Zenkoji Temple dates back over 1,400 years and has been widely known and endeared since ancient times as a temple not affiliated with any particular religious sect, but rather welcoming to people of all faiths. The principal image, "Ikko-Sanson Amida Nyorai," is said to be the oldest Buddhist image in Japan, brought to the country from Baekje (a kingdom that existed in the Korean Peninsula between 18 B.C. and 660 A.D.) with the arrival of Buddhism. Although the original statue cannot be seen in person due to the absolute secrecy under which it is kept, visitors are sure to feel a sense of awe when they clasp their hands together to pay homage to the deity.
Niomon Gate is the first feature of Zenkoji Temple to greet visitors. Originally erected in 1752, it was destroyed by fire twice, and the present-day gate was built in 1918. The structure is approximately 13 m wide, 7 m long, and 14 m high, and it houses statues of Nio, Sanbokojin, and Three-faced Daikokuten. These statues are believed to be the joint work of modern sculpting masters, Takamura Koun and Yonehara Unkai, and the two Nio statues, with their beautifully-proportioned stances and ominous expressions, are a must-see. The Nio statues are positioned at the entrance of the temple in a pair — one with its mouth open, and the other with its mouth closed. This is believed to prevent the intrusion of Buddhist enemies. Generally, the open-mouthed statue is placed on the left while the closed-mouthed statue is placed on the right, however in the case of Zenkoji, the order is reversed. Moreover, the Three-faced Daikokuten (a combined image of Bishamonten, Benzaiten, and Daikokuten) positioned behind the Nio statues is worshipped as the god of fertility, prosperity, and family safety.
The main hall of Zenkoji Temple was destroyed by fire several times, and the current main hall, rebuilt in 1707, was named a national treasure as a structure manifesting Buddhist architecture of the mid-Edo Period. Viewed from above, the main hall is characterized by its significant depth and T-shape. The interior is divided into an outer sanctuary, an inner sanctuary, and an innermost sanctuary, with the entrance representing the ordinary world and the innermost sanctuary representing paradise. The outer sanctuary is dedicated to Enma Daio (ruler of hell), a frightening and demonic entity said to pass judgment on whether a person is good or evil after their death. The inner sanctuary is dedicated to Mirokubosatsu and Jizobosatsu, who are said to bring salvation, and the innermost sanctum (also known as Ruridan,) is dedicated to Zenkoji's principal deity, Ikko-Sanson Amida Nyorai — the three images of Buddha. Ikko-Sanson Amida Nyorai is said to be one of the oldest Buddhist statues in Japan, having been brought to Japan when Buddhism was first introduced to the country. The original statue itself is kept in strict secrecy, however "Maedachi Honzon," a replica of the hidden statue of the principal image housed in the temple, is displayed once every seven years during Gokaicho, a ceremony allowing the public a rare opportunity for such a viewing.
The long stone path leading from Niomon Gate to the main hall is said to comprise 7,777 stones, and is flanked by restaurants and stores where visitors can buy Nagano souvenirs and much more.
Getting there and around
From JR Nagano Station, take the bus departing from bus stop No. 1 (bound for Zenkoji) at the Zenkoji Exit bus round-about. From the bus stop at Zenkoji Daimon, it is about a 5-minute walk to the main hall of Zenkoji Temple.
Visitors can take part in a tour of the Buddhist alter which passes underneath the main hall's lapis lazuli altar. This tour, referred to as the "Okaidan Tour," involves a groping walk through a pitch-black corridor that passes directly under the principal image of the temple. At the back of the innermost sanctuary, there is a staircase that leads to the entrance of the corridor. At the bottom of these stairs, you will walk slowly through a dark corridor approximately 45 meters in length. It is said that if you touch the wall on the right side of the corridor with your hand, you will be able to touch the lock directly under the statue of the principal image, form a connection with the deity, and hence be promised entry into Gokuraku jodo, the Land of Bliss.
Shukubo are lodging facilities operated by temples and shrines. Once used exclusively by monks and worshippers, in recent years Shukubo have been open to general tourists as well. Zenkoji Temple has a total of 39 shukubo, 25 of which are Tendai-shu temples and Jodo-shu temples. If you stay at a Shukubo, you will be guided by a priest or an authorized guide assigned to the Shukubo to a morning service called "Oasaji" (a Buddhist service held at sunrise), which is held 365 days a year, as well as to the temple grounds and other historical sites. Another enjoyable part of staying at a Shukubo is the vegetarian cuisine, which is made only using seasonal vegetables, beans, and grains. Each Shukubo offers its own unique cuisine.
For more information about Zenkoji Temple and Niomon Gate, we recommend a city walk with a volunteer guide from the Nagano City Guide Association (please inquire). Some courses depart from Nagano Station. English-speaking guides are also available for certain tours.
Travel Advice and Tips
In order to experience Zenkoji Temple to the fullest, we recommend staying at a Shukubo (lodging house). You can enjoy the unique vegetarian cuisine and other elaborate Shukubo-exclusive dishes. Stay overnight, or simply partake of a meal — the choice is yours. Rengein and other Shukubo welcome foreign guests.