Surrounded by fruit orchards and snowcapped peaks, NAGANO (長野), capital of Nagano-ken, had its moment in the international spotlight back in 1998 when it hosted the Winter Olympics. For the Japanese, however, this modern, compact city some 200km northwest of Tokyo has been on the tourist map for centuries. Every year, millions of pilgrims descend on Nagano to pay homage at Zenkō-ji (善光寺), home of a legendary sixth-century image of Buddha.
The temple’s popularity is linked to the fact that it has traditionally welcomed believers of all Buddhist sects, has never barred women and is run alternately by an abbot of the Tendai sect and an abbess of the Jōdo sect. Visitors can join the hundreds of daily petitioners searching for the “key to paradise” which lies beneath Zenkō-ji’s main temple building; find it and you’ll have earned eternal salvation.
This temple aside, there’s little else special to see in the city itself, although it’s a very handy base for trips to surrounding destinations such as Karuizawa, Togakushi, Obuse, Nozawa Onsen, Hakuba and Kanbayashi Onsen, home to Japan’s famed snow monkeys.
The traditional way to approach Zenkō-ji is on foot. Head north along Chūō-dōri, west of the JR station, and you’ll first pass Saikō-ji (西光寺), a small temple tucked away in a quiet courtyard. Also known as Karukaya-san, after the Buddhist saint who founded it in 1199, the main temple building contains two wooden statues of Jizō, the guardian of children, one carved by Karukaya, and the other by his son Ishidō.
Continuing along Chūō-dōri, the road begins to narrow around the area known as Daimon (大門), where you’ll find many gift shops and restaurants. On the left is the Daihongan (大本願), the nunnery and residence of the high priestess of Zenkō-ji, who is usually a member of the imperial family. In the courtyard, look out for the fountain with a statue of Mizuko Jizō, the patron saint of aborted and stillborn babies – little dolls and toys are left as offerings around the base.