Zenkoji Temple: A Famous Pilgrimage Site in Japan

Being a country known for its rich culture and heritage, Japan is quite well-known for housing numerous pilgrimage sites. These sites are usually visited by people who are on a spiritual journey or by people who are trying to find themselves figuratively. Some people also go to these sites in order to learn more about the religion, history, and culture of Japan. Most of these pilgrimage sites are visited by foreign tourists who are fascinated by the customs of the Buddhist monks. The number of pilgrimage sites in Japan has decreased through the years though some are still maintained to this day. One of these sites is Zenkoji Temple.

Overview: Hours, Zenkojishita Station, and Shukubo Stays

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=357911

A Buddhist temple, Zenkoji Temple is situated in the city of Nagano, Japan. It was constructed in the 7th century. Initially just a town, Nagano was actually built around Zenkoji Temple prior to becoming a city in the year 1897. Though the temple is well-known for being one of the few pilgrimage sites lefts in Japan, its fame can also be attributed to its connection in the battles between Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin during the 16th century. At the time, Zenkoji Temple was used as one of the bases of operations of Kenshin.

The founding of Zenkoji Temple occurred prior to the splitting of Japanese Buddhism into various sects. At present, Zenkoji Temple belongs to two schools of Buddhism. These two schools are known as the Tendai school and the Jodoshu school. The temple is currently being co-run by 25 priests from the Tendai school and 14 priests from the Jodoshu school.

Depictions of the Amida Buddha are known to be enshrined in Zenkoji Temple. There is actually a legend that surrounds the image of Amida Buddha. It is said that this image was the cause of war between two families. Because of this, the image was thrown into a canal. However, this image was eventually rescued and restored by Honda Yoshimitsu. As thanks, the name of the temple was based on the Chinese transliteration of the name of Yoshimitsu, which was “Zenko.”

The primary Buddhist image of Zenkoji Temple is a hibutsu, which translates to “secret Buddha.” It is a Buddha statue hidden from the public eye. Many say that this statue is actually the first Buddha statue to be transported to Japan. Absolute secrecy as to the whereabouts of the statue is one of the commandments of Zenkoji. In fact, not even the chief priest of the temple is allowed to see the that statue.

On the other hand, the statue was replicated and called the “Maedachi Honzon.” This statue goes public only once every six years during the spring season. It is shown during a ceremony known as Gokaicho. Because of its rare appearance, several worshippers and visitors travel to Zenkoji Temple on purpose just to see the statue. Cooperation between Zenkoji and other temples, namely, Motozenkō-ji and Zenkō-ji of Kofu, were also established during the display of this statue in the year 2003. It was last displayed in April and May of the year 2015.

Another statue house in the temple is Binzuru. A physician, Binzuru was believed to be a follower of Buddha. Some believe that touching this statue would cure their diseases. The high priest or priestess of the temple also holds a morning ritual on a daily basis in the temple.

By Neruru [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

An inner chamber can also be found in the temple where visitors can prayer. From there, one may find a narrow staircase that leads visitors to a corridor. This corridor, which is completely dark, contains a wall where a metal key hangs. Worshippers attempt to touch this metal key in hopes of gaining enlightenment. This metal key is said to signify the Key to the Western Paradise of the Amida Buddha.

From JR Nagano Station, Zenkoji Temple can be reached by bus. This trip would only take about 10 minutes. An alternate option would be to get on a train from the underground Nagaden Nagano Station and get off at Zenkojishita Station. This trip only takes about 4 minutes and costs 170 yen per head with 2 to 3 trains passing every hour. From Zenkojishita Station, the temple can be accessed by foot in about 5 to 10 minutes.

The operating hours is different for the Main Hall and the Sanmon Gate of Zenkoji. The Sanmon Gate is open from 9 AM to 4PM. It is open every day of the week. The admission fee to enter the gate is 500 yen per head. On the other hand, the Main Hall opens from around an hour before sunrise and closes at around 4 to 4:30 PM.

From December to February, the hall closes at 4 PM. However, from March to November, the Main Hall is only open until 4:15 PM. On the other hand, the History Museum is open from 9 AM to 4 PM. The Main Hall has no closing days. Admission fee costs 500 yen per person to enter the inner chamber, underground passage, and History Museum.

Because it is a pilgrimage site, some worshippers actually spend the night in Zenkoji. There are various Shukubo facilities that surround Zenkoji. Even tourists like to try the Shukubo facilities in order to learn more about the customs of the monks. These facilities are actually as popular as those found in Mount Koya. There are at least 40 Shukubo facilities to choose from, some of which, however, would require advance booking.

A Brief History and Morning Service of Zenkoji Temple in Nagano

The history of Zenkoji Temple began with the main image of the temple, which is the hibutsu. This image was transported from India all the way to Japan via the Korean peninsula. This transport occurred during the reign of Emperor Kinmei, which was in the 6th century. Upon arriving at the Japan, this image was moved numerous times before finally landing and staying in its current location in the city of Nagano.

