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Zenkouji        Maps     Video     Nagano Index

Zenkouji Temple While the city of Nagano is more widely known as the host city of the 1998 Winter Olympics, its origin and development is centered on the grand 1,400 year-old Buddhist temple, Zenkouji. The clouds of incense smoke and prayers of countless pilgrims at the main hall attest to the importance of Zenkouji as an authentic place of worship.

Legend indicates the temple was founded in 644 AD. The Hondo, or Main Hall, had burned down several times prior to construction of the current structure. The original location is actually about 80 meters south of the Hondo. An Enmei Jizo statue marks the location of the former main hall.

The exact copy of Ikkou Sanzon Amida Nyorai, the sacred Amida Golden Triad Enmei Jizo statue marking former site of the Hondo
The exact copy of Ikkou Sanzon Amida Nyorai, the sacred Amida Golden Triad Enmei Jizo statue marking former site of the Hondo

According to legend, the Amida Golden Triad enshrined in the main hall was the first Buddhist image to arrive in Japan. The image became an object of dispute between two feuding clans and was dumped into a canal. Later rescued from the canal by a man named Yoshimitsu, it was first enshrined in his home in Shinano (now Nagano). Today, the actual image is never shown, but every seventh year an exact copy is revealed in a grand ceremony called Gokaicho. The next such ceremony is scheduled for 2010. The temple was called Zenkou from the Chinese reading of Yoshimitsu's name.

Bronze statue of Reclining Buddha
Bronze statue of Reclining Buddha

In addition to the Amida Golden Triad, Zenkouji is full of treasures and memorials scattered throughout the site. Some, like the Triad, are sequestered away from public view. Another example is the only life-size bronze statue of the reclining Buddha in Japan. It shows the position Buddha assumed before his death. Many others can be discovered by walking throughout the compound.

Zenkouji is one of the few remaining temples in Japan that retains the religious fervor of a functioning pilgrimage mecca. Historically open to women when other temples were not, now up to eight million visitors (more than half women) visit the temple annually. Their purpose is a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to ensure salvation by touching the Key to Paradise located in a pitch black passageway under the main altar.

At the same time, Zenkouji is a non-sectarian temple whose religious leaders (a priest and a priestess) share the responsibility for rituals. It is not affiliated with any one particular sect of Buddhism so all are welcome, regardless of gender, creed or religious belief (for this reason, amongst others, the temple was a centerpiece during the 1998 Winter Olympics). Its hidden image is the focus that transcends idol worship, howsoever the faith is practised here.

Zenkouji's Buddha triad is a symbol of light, leading to the acquisition of wisdom and truth. In the pitch black tunnel below zenkouji's main hall, all people in the darkness are equal. While groping for the key to paradise, visitors are to free themselves of worldly thoughts, engage in self-reflection and perhaps experience spiritual awakening.

Since Zenkouji has not been affiliated with any one particular sect of Buddhism, it has been popular amongst a great number of people throughout its history. In the precints of the temple are the Hondo or main hall, Kyouzou (Sutra Repository), Unjoden (Ash Repository), Chureiden (Memorial Pagoda for the War dead), Sanmon (main gate), Nurebotoke jizo statue, Roku-jizo statues, Daikanjin and Daihongan residences, Niomon (Deva gate), and Nakamise district.

Hondo (Main Hall)

Hondo, the main hall
Hondo, the main hall

Dating from 1707, after four years of construction, the Hondo holds zenkouji's most sacred image, the Amida Golden Triad. Called Ikkou Sanzon Amida Nyorai, it features three standing images sharing one halo. Due to an oracle by Nyorai, the image is prohibited from being displayed to the public, but a faithful copy is revealed every seven years during the "Gokaichou" ceremony which will next occur in 2010. Considered first Buddhist image in Japan, it is said to have arrived from India via Korea in 552.

The current building was constructed between 1703 and 1707 and is 54 meters long, 24 meters wide and 26 meters high. It is one of the biggest wooden buildings in Japan and is regarded as a typical Buddhist temple of the Edo era (1603-1867).

A unique feature of the temple is the pitch black tunnel running under main altar. Pilgrims blindly navigate the tunnel seeking a wall mounted "Key to Paradise". To touch the key is to attain enlightenment and eternal salvation.

Incense burner in front of the Hondo Binzuru statue
Incense burner in front of the Hondo Binzuru statue

Visitors to Zenkouji also come to Zenkouji hoping to attain physical, as well as spiritual healing. Pilgrims rub smoke from a huge incense burner outside onto their bodies before entering the temple to bring health and good fortune. Upon entering the Outer Sanctuary, visitors then approach the worn figure of Binzuru, a physician and Buddha's most intelligent follower. By rubbing this statue, pilgrims hope their own aches and pains will be alleviated.

Early morning visitors also line up in Outer Sanctuary to receive a morning blessing from the high priest or priestess. In a morning ritual held daily without fail, the high priest or priestess faces visiting pilgrims to pray for their salvation and that of the world.

Further inside the building is the Worshipper's Hall where 25 gilden Bosatsu mounted on a partition above a shrine descend to welcome believers to Amida's Paradise. The Inner Sanctuary, where priests chant sutra, also has statues of Zenkouji's founder, Yoshimitsu, and his family. Yoshimitsu rescued the sacred image after it was thrown into a canal in a dispute. The sacred image is also housed in the Inner Sanctuary, although away from public view.

