Zenkoji Temple Zenko-ji, 10 min. from bullet train station, Nagano City. Always open. Free.
Established in the 7th century--1,400 years ago--this Buddhist temple is one of Japan’s most magnificent and treasured. The temple town of Nagano grew up around it. Zenkoji Temple holds the first Buddhist statue ever brought into Japan. This statue has been “hidden” since 642. People must have faith that it is here, because no one is allowed to see it. However, a replica of the statue is shown to the public during a two-week festival that is held every six years. The next opportunity is in 2022. People come here to ask Buddha to get them to heaven.
The temple approach leading up to the 19th-century Niomon Gate is lined with small restaurants and shops selling local specialties and souvenirs. This outer gate of the temple is guarded by a pair of fearsome Nio guardian figures.
|approach to Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
|Niomon Gate at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
|Nio guardian figure at Niomon Gate at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
|monks shopping outside Niomon Gate at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
The courtyard inside houses one large and six medium-size red-hatted statues of Jizo Bodhisattva. They are believed to protect visitors from hungry ghosts and lead them to the six walls to heaven. The courtyard also holds an enormous lion-capped cauldron that emits healing incense, which visitors waft towards parts of their bodies that need healing.
|Jizo Bodhisattva statues inside Niomon Gate at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
To the left of the main gate is a temple with white lanterns called the Daihongan, which houses the residence of the female Buddhist high priestess and also a nunnery. A Buddha that was once thrown into a pond now sits at the bottom of the steps.
|Buddha statue inside Daihongan at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
Also on the left, the Kyozo houses a 17th-century repository of Buddhist scriptures that resembles the huge prayer wheels seen in the Himalayas. Visitors turn it by pushing with their hands, which is said to bestow enlightenment as if you had chanted the sutras.
|visitors push prayer wheel in Kyozo at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
The temple’s main, inner Sanmon Gate dates back to 1750. For a small fee, you can climb the gate to its second story for an overview of the temple approach.
|Sanmon Gate at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
Rebuilt most recently in 1707, the Zenkoji temple building is one of Japan’s largest wooden temples. Its ornate main hall displays an assortment of Buddhist statues. As you enter the main temple building, look out for Obinzuru-sama, a seated wooden monk statue that has been worn smooth over the years from visitors rubbing the part of it that ails them in their own body with the hope of absorbing its healing properties. A fee (500 yen, includes history museum) is charged to enter the hall's inner chamber to get a closer look at the temple's main altar. It includes entering an underground passage beneath the inner chamber that visitors walk through in complete darkness in search of the "key to paradise." Visitors run their hand along the wall on their right so they can caress the key that is believed to grant salvation to anyone who touches it. Walking the pitch black passage symbolizes that all people are created equal, and that as they pass through darkness into light they are reborn, become pure, and start a new life.
|woman places hand on shoulder of Obinzuru-sama at Zenkoji Temple|
in Nagano City, Japan
|entrance to subterranean passage at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
Statues of the Monju Bodhisattva and the four heavenly kings (Shitenno) are kept in the temple but not available for viewing.
A recently built pagoda housing the Zenkoji History Museum is a short walk behind the main hall. This Buddha museum showcases a collection of intricately carved statues of Buddha and Bodhisattvah. It also displays 100 Rakan, the disciples of Buddha.
More than 35 small temple lodgings (shukubo) line the streets running parallel to the main temple. Staying in these popular accommodations allows guests to visit the temple at sunrise to participate in the daily 5:30 a.m. morning service (Oasaji). Participants then receive blessings from a top priest or priestess and experience the ceremonies enhanced with bells, incense, and chanting.
It is traditional in Japan for people to maintain a special temple book in which a page is stamped during each temple visit (the fee for stamping is US$3 to US$5).
|a temple lodging outside Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
|a bridal couple poses for pictures outside Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
This area is the birthplace of Shichimi Pepper (Nichimi Pepper). Once known as "Doctor Town," Edo is home to many doctors and drug wholesalers, Long ago, chili peppers and herbal medicines were used for healing throughout the area. They were often sold outside temples and shrines, and eventually spread throughout Japan.
The pristine, elegant Yawatayaisogoro/Hachimanya Isogoro pepper shop (83 Daimoncho, Nagano City; www.yawataya.co.jp. 9:00 am to 6:30 pm.) specializes in popular local pepper blends using spices that are unique to Japan. For instance, the Nanami Chili (seven-colored chili) blend consists of seven kinds of chili, baked chili, black sesame, sansho, cinnamon, poppy seed, and hemp seed. Chili peppers add depth to the spiciness and are enhanced by the flavor of fragrant Japanese pepper and sesame. The most popular pepper blend is Shichimi Togarashi, which has been made for more than 280 years and features the unforgettable taste of shinshu. It is made with white ginger, shiso, sansho (a Japanese pepper), chimpi (dried mandarin orange), bansho (hot chili pepper), black sesame, and hemp seeds. All of the ingredients are produced with a unique manufacturing method dating to ancient times. I sprinkle the mix from my colorful little tin onto my morning egg, and it provides a fragrant punch of color.
|Shichimi Pepper display at Hachimanya Isogoro pepper shop|
outside Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan
Located just a few blocks down from the temple, lovely little Yamabuki (55-1 Daimoncho, Nagano; http://yamabuki.px2.jp/index.html) is the perfect spot for a relaxing lunch, It offers an enticing seasonal menu, and everything I sampled was attractively presented and delicious.
|kitchen at Yamabuki restaurant near Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
|set meal at Yamabuki restaurant near Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
|artistic appetizer plate at Yamabuki restaurant near Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan|
|interesting dining chamber perfect for distancing in a pandemic, |
spotted pre-pandemic nearby Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, Japan
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images and video ©2020 Carole Terwilliger Meyers