Zenkoji Temple in Nagano

The stereotype of Japanese tourists abroad is that they’re constantly taking pictures, frantically shooting their cameras in every direction at every little feature of life in the foreign country they’re visiting. But as soon as I arrive in Japan, I completely understand this mania for photography. To me, the Westerner, everything in Japan is different and I’m seized by a need to snap, snap, snap and record it all.

But in spite of such a start, after a few days of constantly photographing temples, cherry blossoms, sushi, yakisoba, Japanese bear, skyscrapers, paintings, old buildings, badly written signs in English, I’ve got a lingering feeling that I’m not capturing the “true Japan”. This is because I’m not taking enough pictures of the people, who are everywhere and are everywhere, beautiful. So on the train to Nagano, I make a resolution to take more photos of strangers. When I spot a smartly dressed, photogenic little boy with his mother, I get a dose of encouragement and instruction from Sachiko…

“Shashin, onegaishimasu” (Picture, please)

…and I go up to the child’s mother, with my request. She’s only too happy to have their picture, so I take a quick snap of the serious little fellow, who cheers up no end after I show him the picture on the camera display.

We’re on the way to Zenkoji Temple, by far the most famous landmark in Nagano city. It’s over 1,300 years old and has been a site for visiting pilgrims for a very long time. Located on a hill in Nagano city, it has a commanding, central aspect. Despite being a very modern city with lots of skyscrapers and a Metropolitan hotel, Nagano is still very clearly oriented around Zenkoji Temple. After we’ve gotten off the train, we walk around Nagano city a little bit, before taking the traditional route up Sandoh St which steadily ascends to the temple.

The Zenkoji Temple is a Buddhist Temple but it is so old, it pre-dates a split in Japanese Buddhism between the Tendai sect and the Jōdo Sect. Consequently, it is jointly shared between the two sects with the management of the temple alternating every six months between the abbot of the Tendai sect and the abbess of the Jōdo sect. Unlike many other Buddhist temples in Japan, Zenkoji has never barred women, and it is surely unique in having an abbess in charge for at least part of the year. It certainly indicates that the Nagano lassies are tough cookies.

We walk up along the steadily inclining Sandoh Street, taking our time; up ahead in the distance, the large entrance gate of the Temple is slowly getting bigger and coming more into focus. The street is immaculately maintained by the shop keepers who are lucky enough to have a shop on such a busy thoroughfare. We pass lots of little flower plots and trees planted in the footpath, and we see many shopkeepers outside, sweeping their section of pavement and manicuring their shop frontage. We pass shops selling keyrings, souvenirs, lanterns, t-shirts, incense, beads, chopsticks, fans, manju (fluffy cake), icecreams and nozawana (a kind of pickled radish considered a local snack). There are some benches too, where a tired pilgrim can rest his feet. On the way up, we have some oyaki, a little sweet bean snack, and rest awhile before carrying on.

As we near the Temple, we pass more and more minor religious sites and statues. In the final approach, the street narrows and is for pedestrians and pilgrims only. Up ahead we see an enormous wooden construction, the Sanmon Gate, the inner gate of the Temple; in the distance beyond are high hills of thick forests. We cross into the Temple through an outer gate which is comprised of two large ornate stone pillars.

Before we’ve reached the inner gate, we encounter the Roku-jizo, a row of six statues of Bodhisattvas, who so the story goes, gave up enlightenment in order to help others achieve salvation. They can commune with the realms of hell (地獄), starvation (餓鬼), beasts (畜生), carnage (修羅), human beings (人) and heaven (天).

The Sanmon Gate itself marks the threshold between the sacred and the profane. There are three gateways that can be passed through and the three apparently represent the gate of emptiness, the gate of formlessness and the gate of inaction. Beyond the Sanmon Gate, we’re inside a large central courtyard. This courtyard is dominated by the main temple, a towering wooden structure (the 3rd largest in Japan) with a double arching roof, with gold lacquer, huge hanging lanterns and much Buddhist iconography. For pilgrims, there’s the chozuya where you can wash your face and hands with water; finally, there’s the decorative lion censer, an incense burner where the smoke is waved onto your body.

The most treasured possession of the Zenkoji temple is the Amida Golden Triad, an image of the Buddha said to have been created by the Buddha himself in India in the 4th century BC. It has had a turbulent history. During the 6th century AD, the Korean king gave it as a gift to the Japanese Emperor, making it the first ever image of the Buddha in Japan. It arrived during times of war, and got quickly caught up in the feuds between the many clans competing for supremacy. Very unceremoniously, the image of the Buddha, like another famous native of Nagano, ended up in a canal, before being rescued by a passing kind-hearted stranger. Today, Sachiko tells me, the canal incident has been confined to the past, and the image of the Buddha now resides in the inner sanctum of the Zenkoki temple, permanently shut off from public view.

