Here it is – the final installment in my A-Z of Japan! So, what could Z be for? The obvious choice would be zen, but I don’t know enough about it to write a “quick guide to zen”. I also considered writing about the 2003 movie Zatoichi, but I have to confess I didn’t really get it when I first watched it. So, that leaves me with one idea…
Z is for… Zenkoji!
Zenkoji (善光寺) might seem like a bit of a random choice for the final post in this series, but it is one of the most important temples in Japan and, on a personal level, had a pretty big impact on me when I visited there earlier this year.
Built in the 7th century, Zenkoji is located in Nagano and is one of the last few remaining pilgrimage sites in Japan. I was lucky when I went there because I happened to be there at the time when the head monks come by to bless people. In a very British manner, I joined a queue without really knowing what I was queuing up for, and was delighted to find that I was queuing up to receive a blessing!
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, but I found a picture on the Zenkoji website so you can see the strange statue with no eyes. People touch Binzuru because he is supposed to cure your ailments (when I was there 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).
Also inside the temple is a ‘secret Buddha’, or ‘hibutsu’ – a hidden Buddha statue which is not shown to the public. Apparently, it’s one of the first Buddha statues that was ever brought to Japan, and it came from Korea. The image is of Ikko-Sanzon Amida Nyorai (一光三尊阿弥陀三尊), and every six years in spring a replica is shown in a ceremony called Gokaicho. According to Wikipedia, the last showing of the statue was in 2009, so I guess that means the next one will be in 2015.
Beneath the altar that holds the hidden statue, there is a dark tunnel which visitors are invited to pass through. In absolute pitch-blackness, feeling your way along the wall, you are supposed to feel for a key. If you touch the key, which is directly beneath the hidden Buddha, it is said you will gain a place in paradise – or at least be lucky! I was fortunate enough to find the key when I was there so, paradise, here I come!
Another reason I love Zenkoji and would highly recommend it as a tourist destination is the amazing collection of giant jizo statues. There are six of one size, which are meant to 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).
The seventh statue is larger, and is known as “nurebotoke” (wet jizo). This statue was made in 1722 and serves as protection of the temple from fire.
As you may know from reading this blog, I love jizo statues! I particularly like these ones at Zenkoji as they are much bigger than the usual statues and have a really calming look about them.
While you’re at Zenkoji, don’t forget to make a wish and leave your message on an ’ema’ board:
Finally, if you do have the chance to visit Zenkoji, it is a great place to pick up some souvenirs. As well as traditional goods, you can get your hands on all manner of Hello Kittys and other cheesy charms as you approach the temple.
I’ve looked back my trip to Zenkoji so fondly as I’ve written this piece today, and can’t recommend visiting Nagano enough! For more information about visiting Nagano, check out the Nagano Official Tourist Information website.