Located in Nagano, Zenko-ji is known as the largest temple in Eastern Japan and dates back to the 7th century, making it older than the city around it. The temple is associated with both war and peace and is connected to several of Japan’s significant conflicts. Including a clan war that resulted in the temple’s prized Buddha statue being thrown into a nearby canal. The statue was saved and restored to the temple by Yoshimitsu Honda whose name translates to Zenko in Chinese.
The temple can be accessed through two towering gates called Sanmon and Niomon. The main gate, Sanmon, is built in the common Japanese hip and gable style called Irimoya Zukuri. Sanmon’s second storey is accessible to tourists and houses many of the treasures of the shrine such as a statue of the gates deity, Monju Bosatsu. Guarding each cardinal point around the Bosatsu are the four heavenly kings known as Shitenno.
While the temple may be steeped in history, there is also a shopping street leading to the main hall with its own rich history. Nakamise street, literally meaning “inside shopping street”, is home to both souvenir and traditional food stores. Many of these shops and the families owning them have been here since the 18th century, making it an important historical location in Nagano. The food stalls sell Nagano specialties such as soba flour buns and wasabi flavoured ice cream. Other stores sell various Japanese style souvenirs such as the wheeled pigeon statues called hato-gurama, famous to Nagano.
Within the inner complex is the 30-meter main hall which is considered one of the largest wooden structures in Japan. Listed as a national treasure of Japan, the hall keeps one of the first images of Buddha in Japan, thought to have been brought from Korea in 522 AD. Called the Ikko-Sanzon Amida Nyorai, the Buddha is a hibutsu, or secret statue, and according the temple’s commandments it is forbidden for the statue to be seen by human eyes, including the those of the temple’s chief priest.
A replica of the statute can be seen every seven years in a ceremony called Gokaicho which attracts a record number of pilgrims. Another of Zenko-ji’s attractions is a pitch-black, narrow tunnel curving beneath the main hall. The tunnel symbolizes the difficult path to enlightenment. Along the wall of the tunnel called the Kaidan Meguri, is a metal handle or key. Visitors must search in the dark to find the key which is said to be the key to salvation and enlightenment.
Zenko-ji grounds are free to access, however its main attractions such as Sanmon gate, the main hall, and the Kaidan Meguri will cost 500 yen each. The temple is easily reachable by a 10-minute, 100 yen bus ride from Bus Stop 1 at JR Nagano Station bound for Zenko-ji temple. Alternatively, visitors can take the train from Nagaden Nagano Station next to JR Nagano Station to Zenkoji Shita Station which is a 10-minute walk from the temple. The ride will cost 170 yen and take about 4 minutes. For those interested in seeing the city, the walk from JR Nagano station is about 30 minutes.