This venerable old temple is dedicated to Amida Buddha. The statue of Amida is said to be the oldest Buddhist image in Japan. The story goes that two clans were feuding over the statue, which ended up dumped in a canal. A man named Honda Yoshimitsu recovered the statue (one story claims the statue arose from the water and climbed on Yoshimitsu's back) and went on to found the temple. The statue is actually a triptych with two attendant deities along with Amida. However, this image is never on display--it is a hibutsu, a hidden Buddha. For daily services, a copy is visible in the altar, and there is another higher-ranked image that is displayed for a special festival every seven years.
|The Nio-mon and the two guardian figures|
The temple was founded in the Heian period, when Buddhism was first imported to Japan. At that time, there were six major 'sects' of Buddhism that were named after particular sutras or teachings. I use the word 'sects' advisedly, because many monks and scholars freely circulated to various temples depending on what they wanted to study, without much regard for the sect itself. Nowadays, most of the Nara sects consist of only the original temple of each one. As for Zenkoji, it seems to have been unaffiliated with any particular sect. As the temple grew in size and popularity, it became necessary to have clerics manage the temple in a more organized way. Now clerics of Tendai and Jodo share the ceremonial duties. The chief priest of the Jodo temple, Dai Hon Gan, is always a woman, usually someone with a relationship to Japan's imperial family. The temple of the chief Tendai priest is called Dai Kan Jin.
|The Dai Kan Jin, the temple of the Tendai chief priest|
|A weeping cherry tree in the garden of the Dai Hon Gan, the temple of the Jodo chief priestess|
For overseas tourists, the location in Nagano city was a bit of a backwater, rather difficult to reach. This changed when the Winter Olympics were held there. Preparations included building a shinkansen bullet train line from Tokyo. Now the faster trains reach Nagano city in about 90 minutes (from Tokyo).
The temple Zenkoji is about 20 minutes on foot from Nagano station. Buses are also available, but it is a pleasant walk when the weather is good. There are many interesting shops, restaurants, cafes etc. There are also a few smaller temples along the way, where you are free to step through the gate, enjoy the small garden, and put your hands together in front of the main hall (don't forget to drop a coin in the box). Keep your eyes peeled--the small temples are easy to overlook.
Starting a few blocks from the Zenkoji temple gate, vehicular traffic is excluded from the main worshippers' path. Various sub-temples line the road at this point, with cherry trees and other plantings visible beyond the walls. Many of these are temple lodgings, including the one where I stayed, Fuchi no Bo. These are actually temples with a priest in residence. Lodgings with '--Bo' in the name are Jodo temples, while the Tendai lodging temples have names ending in '--In.' Dai Hon Gan, the Jodo chief temple, is near the Nio Mon gate, with the Jodo temple lodgings nearby. The Tendai main temple is near the San Mon gate, with Tendai-affiliated lodgings in the nearby area. Commenters indicate that there is not much difference in the level of hospitality or ambience between the Jodo and Tendai temples, but each temple has unique features as well.
|Fuchi no Bo, a lodging temple|
|Dinner at the lodging temple was vegetarian, but the breakfast tray, above, had a couple of fish|
|The path approaching the temple|
The Nio Mon gate has impressively large Nio guardian figures that are based on those in the great gate of the temple Todaiji in Nara. They are powerful Deva gods that protect the temple from negative forces. According to legends, the Devas will reach out to collar any bad guys that try to go through the gate. The gate is not so old, maybe around 150 years or so--the gate having been rebuilt several times after fires. Further up the path is the larger San Mon mountain gate (most Japanese temples are considered to be mountains, regardless of the actual geography). Usually you can visit the upper story of the gate, although you must pay a hefty ¥500 for the privilege. You get a good view of the temple precincts and an altar with an impressive statuary group. You can photograph the scenery through the windows, although there is bird netting in the way. When the gate was refurbished several years ago, they cleaned out six tons of guano (=BIRD POOP!) so I think we must forgive the netting. Photos of the statues and the interior are not allowed.
|The gold-lettered name plate on the San Mon gate pops out against a clear summer sky|
|The 'Zenkoji' name plate--the top letter looks like the face of a cow-|
In front of the main hall is a large incense cauldron. Offering a burning bundle of incense involves sticking your hand through a hole in the side, so be careful not to get burned.
