gokaicho was held in 2015. So every 6 years, earnest worshipers flock to Zenkoji Temple to touch the copy and hope to be brought into Paradise.
Zenkoji Temple Nagano
       The main image of Amida Buddha is called “The image of Sangoku Denrai” in Japanese and it was regarded as the first Buddhist statue ever brought into Japan: created in India and introduced into Japan along with Buddhism via the Kingdom of Kudara (Korean Peninsular) in the 6th century.
       The local legend tells the tale of the enshrined image of Amida Buddha that caused a dispute between 2 feuding clans in Osaka, thrown into the Naniwa no Horie canal and later rescued and brought to Shinano (Now Nagano) by a man named Honda Yoshimitsu. The temple is named after Yoshimitsu whose name translated into “Zenko” in Chinese.
Zenkoji Temple Nagano

The People's Temple, Zero Oldies Discrimination 

      Zenkoji Temple is also known as a people’s temple, because it is founded by common people and welcome common people regardless of their Buddhist denomination and gender.
       In Nara and Heian periods, only men were considered pure enough to enter temples. Zenkoji’s Jyodo sect founder, Shinran, Soto sect founder Dogen, and a Buddhist priest Nichiren were against this tradition and it led to the Kamakura Buddhism revolution, which eventually enables women to start praying in Zenkoji Temple. So until today, Zenjoji is believed to help women tremendously… and on top of that, take a closer look in the temple main altar and you will find a unique feature of Zenkoji temple — the statue of a woman. That too contributes to Zenkoji’s great popularity nowadays. It has been friendly called ‘Zenkoji-san’.
Zenkoji Temple Nagano

The Physician who Heal All

       Near the entrance of the main hall, there is a wooden statue of Binzuru, who is a physician and also a follower of Buddha, one of the sixteen disciples who vowed to stay behind in this world.
       Visitors to the temple touch the statue in order to have their ailments cured. Binzuru’s eyes have been worn smooth, showing the fact that so many people have problems with their eyes! I mean, with all the exposure to electronic reading devices, who else can say they have perfect eyesight? This statue has been awarded three Michelin stars, so it is definitely a must-see (and a must- touch!).
Zenkoji Temple Nagano
Zenkoji Temple Nagano

Find YOUR Cloud. You have a place reserved in heaven. 

       A small fee (500 Yen) is required to enter the inner sanctum of the temple. Here in the inner chamber of the main hall is a tatami-mat area where believers used to pray overnight (nowadays, praying overnight in Zenkoji temple is forbidden. However, you can still participate in the morning ritual. )
       On the separate partition (separating the altar and the tatami mat), you will be able to see carvings of 25 bodhisattvas atop clouds who welcome spirits of the dead into paradise. Take a closer look and you will see an empty cloud amid the bodhisattvas. There are 2 widely speculated hypothesis for the existence of the empty cloud: Some say it is the cloud carrying Amida Buddha, and some say it is a cloud reserved for you. Which explanation do you prefer?
Zenkoji Temple Nagano
Zenkoji Temple Nagano

Road to Eternal Bliss

       An interesting note, visitors can also take part in a secret challenge in the basement, walking through the dark underground corridors (O-Kaidan meguri) underneath the altar in search of a hidden metal key directly below the sacred image. It is said that those who successfully found the key attached to the wall will be granted salvation and be taken to the Western Pure Land of the Amida Buddha after death…
Zenkoji Temple Nagano

       However, this activity involves some level of insecurity (and adrenaline) walking through 100 meters of total darkness. There is a huge mirror on the wall at the exit, it is said that once you accomplished the mission, you’ll look a lot younger, so definitely check!
Zenkoji Temple Nagano

See Zenkoji Through the Eyes of a Local

       I recommend following a volunteered guide on your visit to Zenkoji because not only that you will learn a lot about the history and significance of Zenkoji Temple, you will also get to know the implicit details about the unique architecture of the temple, wooden craft, and carpentering. You will see the bells of Zenkoji from the left walkway, those that rang in the start of the 1998 Winter Olympics in a wish for world peace. Now, it is rung on the hour from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm every day.
Zenkoji Temple Nagano

Immerse in Culture

       Before exiting the main ground, we made it a point to stop by the huge incense burner in front of the temple. It is said that the incense smoke will bring good health and fortune and visitors to Zenkoji will fan the smoke on their body to improve their health of certain body parts. Just like the concept of the Binzuru statue, if you want better hearing, fan some smoke to your ears and vice versa. However, do retain your modesty when doing this, for instance: do not lift up your feet.
Zenkoji Temple Nagano
Zenkoji Temple Nagano

A Unique Souvenir   

       Also, at this point, feel free to purchase a special paper for goshuin for 800 yen, Visit the shrines and temples of the 7 Deities of Good Fortune. Collect a red seal from each of them (100 yen each) and then get the final red seals (200 Yen) at Zenkoji at the end of the day.
Zenkoji Temple Nagano goshuin

Modern Day Fortune-telling

       Stepping off the steps of the incense burner, I saw a Gashapon (a vending machine-dispensed capsule toys) and got very curious… I mean, who puts a Gashapon in a sacred place?
       Turned out, it was a modernized fortune telling machine in Japan. It cost 500 Yen to get your fortune told, and besides that, you’ll get a high-quality souvenir along with your fortune paper! I got a Sanmon Gate miniature in my fortune capsule, as I headed south, I took a photo of my Sanmon Gate and the actual Sanmon Gate.
Zenkoji Temple Nagano
      The Sanmon Gate, which is the temple's main gate is considered an important cultural property which stretches back to 1750. It houses the statues of Monju Bodhisattva and the four heavenly kings (Shitenno) as well as a precious calligraphy plaque by the Imperial prince that contain 5 hidden doves. You can climb up the stairs after paying a small 500 Yen admission fee.

