Seek Your Path to Paradise: Zenko-ji Ceremonies & Festivals
Zenko-ji is one of the few temples in Japan that performs a morning ceremony everyday of the year. Referred to as the ‘o-asaji’, the ceremony is 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.
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 temples ‘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.
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.
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 November 24th until December 15th, the Omotesando will be illuminated by light projections and installations followed by the temple itself from December 15th until December 25th – 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.
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.