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.Read More
Zenko-ji and around
Zenko-ji and around
Passing through the impressive 13.6m-tall gate Niō-mon (仁王門) and a short precinct lined with more souvenir stalls and lodgings, you’ll see the Roku-Jizō on the right, a row of six large metal statues symbolizing the guardians of the six worlds through which Buddhists believe the soul must pass: hell, starvation, beasts, carnage, human beings and heavenly beings. On the left is Daikanjin (大勧進), the home of the high priest; the entrance is reached by crossing an attractive arched bridge and there is a pretty garden inside.
At the top of the precinct stands the San-mon (山門), the huge, double-storey wooden gateway into Zenkō-ji’s central courtyard, a gathering place not only for pilgrims but also pigeons, which have their own elaborate metal coop on the left-hand side. On the same side is the Kyōzō, or sutra repository, an elegant wooden building that is only open occasionally. In the centre of the courtyard stands a large metal cauldron decorated with a lion whose mouth exhales the perfumed smoke of incense sticks. A charm for health and good fortune, pilgrims waft the smoke around their bodies before moving on to the vast, imposing main hall, the Hondō, which dates from 1707.
If you’re at all uncomfortable in the dark, don’t enter the Okaidan, a pitch-black passage that runs beneath the Hondō’s innermost sanctum. This is the resting place of the revered Ikkō Sanzon Amida Nyorai, and pilgrims come down here to grope around in the dark tunnel for the metaphorical “key to paradise” – the closest they will ever get to this sacred object. Buy a ticket from one of the machines to the right of Binzuru’s statue, and follow the chattering crowds plunging into the darkness. Once you’re in, keep your right hand on the wall and chances are you’ll find the key (it actually feels more like a door knob) towards the end of the passage.
Back in the light, enter the outer sanctuary of the hall and look straight ahead for the worn-out statue of Binzuru, a physician and fallen follower of Buddha; pilgrims rub the statue in the hope of curing their ailments. Just beyond is the awesome worshipper’s hall, a vast space with golden ornaments dangling from the high ceiling, where pilgrims used to bed down on futons for the night.
People traditionally come for the morning service, which starts around 5.30am; it’s worth making the effort to attend in order to witness Zenkō-ji at its most mystical, with the priests wailing, drums pounding and hundreds of pilgrims joined in fervent prayer. Afterwards, the Ojuzu Chōdai ceremony takes place in the courtyard in front of the Hondō. Pilgrims kneel while the high priest or priestess rustles by in their colourful robes, shaded by a giant red paper umbrella; as they pass, they bless the pilgrims by tapping them on the head with prayer beads.
A couple of minutes east of Zenkō-ji, across Joyama-kōen, is the Prefectural Shinano Art Museum (長野県信濃美術館), worth popping into mainly for the modern gallery devoted to the vivid, dreamy landscape paintings of celebrated local artist Higashiyama Kaii (1908–99).
The Ikko Sanzon Amida Nyorai
The Ikko Sanzon Amida Nyorai
Zenkō-ji’s most sacred object is the Ikkō Sanzon Amida Nyorai, a triad of Amida Buddha images sharing one halo. This golden statue is believed to have been made by Buddha himself in the sixth century BC and is said to have arrived in Japan some 1200 years later as a gift from Korea to the emperor. For a while, the image was kept in a specially built temple near Ōsaka, where it became the focus of a clan feud. The temple was eventually destroyed and the statue dumped in a nearby canal, from where it was later rescued by Honda Yoshimitsu, a poor man who was passing by and apparently heard Buddha call. Honda brought the image back to his home in Nagano (then called Shinano). When news of its recovery reached Empress Kōgyoku, she ordered a temple to be built in its honour and called it Zenkō-ji after the Chinese reading of Honda’s name. The empress also ordered that the image should never be publicly viewed again, so a copy was made and it is this that is displayed once every six years in the grand Gokaichō festival, held from early April to late May. The next festival is in 2016.