Due to the fame of the Buddha status in Zenkoji Temple, several temples replicated this statue by the conclusion of the Kamakura period, which lasted from the year 1185 to the year 1333. After which, several new temples were constructed across Japan based on Zenkoji Temple, with some bearing the same name. Zenkoji Temple, later on, got involved in the battle between Shingen and Kenshin during the Sengoku period, which lasted from the 15th century to the 17th century. Because of the fear of the chief abbot at the time that Zenkoji would be burned down, he built a replica in Kofu.

The hibutsu was later on moved to Kyoto in the year 1598. It was again moved to Shinano before it finally settled back in the city of Nagano. Zenkoji was supposed to be a part of the 2008 Summer Olympics torch relay. However, the temple pulled out of the program due to the 2008 Tibetan unrest, as the temple came together with the Tibetan Buddhists.

Going Around: Omotesando, Underground Tunnel, and Other Structures

By Vanvelthem Cédric [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

In the year 1888, Nagano Station was opened. It was built at its current location just 2 kilometers away from the main temple hell of Zenkoji known as the Hondo. It was constructed in reference to the 18 vows of Amitabha Tathagata. Upon seeing the Nagano Shinkansen ticket gate, one would then also be able to see a sign that connotes “Zenkoji” as well as an engraved stone that states “18 cho,” which means “2 kilometers.”

Visitors would have to take the Omotesando road as it leads to Zenkoji Temple. The road consists of stone guideposts on its left and right sides indicating every cho, which is around 109 meters. Visitors may walk around the area of Omotesando. Performing a pilgrimage to the Seven Gods of Good Fortune may also be done by visitors.

With this, one may get goshuin, which are temple seals priced at 100 yen each. If they are to be on a special paperboard, there is an additional 800 yen. An “Outdoor Sculpture Prize” program is held by the city of Nagano. Works of art that have garnered prizes may be installed in several public places in the city. A number of these artworks may be found around Omotesando.

Upon arriving at Zenkoji, there are several places that one can check out. First and foremost on the list is the main hall of the temple. Last reconstructed in the year 1707, the main hall of Zenkoji houses several Buddhist statues. The hall is also designed with various ornaments. Visitors would have to pay a certain fee in order to enter the inner chamber, which houses the main altar of the temple.

Underneath the inner chamber lies an underground passage, which some also call a tunnel. In complete darkness, visitors would have to go through the tunnel to look for the “key to paradise.” This passage is quite well-known because it offers a different kind of experience. It is said that anyone who is able to touch the key that is attached to a wall would be able to find enlightenment.

Standing at the back of the main hall is a pagoda that was just recently constructed. This pagoda also contains the Zenkoji History Museum. The museum features a collection of various statues of several Buddhas and Bodhisattva that were carved by sculptures. Visitors can see the intricacies of each of these statues up close. The 100 Rakan, which are the disciples of Buddha, is also showcased in this museum.

The main gate of the temple known as the Sanmon Gate is located to the south of the main hall. This gate is said to date back to the year 1750. It has been designated as an important cultural property. Visitors are allowed to enter the gate and see several statues. These statues are those of the Monju Bodhisattva and the Shitenno, which are the four heavenly kings.

Statues of Jizo Bodhisattva can also be found just outside the Sanmon Gate. Several shops that offer local souvenirs and specialties line the temple approach. Niomon Gate stands at the other end of this approach. Niomon Gate is the outer gate of Zenkoji that is guarded by two Nio Guardians.

Several Shukubo facilities can be found lining the streets near Zenkoji. Several people avail the accommodations of these temple lodgings, as they would want to try to participate in the morning services, also known as Oasaji, of the temple, which occurs on a daily basis.

Other Zenkoji: In Kofu and Takayama

By さかおり [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons/

As mentioned earlier, another temple bearing the name of Zenkoji was built in Kofu. It was when the chief abbot at the time was afraid that the original temple would be burned down as a result of the Battles of Kawanakajima. This temple is now known as Kai Zenkoji Temple. It serves as a temple representative of Kofu, Yamanashi.

Standing at 27 meters high, the main hall of this temple is 49 meters in length. Together with the main temple gate, the main hall of Kai Zenkoji is the biggest wooden structure located in Eastern Japan. Both of these structures are designated as national important cultural properties. Beside Kai Zenkoji stand the Kofu Gozan, also known as the Five Temple of Kofu, which is also a local attraction in the area.

Another place bearing the name of Zenkoji is Takayama Zenkoji. A Jodoshu school of Buddhist Temple, a person of any race, religion, or gender can enter the school and pray. It is considered a branch temple of Shinshu-Zenkoji, which is situated in Nagano. The temple is sacred to Amida Nyorai.

Similar to the original Zenkoji, Takayama Zenkoji also features the Kaidan-meguri, which is the dark tunnel tour, located underneath its main hall. Takayama Zenkoji also offers accommodations to its visitors. As the popularity of Takayama grew overseas, 95 percent of its visitors are actually foreign tourists. These visitors typically want to experience living in Shukubo facilities and participating in the early morning rituals.