Feb 19, 2018
Zenkoji Temple, Nagano: combined ticket affords full temple experience
Zenkoji Temple in the city of Nagano, is one of the most important temples in Japan. Such a superlative really only scratches the surface of this huge complex though, which is full of legend and stunning imagery that will have even the most spiritually sceptic taking a moment of pause. A combined ticket covering entrance to Zenkoji’s main structures allows visitors to get the most out of the experience.
It seems odd that superlatives describing Nagano’s Zenkoji temple (Zenkōji / 善光寺) as one of the most important temples in Japan often appear in guides as a casual footnote. Perhaps writers sense the collective urge to direct Japan travelers to the more marquee religious structures in Kyoto and Tokyo. Quite how important a place of worship is, is presumably a personal matter anyway. But if you want to be impressed by scale, architecture and the possibility for exploration Zenkoji, and its surrounding structures, is surely the place to do this. Superlatives aren’t enough to capture the magnificence of this site.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Zenkoji’s clout has nothing to do with the spiritual. This temple has given to the world a host city of the Winter Olympics. Nagano, host city in 1998, is a “monzen-machi,” a town established in front of a temple / shrine gate.
In this case, what a gate?!! Zenkoji’s guardian gate, “Nimon,” sits plum and proud on the upper rise of Chuo Dori, the thoroughfare plugging pilgrims, and the casual visitor, into the heart of this great complex. One young Japanese lady visiting the temple remarked to us that the two guardian deities glaring out of the gate’s main columns are “the most ferocious looking I’ve seen in Japan.” Again with the superlatives.
While Zenkoji may have given birth to a modern city, the temple site itself covers size enough to compete with a substantial village. Prepare to have at least half a day spare to get to grips with all there is to see.
Exploration begins on the approach to Niomon where the charming street is lined with temple lodgings (Yes, open to regular visitors.) and Daihongan, a Jodo sect temple.
Promotional literature on Zenkoji seems to be oddly at pains to let visitors know that the temple has been open to women over the ages. Well, one of the most important women to frequent the temple lives here in Daihongan, home to the chief priestess of Zenkoji. The chief priest lives further up the road in Daikanjin, a beautiful plot accessed by a charming bridge that spans a pond.
While much of what there is to see at Zenkoji is free of charge, the site’s marquee attractions command admission fees. These four sites can be covered in a combined ticket for 1,000 yen which we found to be well worth the expense.
Sanmon (Main Gate)
A precipitous set of steps takes visitors up to the main body of this 20m-high gate. Inside you can see small statues of Buddhas collated from each of the 88 temples that make up the famous pilgrimage around the southern island of Shikoku.
Photography is not allowed inside the gate but the short walking course takes visitors around the outside of the upper structure from which you can get enviable views south Nagano station and a good sense of how the city has grown out from the temple. The northern side of the gate commands one of the best views over Zenkoji itself. All views from here are slightly sullied by the presence of protective netting (for the structure, not visitors) but they are still fine, and arguably worth the 1,000 yen alone. You won’t get better elevated views anywhere else at the site.
Kyozo (Sutra Repository)
The Kyozo is a delightful little structure in the western section of the site. Designated an Important Culture Asset, the wooden building houses a great lump of an octagonal drum holding the sutras. This thing weighs in at over three tonnes but the kindly custodian invites visitors to give it a single whirl in a bid to achieve some sort of spiritual well being. Take the strain -- it requires a bit an effort to get the thing moving.
Kyozo seemed to be functioning normally at the time of visiting but the Zenkoji homepage has a notice about the suspension of operations due to the “decrepit” building. It looked fine from where we were standing.
Zenkoji History Museum
In the far western corner of the Zenkoji site is this magical pagoda which serves as a place to pray for Japan’s war dead and, largely on the basement floor, a small museum about the history of Zenkoji.
