Seek Your Path to Paradise: Zenko-ji Ceremonies & Festivals
Zenko-ji is one of the few temples in Japan and to this day, remains one of the most important temples for pilgrimage. As such, the temple plays a fundamental role in the lives of many people, a fact that is reflected by a number of notable events, experiences and festivals that take place at Zenko-ji starting with the daily:
‘O-Asaji’ & ‘O-Juzu Choudai’
Referred to as the ‘o-asaji’, the ceremony takes places every morning of the year, led by the head of the Tendai and Jodo sects and welcomes anyone to participate regardless of background or faith. Shortly after sunrise, the head of each sect will walk from their respective temples to the Main Hall and lead the attendant monks and nuns in an ancient ritual, as sutras are recited and chanting evokes an otherworldly atmosphere.
Each ceremony takes 30 minutes to complete, meaning the overall ceremony lasts approximately 1 hour and is both preceded and followed by the ‘O-Juzu Choudai’ or ‘Rosary Blessing’. As the head of each sect moves to and from the temple, attendants line up and kneel before them, awaiting their blessing with the soft touch of a rosary upon their heads. This simple act is said to ensure a peaceful death and entry into the Buddhist paradise; a blessing which visitors can obtain four times during any one ceremony as the heads of both sects move to and from the main hall.
Taking place shortly after sunrise, ceremony times vary throughout the year. From October until April, expect a start time between 6 to 7AM with ceremonies conducted between May and September starting between 530 to 630AM. There is no charge to enter the temple grounds and receive the rosary blessing however should you wish to sit inside the main hall in observation of the o-asaji ceremony, you will be required to pay JPY500 for entry into the inner sanctuary. For the exact timing of the ceremony through the year, please refer to the temple schedule.
The ‘Kaidan Meguri’
Access to the inner sanctuary is possible through the day with purchase of this ticket. Inside the sanctuary visitors can sit quietly and take in the beauty of the main hall including its elaborate altar, along with two large statues of the Buddha sitting to the east and west. Also accessible using this ticket, the temple’s ‘Kaidan Meguri’ descends below the altar and leads to a point directly below where the hidden statue is now said to sit, away from human eyes.
The tunnel is completely dark, intentionally so to represent our death and movement toward rebirth. For those who enter the tunnel, as they move through the complete darkness toward the slowly emerging light at the other end, a hidden artefact lies waiting to be discovered. Using touch to guide your way, you are searching for the ‘Key to Paradise’, said to aid you on your path toward enlightenment. To access the inner sanctuary including the Kaidan Meguri, visitors must purchase a ticket – JPY500 for adults / JPY200 for high school students / JPY50 for junior high school and primary school students – available from a ticket machine inside the main hall of the temple. Looking back-out of the temple, the machine is brightly-lit on your right. You can’t miss it and temple staff are usually on-hand to assist. When entering the inner sanctuary and tunnel, you will be required to remove your shoes and hat (if you are wearing one), refrain from speaking or speak very quietly, and do not take photographs or use your phone for any reason.
Guided Buddhist Experiences at Zenko-ji
Zenko-ji is a vibrant spiritual center which welcomes visitors to enjoy the temple and experience the practices and rituals that underpin its teachings. While you do not need to be Buddhist to be welcomed at the temple or to enjoy the sanctity and beauty you will find there, Zenko-ji offers a range of activities that are fundamental to the study and practice of Buddhism.
2 Day Tour
|Zenkoji Experience Tour inc. Overnight ‘Shukubo’ (Temple Lodging) Stay
|All Year Round
For an explanation of the experiences and ceremonies on offer, please see our ‘Experience Guided Meditation & More at Zenko-ji’ page.
The Festivals of Zenko-ji
As one of Japan’s most important temples, Zenko-ji plays host to several festivals each year with one very special event every 6 or 7 years. Each festival has its own atmosphere and highlights the beauty and spiritual significance of the temple precinct.
1 Day Tour
|1-Day Tour: Snow Monkeys & Zenko-ji Winter Illumination
|10:45/12:15 – 19:50/21:00
Each November and December, the Zenko-ji Omotesando Illumination brings the temple and the ‘Omotesando’ (the road leading to Zenko-ji), into brilliant colour. From mid-November until mid-December, the Omotesando will be illuminated by light projections and installations followed by the temple itself in mid-December transforming the 1.8km road and temple into an imagined Buddhist paradise – an ephemeral world of purple and violet, silver and golden light.
During the festival the traditional road of pilgrimage and temple itself will be a place of enchantment, an illumination of the mind reflected in the light. In the crisp air of late-autumn and early-winter, this vivid awakening of the city’s heart is certain to leave a lasting impression on visitors.
1 Day Tour
|1-Day Tour: Snow Monkeys & Zenko-ji Tomyo Lantern Festival
|10:45/12:15 – 19:50/21:00
Soon after, the temple again bursts into brilliant light with the Nagano Tomyo Lantern Festival. Held from February 22nd until March 1st each year, this quiet and tranquil festival commemorates Nagano’s role as the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics and offers light to the Buddha. Considered an important act of Buddhist observance and merit-attainment, this a a very local, family-oriented festival.
One of the most striking features of the festival are the numerous ‘kiri-e’ (paper cut) lanterns that line the road leading to the temple. Created by professional artists, local residents and children, these stunning and highly intricate lanterns embody the community spirit of the festival.
Held every 6 or 7 years – next scheduled for 2021 – the ‘Zenko-ji Maedaichi Honzon Gokaicho’ or more simply, Gokaicho, celebrates the history and heritage of Zenko-ji with the public display of the Maedachi Honzon – a replica of the hidden statue. Carved in the 14th century, the replica statue is itself over 700 years old and also hidden from public view other than during this festival. Lasting 57 days from April to May, the Gokaicho includes various events, each with its own significance. The festival draws visitors from all over Japan, with estimates of more than 6 million attendees in 2009 and between 6 to 8 million in 2015. The next Gokaicho was meant to take place in 2021 however due to the ongoing impact of COVID-19, the festival is now scheduled for 2022. For full details, please refer to our Zenko-ji Maedaichi Honzon Gokaicho general information page.