Statue of Yoshimitsu, temple founder, and his family Shoro bell Kanetukidou (belfry)
Statue of Yoshimitsu, temple founder, and his family Shoro bell Kanetukidou (belfry)

Outside and to the east of the Hondo is the Kanetukidou, a belfry which rang in the opening of the Nagano Winter Olympic Games in 1998. The Shoro (bell), a declared Important Art Object, was cast in 1667 and reconstructed in 1853.

Kyozo, the Sutra Repository Sutra Holder in Kyozo
Kyozo, the Sutra Repository Sutra Holder in Kyozo

Kyozo (Sutra Repository)

This declared Important Cultural Asset located west of the Hondo houses a complete set of Buddhist sutras mounted on a massive rotating octogan-shaped cylinder. The building is opened periodically and, for a fee, visitors can enter and amass virtue by pushing the sutra holder one rotation. The holder was donated in 1694 while the building dates from 1759. The building also enshrines wooden statues of Jikauku and Dengyo.

Also inside are wooden statues of St. Dengyo, the founder of the Japanese Tendai sect, St. Jikaku, and Fu Daishi, a Chinese priest who invented the rotating sutra holder.

Unjoden, the Ash Repository
Unjoden, the Ash Repository

Chureiden, the war memorial pagoda
Chureiden, the war memorial pagoda

Unjoden (Ash Repository)

Outside the temple grounds, located halfway up the mountain behind the Hondo is the Unjoden, or Ash Repository. Its location affords a fantastic view of Nagano city.

Chureiden (War Memorial)

Northwest of the Hondo is the Chureiden, a memorial pagoda for the War dead. Inside, it houses plaques commemorating the eras of conflict but it also has many art and religious objects on display. An entry fee is required to enter the pagoda.

Sanmon, the main temple gate
Sanmon, the main temple gate

Sanmon (temple gate)

Zenkouji's second declared important cultural asset, this main gate contains five wooden buddhist statues. It is not open to the public. The plaque reading "Zen-kou-ji" was rendered by an imperial prince and contains five doves hidden in the calligraphy.




Nure Botoke Jizo statue
Nure Botoke Jizo statue

Nure Botoke

Posted to the east of the Sanmon is a large seated bronze figure of Jizo Bosatsu, a wet jizo statue erected in 1722. With the Hondo having burnt down eleven times in its history, this statue, an image of the Ksitigarbha bodhisattva, was erected to serve as a prayer to protect the temple from fire.

Roku-jizo (Six Jizo) statues
Roku-jizo (Six Jizo) statues

Roku-Jizo (6 Jizo)

Near the Nure Botoke are six other seated jizo statues mounted in a row, all of which are also images of the Ksitigarbha bodhisattva. Bodhisattva are enlightened beings who postpone Buddhahood to save others. The six Jizo statues situated here represent benevolent deities who save souls from pain and suffering. They also attend the six worlds through which souls transmigrate eternally which are the realms of heaven, human beings, carnage, beasts, eternally famished devils, and hell.

Daikanjin (Tendai sect), residence of the high priest
Daikanjin (Tendai sect), residence of the high priest

Daikanjin (Tendai Sect temple)

Residence and temple of the chief priest located to the west of the Sanmon. The compound features one of Japan's 100 famous gardens and a treasure house storing an ancient illustrated scroll of Tale of Genji (also not accessible to public)

Daihongan (Jodo sect), residence of the high priestess
Daihongan (Jodo sect), residence of the high priestess


Daihongan (Jodo Sect temple)

Located at the very southwestern section of the site, on the other side of the former site of the Hondo is the Dahongan,the nunnery and residence of high priestess. The high priestess of the Daihongan must be a member of the imperial family or a close associate.




Niomon, the Deva gate
Niomon, the Deva gate

Niomon (Deva Gate)

Reconstructed in 1918 after fire, this gate houses two guardian deities carved in the early 20th century. They subjugate enemies of buddhism. The plaque mounted above the entry way reads "Jou Gaku San", a title of Zenkouji.

Nakamise, front path and shopping district to Zenkouji
Nakamise, front path and shopping district to Zenkouji

Nakamise

The front approach to the Hondo is paved with flagstones, allegedly 7,777 of them. Along this approach are a number of stores lining both sides of the path showcasing a wide variety of gifts and local products and crafts such as family altars, pickled vegetables and traditional toys.






Nyoze Hime statue at Nagano Station
Nyoze Hime statue at Nagano Station

How to get there

To get to Nagano:  From Nagoya, by train, it takes three hours via the JR Chuo Honsen Line Limited Express to reach Nagano. From Tokyo, it takes about 100 minutes via the Nagano Shikansen.
From Nagano Station:  ask a station attendant where to take the bus to Zenkouji. It can also be walked to, allow 30 minutes from the station. As you exit from the station, look for the statue of Princess Nyoze for directions (she faces in the direction of the temple).

Phone:   026-234-3591
Entry to the site is free but there is a fee for entering, at least, the Hondo, Chureiden, and Kyouzou buildings.

Tours - Japan Discovery visits Zenkouji.
Click here for more information regarding when Discovery visits this destination.

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