The pagoda looks magnificent when viewed from the tree-lined avenue that marks the approach. The museum exhibits are limited but it’s interesting to see early photographs of the temple complex and the collection of sculptures depicting the 100 disciples of Buddha are nothing if not amusing.
Hondo (Main Hall)
Viewed from immediately out front it’s hard to get a grasp of the Hondo’s size. It’s only from the side, for example approaching from the history museum, that one can really come to terms with impressive bulk of Zenkoji’s Main Hall.
Somewhere inside this mass is kept what is rumored to be the first Buddhist image to arrive on Japanese shores -- an Amida Triad (an image of Buddha flanked by two assistants) known as Ikko Sanzon Amida Nyorai, thought to have been brought into Japan from the Korean Peninsula in AD 552.
In true religious sleight-of-hand however, no one, not even the Emperor, is allowed to see this image and it hasn’t actually been seen for many generations. Maybe someone lost it?! The powers that be do wheel out a “sacred replica” for the feverish Gokaicho Matsuri held every seven years, presumably to keep the mystery (or myth) alive.
So maybe visitors can’t see this image (strange to call it that then), but there are other leaps of faith to be enjoyed in the Main Hall.
The first one is at the statue of Binzuru -- a physician and Buddha’s most learned follower -- located just inside the entrance, the hall’s “Outer Sanctuary.” Visitors are keen to give Binzuru a rub as doing so is said to alleviate physical ailments. Needless to say, old Binzuru looks pretty worn. Well, it’s got to be worth a shot!
From the Outer Sanctuary it’s possible to gaze, at a distance, towards the glittering and gold ceremonial finery of the hall. To get closer, you need to use your combined ticket which will allow you into the “Inner Sanctuary.”
Perhaps the highlight of a visit to Zenkoji’s Main Hall is, oddly enough, the place where there is absolutely no light whatsoever -- a tunnel in the bowels of this giant structure. A walk through this pitch black tunnel is an exercise in freeing oneself of worldly thoughts, in the true Buddhist tradition. Somewhere on the tunnel walls is a key or a lock (the literature is mixed - is this where THE image is kept hidden?). Touching it is said to allow passage into paradise. (Is it really that easy?)
On a cautionary note, the tunnel is likely to be a bit of a giggle for some, a clammy nightmare for others. It really is pitch black, as in, you can’t see your own hand right in front of your face. There are no handrails (you keep your right hand on the wall at all times and follow it round), nor are there any emergency exit lights. It’s not a long tunnel, taking less than five minutes to navigate, but it’s long enough to induce a state of panic in those susceptible to such things. If that’s you, emphatically do not enter this alone. Have someone you feel comfortable with lead the way, and hold on to them!
Touching the key or not, the religious symbolism is heavy, and emerging back into the light feels cathartic in and of itself.
Myths, legends, and whimsy seem to be around every corner of the Zenkoji complex. As are the designated treasures and their accompanying superlatives. In regards to the combined ticket taking in the centerpieces of Zenkoji -- it’s not an essential, but it’ll enable you to get the best out of your visit. Now there’s a superlative we do believe in.
Notes on visiting Zenkoji
Temple grounds: all day
Kyozo & museum: 9:00 - 16:00
Main Hall: Opens 1 hour before morning service (start time spends on the sunrise - ~ 5:30 in summer, ~ 7:00 in winter)
Combined ticket: 1,000 yen (adult), 400 yen (student), 200 yen (jr high, elementary school)
Zenkoji is pretty much a straight 2 km from Nagano station (Zenkoji Exit) along Chuo- Dori. There’s much to distract along this thoroughfare and exploration along the road should be considered part of the temple experience. Either way, it’s pleasant and easy walk.
Zenkoji Line buses depart from Bus Stop 1 outside the Zenkoji Exit of Nagano station. Buses go as far as Daihongan Temple. Fares are 150 yen. Enter the rear of the bus, take a ticket, pay in correct change as you alight from the front.
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