Nagano: Day 3 – Zenkouji

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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.

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  1. K

    "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. "

    Sounds similar to the little passage in Kiyomizu Dera which is one of my favorite things to do when I visit (although the last time I went I got laughing teenagers which kind of ruined the experience)

    I definitely want to go to Nagano next time I am in Japan (although sadly I don't know when that will be).

    Thanks for sharing your pictures!

  2. e

    *_* Archetypical experience ahoy. Whatever visions you had may them accompany you from darkness into light for a long long time.
    As usual thank you for the pictures.

  3. I've been to Kiyomizudera 4 times and somehow missed that – I'll check it out next time I'm in Kyoto.

    Archetypal indeed. Jung would have much to say about it, I'm sure.

  4. e

    Well if we are going that route there's probably a bit of water cradle/womb effect going with the onsen. And we are mostly made of water aren't we.

    Now I'm really missing not having a tub :,) .

  5. K

    "I've been to Kiyomizudera 4 times and somehow missed that – I'll check it out next time I'm in Kyoto."

    Well I am sure you will get there sooner than I get to Nagano

    You will see a little section where people are taking off their shoes and it costs 100 yen. I can picture it but somehow can't recall what comes before or after.

  6. R

    They say patience is the virtue — it sure very much is. This is another beautiful place — in some of your photos this beautiful place reminds me of Hang Zhou. I have never tried outdoor onsen, and to try an outdoor onsen that's so close to nature…it must feel like living in paradise…

    Thank you Enzo for sharing with us your 3-day getaway. Somehow reading your posts has a cleansing effect on me — it's as if the air surrounding me now feels fresher…lol. Back to reality, eh, but then you can do the count down with thousands of people, and this will be your second time doing the count down there…time flies.

  7. F

    Creepy. Your description of groping about in the dark reminded me of the bookTombs of Atuan for some reason. -_-

  8. Gods, it's been an age since I read that one – I remember loving all the Earthsea books but I don't remember too many specifics about that one.

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