One of the main things to do when visiting the temple complex of Zenko-ji, is to find the Key to Paradise. In the main hall of Zenko-ji, under the inner sanctuary and the main altar which holds Japan’s oldest Busshist statue, runs an underground passageway that is said to contain the Key to Paradise. If you’ve found and touched this Key, you obtain enlightenment and salvation and are promised a place in Buddhist heaven.
The Kaidan Meguri, as the corridor and Key are called in Japanese, is one of Japan’s most famous, next to Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto. By walking the dark tunnel, you walk a mini-pilgrimage. You find your way through the dark to a holy object (the key) and then step back into the light. That you can’t see anything, is to make you appreciate the divinity of light and to give you the feeling of being reborn.
If you want to try and find the Key, first you need to buy an entree ticket to the inner sanctuary at the ticket machine close to the stairs of the main hall (500 JPY adult fee). Go to the gates that will lead to the main part of the temple, take off your shoes, put them in a plastic bag which you will take with you, and give your ticket to the attendant. Now you’re ready to go to the main event, the tunnel covered by darkness.
The 45 meter long tunnel is so dark that you can’t even see your own hands if you waved them in front of your face. You are said to be taken into a different world, into a part a the Buddhist heaven by walking through the dark. In the pitch-black darkness of the underground path, all people are equal. The dark space provides you with the opportunity to free yourself from all visual distractions and focus and reflect on yourself.
To find the Key to Paradise, keep your right hand on the wall to the right side. You should always keep your hand at hip-level, as the key is at this height. Do not expect to feel a traditional key shape. The Key to Paradise feels more an iron, round door handle.
After getting back into the light and out off the tunnel, go back to the gate, put your shoes on, and you’re ready to head on your way again. But now, you’re blessed by the Key to Paradise.
One of the most interesting times to go for the Key to Paradise is in the early morning hours, at first light. You can do the dark tunnel in combination with the Buddhist morning service, where the monks chant sutras and the head-priest/priestess gives you blessings. See this blog for more information (do know you have to wake up very, very early for the morning ceremony so you’d best get accommodation close to the Temple)