The road to Zenkoji (善光寺), one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Japan, is an easy one. Situated in the beautiful Japanese Alps, a convenient, regular, 80-minute bullet train links Tokyo with Nagano City (長野市), the capital of the Nagano Prefecture (長野県) and the gateway to this seventh-century icon.
Unlike Zenkoji, Nagano City itself is relatively modern. Established in 1897, it became the capital during the Meiji Restoration (明治維新). Before that, the prefecture was known as Shinano (信濃) with the Domain of Matsumoto (松本) being its center.
The historic move of the capital from Matsumoto to Nagano remains a bone of contention between these two Nagano Prefecture districts. The rivalry is most evident when the two city’s football teams meet. For more information about this and Matsumoto see my article here. Nagano City is also famous for hosting the 1998 Winter and Paralympics, and the station has a large image reminding visitors of this event.
From the modern, well-equipped train station with its excellent tourist office and coffee lounges, it’s a simple walk up the monzen-machi omotesando to the Zenkoji.
The word “monzen-machi” is a generic phrase for the roads and structures around a temple. Today, Nagano’s two-kilometer long monzen-machi is a fascinating combination of the traditional and modern. A bus will get you to the temple in less than ten minutes, however, I recommend walking. It’s not as far as it might look and along the way, there are plenty of great places to pop into.
The omotesando starts at the statue of Nyoze, the daughter of a wealthy Indian businessman who, legend has it, fell ill and was cured by the Buddha Amitabha. Her father was so grateful that he built a sacred statue of the Buddha. It is this holy statue that is now enshrined in the Zenkoji, having traveled from India to Korea and on to Japan as a gift to the Japanese Emperor Kinmei (欽明天皇). Many historians believe Buddhism was officially introduced to Japan at this time.
Along the sando are many converted storehouses selling gifts and food, including soba crepes, shichimi togarashi (七味唐辛子; spice flavoring), saka manju (酒まんじゅう; special sweet dumplings), and plump rice balls. The sando also passes several temples, including the beautiful Karukayasan Saikoji (かるかや山西光寺).
Established in 1831, this temple is famous for “E-toki” (絵解き). E-toki is a way of telling stories using pictures. Similar to an Aesop’s Fable, each story has a moral and shows people, through common situations, how to attain enlightenment.
This temple focuses on the story of Monk Karukaya (苅萱伝説), who left his family to live in the mountains and study Buddhism. This family, so hurt by this decision, decided to find him and followed him to the mountain. His wife and daughter, not able to climb the holy mountain because they were women, waited at the foot, while his son climbed up to search for his father. He found his father, but could not recognize him as he had become a monk. Karukaya never told his son his true identity. They talked for a long time and then went down to meet the rest of the family. During this time, both the wife and daughter had died of sadness and hunger. Even then, Karukaya never revealed himself.
The temple takes its name from Monk Karukaya. The temple also has a monument of the master haiku poet Matsuo Basho (松尾芭蕉). With a lovely feel, it is a pleasant contrast to the more active Zenkoji.
The Zenkoji Temple is the centerpiece of Nagano and enshrines the holy statue of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Life. According to the scriptures, the Amitabha is the principal Buddha in Pure Land Buddhism.
Known for his longevity and discernment, he was once an Indian king who left his kingdom to become a monk. Inspired by the teachings of the Lokesvaraja Buddha, he obtained supreme enlightenment. On attaining this ultimate state, his compassion vow became a paradise known as Sukhavati (or Pure Land). Calling his name helps the faithful gain this gift.
The Amitabha statue arrived in Japan in 522AD as a gift to the Emperor but was later lost during a conflict between Buddhists factions. It was recovered by Yoshimitsu Honda who enshrined it in his house in Nagano. His house became the first Zenkoji in 644AD.
The Zenkoji is one of the few temples that still maintains its strong religious roots, with lodging houses offering pilgrims a chance to stay and learn. The Zenkoji has no sectarian affiliations, and hence all branches of Buddhism are welcome to worship here.
It took me more than three hours to look around the Zenkoji. The atmosphere was as electric as Asakusa’s (浅草) Sensō-ji (浅草寺), but unlike the Sensō-ji, I felt a definite air of Buddhist reflection here, assuring all that this was a temple for practitioners as well as tourists.
The Daihongan (大本願)
The Daihongan, once the residence for the high priest, now dedicated to children and protection.
Niomon Gate (仁王門)
Niomon Gate, a large gate with two guardian statues, “Agyo” (阿形) and “Ungyo” (吽形). In the morning, the sun shines on Agyo (symbolizing beginning) and in the evening, sets upon Ungyo (symbolizing end).
Six Bodhisattvas (Saints – 六地蔵)
Six Bodhisattvas, encouraging movement up the six realms of existence; from hell, to hunger, animalist passion, Asura, human and finally, heaven.
Sanmon, or mountain gate, the entrance to the main worship hall. On each side, paths lead to minor halls, museums and prayer sites.
There are also many smaller temples around the compound. I came across this golden temple, dedicated to one of the Seven Lucky Gods (七福神), as well as several beautiful lodging and restaurant streets.
There’s a lot to take in at the Zenkoji, so don’t rush. Relax, enjoy the history, and perhaps capture some of the peace this wonderful place has to offer. You won’t regret it.
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Tour Shibamata Monzenmachi, an area full of the charm of ancient Japan