What better way to celebrate a three-year friendship and a three-year “Japanniversary” than with an adventure in Nagano? This post is part one of three, and it’s about Zenkoji.
My friend Kazue and I arrived in Nagano around midday on Sunday 20th March. Having already eaten “hayaben” (an early lunch) on the train:
We made straight for the first leg of our adventure: Zenkoji.
The street leading to Zenkoji is a typical old-fashioned temple approach:
There were restaurants and interesting gift shops, selling local delicacies like “inago” (いなご) (locusts boiled in soy sauce and sugar):
“Hachinoko” (鉢の子) (bee larvae):
And Kit Kats:
These are “ichimi” (red pepper) ones and “shinshu” apple ones. I’ve had them before but couldn’t resist buying them again! Ichimi is popular in Nagano, and you can buy many pepper-themed souvenirs:
The “nimon” (deva gate) marks the entrance to the temple grounds:
But more shops can be found beyond:
I hadn’t heard of Zenkoji before, but it turns out to be a pretty important temple. Zenkoji was built in the 7th century, and is one of the last few remaining pilgrimage sites in Japan. Inside the temple there is a statue of Binzuru (a physician who was said to be Buddha’s follower). Unfortunately it is forbidden to take photos inside the temple, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that it was a pretty strange statue. He appeared to have no eyes! Anyway, people touch Binzuru because he is supposed to cure your ailments. I saw old ladies rub Binzuru’s knees and then reach down to rub their own, and men rub around his neck and then rub around their own necks. One concerned mother even lifted her tiny child and tried to make her touch Binzuru’s head.
According to the English pamphlet I received at Zenkoji:
“Historically open to women when other temples were not, now up to eight million visitors, more than half women, visit here 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.”
Well, for me, it was more like a twice-in-a-lifetime experience… You see, Kazue and I went through the pitch-black tunnel (which – my gosh – really is pitch-black), and I found the key but she didn’t. She was disappointed, so we went again! I don’t know if that is allowed, but I ended up touching it twice. Tip: if you go there, walk along the right wall of the tunnel touching the wall with your hand around waist/bottom height!
Of course, no photos were allowed in the tunnel, and I wouldn’t have wanted to ruin the illusion anyway. Here’s a sneaky shot from the outside though:
After scaring ourselves silly in the tunnel, we decided to buy some omamori. However, upon leaving the shop, we found ourselves looking at a long line of people. We couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, but decided to join the line for a little while and see. Kazue asked someone else in the line and we got the message that someone important was coming. The line grew and grew…
Finally, along came the important person – he was some kind of super high-level monk. We had to kneel down on the ground and he touched us on the head to bless us with his prayer beads in his hand. I have no idea what it was all about to be honest, but I felt something special when his confident hand firmly, but gently touched my head.
Another highlight at Zenkoji as far as I’m concerned is the collection of “ojizo-sama” statues. “Jizo-bosatsu” are very popular among Japanese people (although one of my co-workers thinks they are scary!). Jizo are our protectors and in Japan they are usually thought of as guardians of the souls of stillborn babies. They usually look something like this:
However, by Zenkoji there are seven large “ojizo-sama” statues. The first six represent the six realms through which “jizo” are said to protect us until we attain enlightenment (hell, hungry ghosts, animals, asura, humans and heavenly beings – according to the sign at Zenkoji).
Finally, the seventh, larger statue: “nurebotoke” (wet jizo). This statue was made in 1722 and serves as protection of the temple from fire.
I find something very calming about these “ojizo-sama” statues and could happily look at them all day! 🙂
Anyway, if you have some time to kill, you can see the entire Nagano Adventure in photographic form here. If you can’t be bothered to flick through 370-odd photos (there were 500 before I edited…), please watch this space for parts two and three of my blog, which will bring you the highlights (my first hot spring and… snow monkeys!!).