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).

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