The main hall is unusual in many ways. First, the main entrance is through the gable end of the building. A guide told me this might be related to residential architecture of the time, and the fact that the temple was originally in Yoshimitsu's home. The altar in the center is dedicated to Yoshimitsu, and the altar of Amida is set back and off to the left. By the way, The 'zenko' of the temple name is the Sino-Japanese reading of Yoshimitsu. It is rather dark in there, so I sat down in the center to pray. When I stood up, a volunteer guide informed me that the altar of Amida was to the left. I should also mention that in order to approach the main altar, you need to buy another ¥500 ticket. This is also expensive but maybe more worthwhile than the Nio Mon gate ticket. For one thing, you can go through the Kaidan path darkness experience. And you can also use the same ticket two days in a row. I visited the first day on my own, and then used the same ticket for the early morning service the next day. The free-entry zone of the temple has a famous statue of Binzuru, who was a physician. You are free to touch this statue, and rubbing the part of the statue corresponding to any physical problems you may have is said to bring improvement. There are other impressive statues in the hall, although the hibutsu main image is never visible. Also, check out the large platform with an array of ceremonial drums and bells.
|This bell fell off its hook during a 19th century earthquake, chipping a nearby pillar|
Be sure to check the wooden pillars supporting the part of the roof extending over the stairway of the main hall. The four pillars are slightly twisted in relation to their stone bases. My volunteer guide told me no one really knows the reason for this. One theory is that it is earthquake-resistance technology. In fact, the temple survived an earthquake estimated to be a 7 or 8 on the Japanese scale, the same scale as an earthquake that destroyed much of Kobe in the 1980s. This earthquake was in the late 1800s. In those days, people would often spend the night in the main hall, but no one in the temple was killed. If you to to the far left side of the verandah (left as you face the altar) you will find a fairly large bell hanging from a hook. The bell fell from its hook in the earthquake, leaving a mark in the pillar nearby. It must have made quite a noise.
Other notable buildings include a revolving sutra library--nowadays it is not turned much, but there are symbolic wheels you can turn as a substitute. Further behind is a concrete Treasure Tower which has a memorial exhibition about a visit by the Dalai Lama (including a powder mandala that was preserved with glue instead of being scattered), a place for sutra copying, and an exhibit on curation of old statues. The ticket for the main hall can also be used here, I think. On the other side of the main hall is a garden area with lots of cherry trees, a bell tower, six large Jizo statues and other sights.
Check-in time was 3:00, and the procedure is done in the room. The manager came and sat down to explain about the bath (in the basement), meals and the morning service. The bath was communal, but limited to about six bathers in terms of size. The meals were served in the room on large trays with everything arranged on beautiful crockery.
To participate in the morning service, everyone assembled at 5:40 AM. I figured the service would start at 600, but this was not quite accurate. The manager appeared with a typical flag used by Japanese tour guides. He led us a few doors up the path to the Dai Hon Gan and explained a bit of the local lore. There is always a large red ceremonial umbrella that is visible when the priestess is there. When she walks to the main hall for the morning ceremony, an attendant holds the umbrella over her. There is also a man wearing formal kimono and hakama that walks ahead of her, a kind of bodyguard. We waited at the San Mon gate. When the Tendai priest emerged from his temple, also under a large red umbrella, two gongs on the bell came from the temple, signaling his approach. It turns out that the Tendai priest sets out for the main hall a bit later each day in the spring and summer and a bit later each day in the fall and winter. We were encouraged to join the locals in the custom of 'O Juzu chodai.' This is a blessing from the priest, who touches you on the head with the tassels of his rosary. To request this, you must kneel (one knee is okay) with hands together. Our guide was surprised that he touched us with the beads rather than the tassels as he walked by. Then we walked into the main hall for the Tendai part of the ceremony. We were able to offer incense (in the form of chips) during the ceremony. It opened with a long hymn sung by a group of about eight monks. This lasted 20 minutes or so, and finally the doors of the altar were opened with great ceremony. It was difficult to see very much, as the altar was in a deep recess. The monks chanted a long sutra, perhaps the Amida sutra. Then, the chief priest faced the congregation as we followed him in reciting 'Namu Amida Bu' (praise to Amida Buddha) ten times. The ceremony also included recitation of the Jigage section of chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra. Our guide said we could sit informally on the tatami for most of the service but we should sit properly, in 'seiza,' for the nembutsu repetition. Eventually, the altar doors were closed and a curtain lowered. Then we filed to one side for the Kaidan darkness experience. Basically, it involves walking through a pitch-dark underground tunnel that goes under the main altar. The location of the altar is marked with a lock or door handle that you can rattle to express your desire to enter the Pure Land of Amida. This is also the closest that ordinary people can get to the altar, although you can't see a thing. Then you experience a symbolic rebirth by climbing up to the world of light.
During our Kaidan tour, the priestess of Dai Hon Gan had made her way to the main hall, under her red umbrella, signaled with three strikes of the bell as she approached. This ceremony was a bit shorter, and included a super fast run-though of the Heart Sutra. We again did the ten recitations of the nembutsu. As the priestess left the main hall, we again knelt for the 'O Juzu chodai' blessing. Some of the lodging temples had more ceremonies in the morning, but Fuchi no Bo did not, so we were done for the day.
|Nagano is famous for soba (buckwheat) noodles--available at many shops near the temple|
|The temple stamp from the main hall|
|A stamp reading 'Fudo Son' from the Dai Kan Jin|
For a visitor with a strong interest in Buddhism, Zenkoji is worth the trip. For a temple lodging experience, Zenkoji is right up there with Koyasan. You could actually do a day trip to Zenkoji from Tokyo, although given the expense of the train ticket, an overnight stay would be more satisfying. (Click on photos to see larger images)