Zenkoji Temple 善光寺
Discover the spiritual heart of Nagano
Arguably Nagano City's premier attraction, Zenkoji Temple is a National Treasure and one of Japan's most important pilgrimage sites. Be sure to get there bright and early to witness the local monks perform their famous morning prayer service known as Oasaji. Set aside a few hours to really explore everything the temple has to offer.
- Witness Zenkoji's early morning prayer service to experience the true magic of the temple
- Go underground in search of the gateway to paradise
- Take your time to wander the temple's long entranceway
How to Get There
Thanks to its central location, Zenkoji is accessible on foot or by local train from Nagano Station, a transport hub with links to Nagoya and Tokyo.
The walk from Nagano Station takes around 30 minutes, but it's an excellent way to soak up the atmosphere of the city. To get there by train from Nagano Station take the Nagano Dentetsu-Nagano Line to Zenkojishita Station, from there it's a 10-minute walk.
Zenkoji dates back to the 7th century
The temple is unique in not being affiliated with a specific religious sect
A visit is said to guarantee you a happy rebirth in your next life
Entering the inner compound
Nearing the temple, guests pass through the historic nineteenth century Niomon Gate with its fearsome Nio guardian figures. A short walk from there brings you to Zenkoji's inner Sanmon Gate. For a small fee, you can climb the gate to get a great view of the busy approach to the temple.
To the left of the gate is a building called the Kyozo, which houses a seventeenth-century repository of Buddhist scriptures that visitors turn by hand, much like the prayer wheels of the Himalayas. Turning the shelves is said to build up merit as if you had chanted the sutras.
Buzzing with energy
Many temples feel almost like museums, but Zenkoji is a functioning temple constantly abuzz with worshippers all-year-round. The temple's main hall was built in 1707 and is one of the nation's largest wooden temples. The courtyard is filled with activity, home to an enormous lion-capped cauldron from which healing incense is emitted. The faithful waft the incense towards parts of their bodies that need healing.
Meet the lucky Obinzuru-sama
As you enter the main temple building, look out for Obinzuru-sama. A seated wooden monk, the statue is worn smooth from visitors faithfully rubbing it over the years in the hopes of absorbing some of its healing effects.
Expand your experience
Don't miss the opportunity to experience Zenkoji at its most majestic by getting up and ready for the daily 5:30 a.m. morning service. With ceremonies complete with bells, incense, and chanting, it's an experience unlike any other.
Many who plan to come early stay overnight at one of the shukubo, or temple lodgings. Staying overnight is a great chance to try vegetarian temple food known as shojin ryori. Zenkoji has volunteer English speaking guides to provide you with a more in-depth experience.
Stored out of sight
The grand main hall, with its intricate and colorful altars, is said to contain the first Buddha image, brought to Japan in the 6th century. While the image is stored out of sight, a replica makes appearances every six years during the period known as Gokaicho. The next showing will be in 2022.
A walk in the dark
Join the queue and descend into the cave-like tunnel that runs directly below the temple's inner sanctum. In the pitch black, feel your way to the lock attached to the wall, indicating the gateway to paradise. Finding it is said to be a fast track to heaven.