Located in a hollow in the heart of the Japanese Alps, Nagano was the city that hosted the 1998 Olympic Games and due to its location it is an excellent gate to other destinations in the prefecture, first of all the Snow Monkey Park, the park of the snow monkeys, but also for the Togakushi Shrine and the various ski resorts of the Japanese Alps.
To visit Nagano, half a day is enough, but it is an excellent base for visiting the Japanese Alps, both in winter, thanks to the many ski resorts, and in summer and autumn, for the varied hiking that can be done in the area.
Nagano is actually a pilgrimage destination both from ancient times, thanks to the presence of the Zenkoji Temple, one of the most important Buddhist temples in Japan.
Visit the Zenkoji Temple in Nagano
It is a drizzly day in August, the humid heat of Tokyo let space to the refreshing and light summer drizzle. It is not yet 9.00 when we arrive in Nagano and along the road that takes us to the temple, the city is still dozing. As we approach the Niomon Gate, the chatter increases, the shops offer sweets, souvenirs and the inevitable transparent umbrellas.
The Zenkoji is surrounded by greenery, other minor buildings appear in the side streets, we pass under the first door, with the huge guardians on the sides, which inspire fear and awe.
The smell of incense begins to spread in the air, before entering the main room we purify ourselves by flooding ourselves with incense, a staircase leads us inside, where prayer is in progress. We take off our shoes, and in single line we go down in the corridor, into the darkness… we proceed slowly, the right hand slides along the dark wall, the darkness is total, we are stunned, we lose the sense of direction and all the certainties…. how much we rely on sight !! Then slowly the awareness of having other organs resurfaces, the sound of our breath, the salivation that grows from that slight anxiety, the touch of the hand on the wall… and then finally, a kind of handle, something metallic, different from the cold and smooth wall, it touches our hand… shortly after the first glimmer of light that brings us back to the surface, a light so intense that for a moment we forget where we are.
From Zenko-ji one comes out stunned, confused, lost….
It takes a moment to realize what happened, our usual world based on sight has been turned upside down, an invitation to reflect on life, and on what we take for granted….
Compared to other cities in Japan, Nagano is smaller, with fewer attractions but of great importance for its Buddhist temple, Zenko-ji, built in the 7th century which houses the first Buddhist statue brought to Japan. Every year it is the destination of about eight million visitors, it is so important that the entire city of Nagano has developed around this time and the main street of the city, the Chuodori, starts from the station and continue straight for 1.5 km arrives up to the temple.
Every 6/7 years there is the Gokaicho ceremony: a copy of the Buddhist statue contained in the temple is exposed to the public for a few weeks. The next exhibition will be in 2022, from April to June.
Zenko-ji is open daily from 09.00 to 16.00 and admission to the main hall (Hondo) costs 500 Yen. You can go up to the Sammon Gate, the main gate, and observe the city for another 500 Yen, but personally, I find it an excessive cost for a very small and almost empty room, from which to take only a couple of photos of the city.
One of the main attractions of the temple is the “Key to Heaven“: by groping along a wall, in absolute darkness through a long and narrow corridor, you come to touch this key. It is said that whoever manages to touch this key will attain salvation and enlightenment.
Staying in a Shokubo at Zenkoji
In Nagano, you have the opportunity to have a unique experience: staying in a Buddhist temple.
In the Zenkoji area, there are about seventy smaller temples connected to it, and in some of them, it is possible to stay overnight, sleeping on futons in simple rooms with tatami mats and sliding doors, and tasting the traditional Shojin Ryori Buddhist cuisine. The next morning, wake up at dawn: go to Zenkoji and witness the morning ceremony with the prayers of the monks. It’s a truly exciting experience, but if you go in winter, I recommend you bundle up!
Keep in mind that the shokubo, the temples where you can stay overnight, here in Nagano are very simple accommodations with shared bathrooms, and English is generally not spoken. If you want to try the experience of overnight in a temple, but are looking for something more comfortable, I suggest you visit Mount Koya, which is accessible from Kyoto and Osaka.
How to get to Nagano and Zenkoji
To reach Nagano from Tokyo, take the Shinkansen from Tokyo station which will take you to your destination in about an hour and a half for 8,200 Yen.
From Nagano station to get to Zenkoji you can take a bus, but personally, I recommend you to walk the kilometer and a half of the Chuodori and enjoy the shops, cafes, restaurants that will accompany you to the gate of the Temple.
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