Zenkoji Temple in Nagano Prefecture is considered one of the most popular temples in Japan and is the largest in the country after the Todai-ji of Nara. It is surrounded by a lively religious district and is accessed via the vibrant Nakamise-dori avenue, which is lined with temple accommodation, shops and monastery residences.
The present temple complex was founded in 642 when Yoshimitsu Honda laid down a statue of Buddha (the "" Ikko Sanzon Amida Nyorai "") when the religion was first introduced in Japan. A replica of the statue is only on public display every 6 years, while the original remains hidden.
While the surrounding city began to develop during the Kamakura era, the temple also suffered damage at various points in its history, with the current structure being the 11th reconstruction, dating back to 1707.
Zenkoji is widely regarded as a unique temple for a variety of reasons. He also belongs to the Jodo and Tendai sects and was always open to women.
A journey to Zenkoji will start to the south, with visitors passing several temple lodgings (shukubo) to reveal the outer Niomon Gate, flanked by a pair of Niō Guardians. Following a path that includes several guardian Jizo Bodhisattva, visitors will then reach the main Sanmon Gate, which dates back to 1750, and the central temple area.
The two-storey main hall (Hondo) is a designated National Treasure, constructed from almost 60,000 lengths of wood with a roof made of cypress bark. It is vastly decorated with many Buddhist statues housed there, including a wooden statue of Binzuru.
Visitors can pay a small fee of 500 yen and remove their shoes to enter the inner chamber, where beside the main altar they can descend a narrow staircase into an underground passage. Here visitors are on a quest to find the 'key to paradise'. While walking through the passageway in complete darkness, a metal key is secretly hidden on the right-hand wall and it is said those who are able to touch it will gain enlightenment.
Fifteen minute bus ride (#1) from JR Nagano Station, followed by a 5 minute walk.
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