There’s plenty to do in Nagano. From skiing to snow monkeys to making your own soba, this mountainous prefecture has something for every visitor. But some of my favorite memories come from Nagano City itself, wandering the quiet streets as the light from street lanterns cast eerie shadows and the low hum of voices at prayer emanated from Zenko-ji Temple.
In Nagano, the Zenko-ji Temple draws pilgrims from all over Japan to come and pray at this icon of Japanese buddhism. Zenko-ji was founded in the 7th century and houses what is allegedly one of the first Buddhist statues every brought to Japan. For many years, Zenko-ji was the wheel around which Nagano turned. Unlike many other towns in Japan that revolved around a castle or port, Nagano’s spiritual and geographical heart has always been its temple.
The path to Zenkoji really begins on the Omotesando (the main street leading from the station) where stone guideposts are placed every 109 meters directing pilgrims to their goal. Nearer the temple, a path of 7.777 flagstones begins, eventually delivering visitors to the San-Mon gate. Look up – the sign in kanji simply reads Zenko-ji but you can just make out the shapes of pigeons inside the characters.
If you’re ambitious enough to wake up at 6am, you can join in ritual prayers with the other faithful and be blessed by the priest or priestess. (Zenko-ji is one of the only temples in Japan to have always welcomed female pilgrims and even now is jointly managed by two authorities of opposite sexes.) For those of us who prefer to sleep in a bit, you can still assure the salvation of your heavenly soul by paying ¥500 to descend into a pitch black tunnel behind the altar, where you spend 20 minutes running into the back of the guy in line ahead of you (sorry about that elbow to the rib, buddy) before finally grasping the “key to salvation” (it actually felt more like a doorknob) which protects the case in which the temple’s revered image is kept.
Looking to complete your temple experience? Contact Zenko-ji to inquire about staying the night in one of their subtemples or, easier yet, reserve a bed at the Zenko-ji Kyoju-in Hostel, itself a century-old decommissioned subtemple.