Zenkoji Temple (善光寺) is a sensory experience, with clouds of incense smoke for your nose and the prayers of countless pilgrims for your ears. The magic of the temple continues through two large gates and continues down a pedestrian-only street lined with restaurants, snacks, souvenirs and more all attesting to the number of people who visit in a year. It is worth arriving at the temple shortly after it opens to observe the morning services and the ojuzu chodai, in which the priest or priestess touches Buddhist holy beads to the heads of all who line up.
Many major Japanese cities have evolved either from castle towns, harbor towns or temple towns – this was the case with Nagano, in it that grew from a temple town which developed around the greatly important Zenkoji. To this day and for many more to come the incense is burning, monks are working, sitting and wandering, visitors praying and thinking. Zenkoji Temple is one of the last few remaining pilgrimage sites in Japan.
The Secret of Zenkoji Temple
Built in the 7th century and established in 1897, the temple enshrines a hibitsu, a secret Buddha, rumored to be the first ever Buddhist sculpture brought to Japan. A hidden Buddha statue so secret even the Chief Priest of the temple isn’t allowed to see it! There is, however, a replica of the statue. The replica is only put on display for a few weeks every 6 years; the next opportunity is in 2015.
Though this hidden image is the base of Zenkoji, the faith taught there claims to transcend idol worship, and that “Zenkoji’s Buddha triad is a symbol of light, leading to the acquisition of wisdom and truth”.
Zenkoji is non-sectarian, which means that it is open to people of any gender, race, age, religious belief or background.
Wandering to Zenkoji Temple
Walking from town, the road to Zenkoji (Zenkoji-omotesando) has a good selection of souvenirs and snacks, and a decent selection of locally made handicrafts. On walking through the two gates and up the final steps of the temple itself, don’t forget to stop at the two-meter tall metal incense burner, and rub the incense smoke on your body for good health and fortune. In the early mornings a high priest or priestess holds blessing ceremonies here.
Up the stairs on the right and inside a bit you’ll find a one-meter tall wooden statue of Binzuru, a physician who was said to be Buddha’s follower and one of the sixteen disciples who vowed to stay behind in this world. He was due to become a Bodhisattva, and go to the land of the immortals, but the Buddha had instructed him to remain on earth and continue to do good works. Visitors to the temple touch the statue of Binzuru in the belief that he can cure the diseases of afflicted persons who touch his image. The surface of the statue is worn smooth by the millions of visitors who have touched it with the hope that it will heal ailments of the corresponding parts of their own bodies. While the face of the statue is quite worn, it is still easy to see its form. Give him a rub – wherever you have problems, rub him in the same place and this old wise looking physician will help you out. Or just rub him up for general good health!
A charge of around 500 yen will give you tickets into the inner prayer area. Take off your shoes and put them in a bag (provided) and carry them with you. Look closely at the incredibly innately decorated interior of the temple proper. Relax. Make your prayers. Move on. You can also, and should, choose to enter the basement of the inner chamber and walk the pitch-black underground passage in search of the key to enlightenment, a task not to be taken lightly! The key is believed to grant salvation to anybody who touches it. Zenkoji is a place for enlightenment. In the pitch-black tunnel, all people are equal.
Address: 491 Motoyoshi-cho, Nagano-shi, Nagano
Admission Fee: 500 yen (children 5 & under free)
For detailed train information search from your nearest station to Nagano using Jorudan’s Train Route Finder.
From Nagano Station, it is a 30 minute walk through town and up Zenkoji-omotesando or you can catch the Zenkoji-Daimon bus from the station which takes about 10 minutes.
Bus: JR Nagano Station/Bus/10 min./Zenkoji-Daimon Bus Stop/On foot/5 min.
- JNTO – Official tourist site with lots of detailed information about Zenkoji Temple
- Japanese Buddhism – Zenkoji Temple, Nagano City
- Shinshu Zenkoji – Official Zenkoji Temple Website
- Sacred Sites – Places of Peace and Power