Zenkoji Temple area in Nagano city is where I want to visit once every two years. It takes approximately one and a half hours from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station by shinkansen bullet train. You can visit here for hot springs, skiing and picking apples. There are plenty of outdoor activities around Nagano Station. Nagano City developed as a temple city and now it has become the most popular city in Nagano. The population is 370 thousand. I like the town because it has a good balance of nature and city-life. Zenkoji Temple area has changed slightly over the past decade. Once the epitome of old-fashioned gentility, it has been revitalized with lots of energy. There are nice cafes and good book stores. It is fun to see the changes when I visit the same town in a different period.
How to visit Zenkoji Temple
The nearest station is Zenkoji-shita Station located three stations away from Nagano Station by Nagano Dentetsu Line. It takes 16 mins or is a 30-40 min walk from Nagano Station.If the weather permits, walking through the town to visit Nagano City and Zenkoji Temple is the best way. It takes 2 hours to see around Zenkoji Temple, including Kyodo built in 1759 and Zenkoji History Museum which exhibits a collection of Buddha statues.
The Main Hall
Zenkoji Temple is said to have been founded in the 7th century, and the main hall was rebuilt in 1707. The building’s frontage is 24m, its height is 30m and it has a depth of 54m. So if you turn the corner of the main hall to see the depth, you will notice the very long outside corridor. The hall with a huge cypress roof is like a huge monster coming out from the mountain. Inside of the main hall, there are 150 tatami-mats spread out. Visitors used to stay inside of the hall to pray. 25 bosatsu statues are hung on the transom window to welcome visitors.
Kaidan Meguri Tour
Zenkoji Temple is the origin of a theme park at which visitors have participated for unique experiences since the Edo period. It might be not appropriate to say, but I felt it sometimes when I visit Zenkoji Temple. There are lots of entertainments in Zenkoji Temple area and in the Edo period it was said that one should visit Zenkoji Temple at least once in a lifetime.
The principal icon of Zenkoji Temple has never been on public display, keeping the secrecy from priests and visitors. In the basement of the inner chamber, an underground corridor is running beneath the floor of the main altar where the principal icon of worship is enshrined. The key is attached to a wall and touching the key set just beneath the icon is believed to promise you salvation in the land of perfect bliss in the afterlife. It is said that the best exercise for visitors is to circle the corridor. It is 45 m length and you need to walk in complete darkness.
When I walked, I could feel someone ahead of me, but I was almost alone. I was scared so much and had a little bit of panic and walked as fast as I could. I didn’t notice the key set at all. When I jumped out from the exit, the staff noticed how fast I came out and asked me whether I could touch the key set. I said that I hadn’t and that I would be terrified to have to return. She kindly taught me the details of how to touch the key and made me feel safe and cheered me up to try again. So, I tried. Again I was almost alone, but I could understand the length of the corridor, so I calmly walked and touched the key finally.
Looking back, my eyes were getting accustomed to the darkness and I could recognize the corner, so I shouldn’t have been so panicked. I have experienced Kaidan Meguri two or three times in my life, but I still couldn’t get accustomed to the atmosphere. If your height is about 1.7 m you don’t need to bend. I was sure I wasn’t going to hit the beams, but I gradually bent over to protect my head and walked crouching.
When I visited to Zenkoji Temple this time, the gold-brocade was open and 10 priests were chanting sutras while ringing bells. It was open only for a brief time, so I tried to concentrate to see it. If you join its morning service for praying you would experience a solemn ceremony with all priests joining in.
The San-mon gate was built in 1750 with a board roof which strait grain overlapped as a room. The frontage is 20m, the height is 20m, the depth is 8m and it has two stories. The view of the approach to the main hall from the second floor allows you to look out over the Nagano City. There used to be no tall buildings, so people should have been astonished by the view of the temple approach. The area has no outer wall and you will see lined temple lodgings and shopping streets in the front of the San-mon gate.
Townwalk in Zenkoji Temple area
When I have visited Nagano City before, some stores were closed and the town was not lively, but this time the town was revitalized again. The way of living and working might be changed and I found cute stores and cozy cafes and bars which open until midnight. Old houses and kimono shops were renovated to become cafes and galleries. 40 to 50 year-old houses have kept their nostalgic beauty with the latest equipment. Staying at Temple lodgings and having dinner at a restaurant in the town would be the best way to enjoy Nagano City.
Where to eat & shop
If you wander around the area you’ll pass variously designed local residences. On my way back to Nagano Station, I walked the side streets away from the main street and I stopped by cafes and shops.
My route took me to buy house wares at Roger and take a rest at Nanographica. I visited KANEMATSU, a renovated 1970s wooden building, originally the paper wholesaler and plastic factory and now sharing an office. I bought breads at Konamonya Koneko, a bread cafe on the ground floor of KANEMATSU and spent some time at Yureki-shobo bookstore.My favorite cafe is Cafe Hibi located in the middle of Zenkoji Temple and Nagano Station. It was a little bit difficult to find. The exterior is cute and the interior and the view from three windows are profound. The reflection of the lights from navies of the next building creates a cozy space on the inside.Finally, I arrived at Florist Tsubomi and bought a reasonably huge bouquet with various kinds of flowers. Even though I had to bring it back to Tokyo by myself, I couldn’t resist buying it. I forgot to tell the florist I was going to take a train, so she created a huge bouquet to be carried by car. It was exciting to carry huge flowers to my home. While waiting for the arranged flowers, I took a look at ch. books. The book store displays beautiful picture books and art books. I bought some architecture books as souvenirs.In Tokyo, you will find high-sense shops, bookstores, florists and cafes as much as you expect, but in Nagano, I didn’t expect to encounter so many interesting stores. At Nagano city, you can enjoy a different city life in Japan.