Chalk one up for patience.
Zenkouji is not a tremendously well-known temple on the tourist circuit, but to the Japanese it’s among the two or three most important religious sites in the country. This is still a true pilgrimage temple to this very day – to visit it’s magnificent main hall is to witness a “working” Buddhist temple in a way visiting most well-known temples is now. Fervor is in the air, thick with the smell of incense.
Zenkouji was founded sometime around 644 (making it one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan) to enshrine the first Buddhist image ever brought to the island, though most of the current buildings are roughly 300 years old (the usual – many, many fires). It’s still enshrined there, though never shown – an “exact copy” is displayed every seven years to crowds of millions. Zenkouji is unusual in many ways: it’s a “non-denominational” temple, with the Abbot alternating between the Tendai and Shingon sects. It’s also always welcomed women, and the complex has an Abbess’ residence as well.
To anime fans and history buffs, Zenkouji may be known as one of Uesugi Kenshin’s former bases of operations during his battles with Takeda. Today it may be most famous for the “Key to Paradise”, which is hidden in a pitch-black, winding passage underneath the main altar. Pilgrims grope through this passage searching for the Key, which is renowned to guarantee salvation if found.
To say that it’s a unique experience groping around in that complete darkness and silence is an understatement – it really does feel like a religious experience. The passage is quite long, with many turns, and touch is the only sense available to you. I was alone down there, and I kid you not – I had a vision or two. And yes, I did find the Key – though not on my first try. I had to backtrack and search again, but the “key” is not to be swift, but patient. This may sound like a strange experience, but I can’t recommend it highly enough – there’s a purpose to it, from a Buddhist perspective. And it draws millions of faithful every year, so I have a certain respect for their devotion that compelled me to experience it for myself.
Afterwards, I had a fabulous sake tasting is Nishi-no-mon, a sake brewery complex near (unsurprisingly) the West Gate of the temple. They’ve been on Zenkouji grounds for Centuries, and brew true Nagano sake with the unique yeasts used here – Nagano is probably second only to Niigata for fame and prestige in the sake world. I also visited the Uroikan Onsen, which has a free shuttle from Nagano Station and costs only ¥650. My favorite part of this was the rotemburo, the outdoor bath. I hate to quite Bizeff, but his words of yesterday are so apt here: when it comes to soaking in an outdoor hot spring on a bitterly cold day, “The experience brings indescribable pleasure beyond even sexual gratification.” Why does it feel so good to be naked and wet, outdoors in below-freezing weather? It’s a sensation like no other, and I can see why the Japanese and Scandinavians are so besotted with it.
With that, it’s back to Tokyo. Thanks for tuning in.