Nagano’s Zenko-ji Temple is one of the oldest and most important Buddhist temple complexes in Japan with a near-1400 year history. A place of true religious significance, legend, and myth, Zenko-ji is the heart and soul of Nagano. The city grew out from the temple and today, it continues to play a fundamental role in the life of the city and region.
Listed as a National Treasure, Zenko-ji is not only one of Japan’s most important temples but also one of its most active. Visitors to the temple can partake in a range of activities that transform any visit into a meaningful experience. As a non-denominational temple, Zenko-ji welcomes all visitors – Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. Indeed the temple is unique in welcoming “all living beings”, resulting in visitors regularly brining their pets to the temple, for their spiritual health and well-being.
The “O-asaji”morning ceremony
Each morning at sunrise – every day of the year – the head-priest and head-priestess of Zenko-ji’s attendant temples enter the main hall to perform the “o-asaji” or “morning ceremony”. With accompanying monks seated in the temple’s inner sanctuary chanting sutras, rituals that have remained unchanged for countless years are performed with by the head-priest and head-priestess in turn. In the early morning, this ceremony takes on an other-worldly quality, and transports you to another time and space.
En-route to and from the main temple, both the head-priest and head-priest bless visitors with their rosaries. Both Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike are welcome to join this process by kneeling before them as they make their procession to and from the temple, and having the rosary placed gently against their head with recitation of a quiet prayer.
Zenko-ji is one of the few temples in Japan to perform this ceremony on a daily basis. Starting time varies through the year to approximately coincide with sunrise – around 530AM during the summer and 0700 during winter.
The “Kaidan Meguri”
Zenko-ji is revered for housing the first known Buddhist statue to be brought into the country from Korea (sometime in 6th century). Now permanently hidden from view, never to be seen again, within the main hall, the temple affords visitors a unique experience in bringing themselves close to the statue without seeing it. The “kaidsan meguri” is a staircase descending to a tunnel at the back of the hall, which runs under the altar to a point directly below where the hidden statue is now said to be housed. The tunnel is completely dark. Once you entered you literally cannot see a thing. Guided only by touch, keeping your hand on the wall, you proceed deeper into the tunnel searching for the Key to Paradise. Also hidden in the tunnel, this “key” aids you in your journey to enlightenment, and is the treasure you are searching for before you are reborn into the light at the tunnels end.
This is a unique and memorable experience and particularly worthwhile when the tunnel is quiet and you are absorbed into darkness. Tickets are available in the main hall – JPY500 for adults (18+), JPY200 for school students (13-17) and JPY50 (6-12) for children – with helpful temple staff on hand to assist you and explain the rules for entering tunnel.