Although, the most hallowed object of the Temple is shielded from public view, there’s still good reason to go inside the enormous temple. We clamber up the wooden steps, and move inside, our eyes adjusting to the low gloom. The first thing Sachiko shows me is a Buddhist statue, well worn but with very human-like features. Apparently one can rub any part of the statue that corresponds to a part of your own body that ails you. It’s like a benevolent voodoo doll. I’m feeling alright, so I refrain from doing any rubbing but I do notice that the shoulders of the statue seems to be particularly well worn.

We walk around the rest of the temple. Unfortunately it’s too late to enter the Okaidan, one of the main attractions of the Temple. This is the final destination for those who make a genuine pilgrimage to the Temple. It’s a long tunnel of complete darkness, and inside one is given the chance to find the “key to paradise”. But when we go to find the entrance, we learn that it’s too late. The tunnel has closed for the day. I’m gutted that I came this close, only to be told, “Sorry, paradise closed at 5.30”.

In consolation, Sachiko tells me, I’ve an incentive to return one day, an affirmation I’ve no trouble making. We go back outside the main Temple building. This is the second major temple I’ve been to in Japan and like the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, there are extensive grounds surrounding with a great amount of land with trees and little walk-ways in between. In terms of comparative understanding for this Westerner, it’s more like a monastery than a church.

Since it’s gone a bit late in the day, a lot of the day trippers have gone, and the temple is very quiet. The weather is still warm, but there’s a lovely breeze blowing. We walk around the Temple area and find the impressive looking belfry.

At the base of the bell is the following message:

The Nagano Olympic Games began with the solemn sound of the Zenkoji gong. The pure sound pierced the minds and hearts of all who heard it.

We ramble around a bit more and find a stone pillar, with a heavy stone wheel inserted inside it. It’s called a Rinnetoh and Sachiko explains that it’s like a lazy man’s road to salvation. Having so narrowly missed getting my hands on the keys to paradise, I’m totally ready to sign to any quick-fix solution to salvation. The Rinnetoh works thus: a full rotation of the wheel is equivalent to reading one full sutra of the Buddha’s teachings, simply rotate the wheel and you’ve done enough to save your soul. I rotate the wheel. It does take a bit of effort, but not that much.

The explanation on the accompanying sign isn’t as optimistic about salvation, however; it suggests it’s only a possibility…

Rotating the stone wheel (transmigration wheel) may save one from pain and suffering

Towards the end, we find a statue of Jizo Bosatsu which was built as a petition. Like a lot of old buildings in Japan, the Zenkoji Temple is made of wood and in it’s lifetime, has burned down 11 times. The statue of Jizo Bosatsu was made as an appeal to the Gods to stop this from reaccuring.

Our last “hangout” in the Zenkoji Temple is the Daikanji, the home of the high priest.

All in all, it’s been a very pleasant visit to the Temple. With so few people around, the peace, quiet and stillness of the place have left me feeling very zen.

We leave the Temple behind us and stroll back down the hill towards the railway station. On our final walk back through an arcade, I encounter something every Irish person encounters when travelling, no matter how far you are from home: the trail of other Irish people.

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8 Responses to Zenkoji Temple in Nagano

  1. Looks amazing and love your pictures. There is no better place than Japan for taking picture for me 🙂

  2. Joe Barrett says:

    I really enjoy your accounts of your visit in Japan. As you know, I have visited Japan in 2007, 2009 and 2011 and your writing brings me back there reviewing my own visists. On the first trip, I too about 1,100 photographs, on the second trip, I took 1,800 photographs and the last trip was about 1,000 photographs. Thank god for digital photography. Tomorrow I will mail a photograph album to you with 110 completely labeled 4×6 photographs from my trip to Kusu (Yokkaichi), Mt. Gozaisho and Ise City. I am not a professional photographer. I strive to take many photographs of the places I visit with members of my Kusu Japanese family. My grandfather came from Kusu to the USA in 1906. The village of Kusu was incorporated into the city of Yokkaichi in 2005. Keep up the wonderful accounts of your Japan. Please be advised that I will be among the first buying many copies of your book which is a collection of all your Japan travels.

    • finorgan says:

      Thanks Joe. I agree that Japan is an endless source of photo opportunities: beautiful natural scenery, quirky little objects and everything in between. Looking forward to seeing your photos. And thanks for your advance order 🙂

  3. angrygaijin says:

    Super interesting and well written!
    I’ve never read something so in-depth about a temple over here. Great stuff.

    When you do go back to find the key to paradise, please blog about it! I am curious!

    • finorgan says:

      Hi Angrygaijin,

      Thanks for the comment and kind words. I’m planning to return to the dark tunnel to find the key to paradise and when I do, I will definitely blog about it.

      Have you travelled around Nagano?

  4. I’m looking for the day to come back to Japan!

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