The ‘Gokaicho’: Everything You Need to Know
Held every 6 or 7 years – 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 hidden from public view other than during this festival.
During the festival the statue is moved into the inner sanctuary of the temple’s main hall and revealed to those in attendance. The statue then remains on public view for the rest of the ceremony. The festival also sees erection of the ‘Eko-bashira’ pillar in front of the temple. This large timber pillar is brought from Matsushiro and once placed in front of the temple, connected to the Maedaichi Honzon by a rope. Attendees are then free to place their palm against the pillar in transference of energy between themselves and the statue.
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 had been scheduled to take place in 2021 however due to the impact of COVID-19, the festival was postponed until 2022. The dates for the festival in 2022 have now been announced with the important announcement that it will run for a month longer than usual in an effort to spread-out when people visit and lower congestion in and around the temple. The festival will run from late-March until June and include various events and ceremonies, each with its own significance. Major events are spread across the duration of the festival and include:
March 27 / Eko-bashira Pillar Receiving Ceremony: the pillar arrives at the temple from Matsushiro
April 2 / Eko-bashira Pillar Lifting Ceremony: the pillar will be raised following ancient traditions and during the Maedachi Honzon Welcoming Ceremony: the statue is moved into the temple, carried in a repository by monks dressed in traditional white robes.
April 3 / Kaibyaku Daihoyo Service for Unveiling the Statue: during the morning service, the statue is revealed for the first time. A ceremony at 10AM marks the official opening of the Gokaicho.
April 23 & May 7 / Chunichi-teigi Diahoyo Special Service: conducted by the Jodo and Tendai sects on different dates, the is the most colourful event of the Gokaucho and sees children in traditional costumes and residents monks approach the temple in an elaborate parade
Yet to be confirmed / Butto Hana-matsuri Festival: this sacred event celebrates the birth of the Buddha and prays for the health of children.
Yet to be confirmed / Shinnonoi Lion Dance: two large, decorative lions approach the temple in an intricate dance that thrills the crowd.
June 29-30 / Kechigan Daihoyo Final Service: brings the Gokaicho to a close as a curtain comes across the statue and it disappears from view until the next ceremony. The following day the statue is returned to its usual repository in the Tendai sect.