The morning service, also called “O-asaji" at Zenko-ji Temple, is one of the most interesting activities that you could partake in while you are in Nagano City.
Zenko-ji Temple holds a lot of buddhist ceremonies in a year. The temple is one of the few remaining temples in Japan that still holds the morning ceremonies for everyday, 365 days a year. The morning service is remained unchanged for many centuries, so you’ll be seeing and hearing a ceremony with a long history. The service is held at the time of sun-rise, around 5:30am in summer and 7:00am in winter.
The o-asaji service is conducted by all the master monks from surrounding temples in the inner part of the main hall, in the part where the first Buddhist statue of Japan is housed. The head-priest makes his way up to the alter and turns his back on you. You can see the his hands waving in the air and creating figures but you don’t get to see the statue as this is holy and has to remain hidden from the public eye. Whilst he performs several ceremonies, monks on the foreground sing sutras to accompany his movements. The deep-throated synchronized chanting echoes through the dark temple hall and creates an atmosphere that is as otherworldly as it is magical.
The Zenko-ji is administered by two different buddhist denominations, Tendai & Jodo, and the morning service is conducted in turn by each sect. After the Tendai leader is finished with his ceremonies and prayers, he is followed up by Jodo sect counterpart. She will do the same ceremonies but is accompanied by different sutras. Each ceremony lasts for approximately for 30 minutes.
O-Juzu Choudai – Rosary blessing
The rosary blessing, in Japanese “O-Juzu Chousdai," and morning service are connected, with the rosary blessing happening first. The Tendai sect leaves his temple Daikanjin and walks towards the main temple. He is followed by a few monks from his sect who protect him from the crowds and from heavy weather by shielding him with a large red umbrella. On his way to the main temple he will bless the visitors kneeling lining up close to the main temple with the rosary. This blessing is said to bring you closer to heaven.
The head-priest of the Tendai sect is followed by the head-priestess of the Jodo sect who leaves from her Daihongan temple 15 minutes after the head-priest. You have 4 chances of receiving the rosary blessing as the priest and priestess give away blessings on their way back to their own temple complex as well.
If you want, you can get closer to the ceremony by purchasing a ticket of 500 JPY that will allow you to get closer to the center of the main hall. This ticket will also get you access to the Key to Heaven after the sutra singing is finished. This is a dark tunnel that goes beneath inner temple and the first Buddhist statue found in Japan. You have to make your way to the end of the pitch black tunnel and find the Key to Heaven that is without seeing a stitch.
Timing of the Ceremonies:
The start of the ritual depends on the time of the sunrise. The priest and priestess get out of their own temples and give the first Rosary Blessings when the first rays of light hit the temple. Please see the approximate time of the ceremony in Zenko-ji event schedule (written in Japanese but you can see the time written on the left of “お朝事," meaning the morning ceremony).
It is best to stay in a hotel in Nagano that’s close to the temple like for example Kokusai 21, as more often than not the ceremonies start earlier than the bus start running from Nagano Station area.
Advice for participating in O-asaji
When you come to see the o-asaji, you will be sitting either cross-legged or on your knees for quite a long time. Also, it can be busy especially in winter as many people like to see the o-asaji so it is advised to be at the venue a little bit ahead of the ceremony starting time. Also Please be aware that photos are not allowed.