The Six Realms-- a reminder to stay kind always. 

       The six Jizo statue caught my attention when walking towards the main road. Jizos are bodhisattvas (Buddhist saints) who rescue souls in the six realms: hell, the purgatory of hunger, the purgatory of animal passion, the Asura realm, the human realm, and the heavenly realm.
Zenkoji Temple Nagano

Your Japanese Guardian Angles

       Don’t miss the 100-year-old Nio-mon Gate (the outer gate) where 2 huge Nio Guardians stand guard. “Agyo" statues has its mouth wide open, saying Ahh while “Ungyo" has its mouth shut, saying hmm and this bears a meaning.
       Ahh-Hmm actually means the whole life of a mortal: with Ahh meaning the born of a baby (we cry during birth) and Hmm meaning the death of a mortal (we close our mouths as we die in peace. )
       Those 2 devas work together to protect Buddhism, its believers, and the temple complex. The gate is made of wood with height reaching 5 meters! Many worshipers come here to hang a pair of traditional straw sandals at the gate as a way to honor the long journey to Zenkoji.
Zenkoji Temple Nagano Niomon

Spend the Night "the Nagano Way"

       After the Niomon gate, we can see the original Main Hall located on the left side. It was destroyed several times by fires originating nearby and was then rebuilt each time with donations from believers around the country.
       Then, just off the road passing through Nio-mon Gate, there are 39 shukubo buildings offering temple lodging and some serve shojin ryori (Buddhist monks vegetarian cuisine). Accommodation at a shukubo is still popular nowadays, especially among faithful believers who wish to participate in Zenkoji temple’s daily morning prayers (Oasaji) and the Ojuzu chodai, in which the priest or priestess bless those who line up by touching their heads with holy beads. Some Shukubo also allows visitors to try exclusive activities such as transcribing sutra scripts or making juzu (prayer beads).
       This is by far the most “Nagano-way” of accommodation option I can think of.

Art, Food and Shopping! 

       The buzz of Nagano city centers around the temple. Unlike many other Japanese cities that evolve around a castle, Nagano City established in 1897, is a temple town. The venerable Zenkoji Temple forms the heart and soul of the city, and its influence can be felt throughout the surrounding region.
Zenkoji Nakamise Shopping Street

       After your visit to the Zenkoji Temple, spend some time at the stone-paved Zenkoji Nakamise Shopping Street, the pilgrimage path spreaded out from the temple’s doorstep. Here you can most certainly find the perfect souvenir to bring back. Munch on apple custard pies and Oyaki (local delicacies) as you roam the street, or, if you are adventurous enough, try a miso-flavored soft serve (be warned that you may not be able to accept the taste). We took some time creating our own Kaleidoscope at Galerie Ren, one of the cultural experiences we were thrilled to take part in.
Zenkoji Nakamise Shopping Street
Galerie Ren
Galerie Ren

       Follow an ox to Zenkoji! 

       A Japanese proverb says "Led by an ox I go to Zenkoji Temple." It means a person is led to a good situation by chance even though he/she does not act on his/ her own will but act at someone else's invitation.
       I was told the Japanese folklore at the mid of the tour. I think it is quite interesting and so I am sharing it with you here.
       Long ago, there is a stingy old woman in the village ten miles east of Zenkoji temple. One day, when she was washing clothes by the river, an ox hitched the cloth on its horn and ran away. The old woman chased after the ox and eventually reach Zenkoji temple in the evening but the ox disappeared into thin air. There are a lot of versions of what happened in the Zenkoji Temple next, but the main thing is, thereafter, she turned over a new leaf and become a faithful believer at Zenkoji temple. She was then brought into paradise upon her passing.
follow an ox to zenkoji

Interesting Events and Festivals

       Every February 3rd, Zenkoji Temple organize setsubun-e (changing season ritual). 400 chosen lucky men and women will perform a mame-maki (bean scattering) ceremony
       One of the best time of the year to visit Zenkoji Temple is in February during Nagano Tomyo Festival, when Zenkoji is illuminated with the 5 colors of the Olympic rings. The illumination is planned by the world famous lighting designer, Motoko Ishi.
       “Obon” period in August is also a good time to visit. It is a good opportunity to participate in a Bon dance circle held in the Zenkoji Temple grounds at night.


Zenkoji Nagano

How to get there?

  • From Nagano Station, take the Nagano Dentetsu Line to Gondo (2 stations away) or Zenkojishita station (3 stations away) for 170 Yen.  
  • You can also ride on a Zenkoji Line bus from Nagano Station, whether it is a Binzuru-go (clockwise) or Gururin-go (anti-clockwise). A single ride fare is 150 Yen or you can buy a Zenkoji Temple, Matsushiro one day pass at 1400 Yen. 
  • If you wish to walk, you’ll get to reach the temple approach in 30 minutes.

If you need some guidance, there is a group of certified volunteer tour guides available. English and Chinese guides may be available at no cost, but you may need to wait if all guides were out with groups.
-When: Every weekend and holiday from 10 am to 3 pm
-Where: at the Komagaeri Bridge Information Center

Disclaimer: Photography is prohibited in many part of the temple. I was able to take photos because I went in as a press.

Read More: Nagano 2-Days Itinerary
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This post is made possible by the Nagano City
As always, it is based solely on my honest opinion or personal experience. 
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