The main attraction of the city of Nagano is the Zenkoji Temple (善光寺). When you walk out of the train station of Nagano you come in a 1.5 kilometer long street with shops that lead to the big wooden sanctuary. And once arrived at the Zenkoji Temple you can look for the key to paradise! The key to paradise? Who doesn’t want that? Let’s go to the Zenkoji Temple…
Hostel: In Nagano I stayed at Guesthouse Aun. This guesthouse cost me 16 euros for a bunkbed and is located 5 minutes from the Nagano train station. The room I found quite small for 4 people, but it did include a kitchen. And around the corner is a supermarket! From guesthouse Aun it is a 25 minute walk to the Zenkoji temple via the long main street Chuo-Dori.
The oldest Buddha statue of Japan
Legend has it that the Zenkoji Temple has the oldest Buddha statue in Japan. In 642 A.D. Yoshimitsu Honda venerated a statue called Sengoku Denrai on this spot. It is suspected that this statue was brought from Korea to Japan in the 6th century.
But few have ever seen this statue. It would be kept somewhere in the temple in a secret place. Every 6 to 7 years the Gokaicho ceremony takes place here where a copy of the statue is shown. Right, a copy! The next ceremony will take place in 2021. Write that down in your diary!
Reading tip: Just like the Zenkoji Temple, an old Buddha statue also played a leading role at the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo. Read more about this in the article Sensoji Temple Tokyo? 5 historical facts you should know!
Niomon and Sanmon Gates
A walk to the Zenkoji Temple starts with the main street of Nagano, the Chuo-Dori. This street is about 2 kilometers long and takes me from the station to several shops and restaurants. It is pleasantly crowded.
And then suddenly a big gate pops up in my field of vision: the Niomon-gate. On both sides there is a Nio of wood, patron of Buddhism. Both statues were destroyed by a fire in 1918, but fortunately they were rebuilt.
After the Niomon Gate I walk further through the Chuo-Dori to finally arrive at the Sanmon Gate. And this gate is important! It was built in 1750 and has 5 wooden Buddha statues. That’s why this temple is seen as an important part of the city’s cultural heritage. It is also possible to climb this gate (please use the stairs!) and have a view on the main building of the temple.
Zenkoji Temple: Still popular?
The Zenkoji Temple is special! And I’ll explain that. First of all, the Zenkoji Temple is made entirely of wood, making it one of the largest wooden buildings in Japan. And secondly, millions of people visit the complex every year, because everyone is welcome. Man, woman, transgender, transsexual, Bosnian or extraterrestrial… It doesn’t matter. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. But the Zenkoji Temple doesn’t belong to any particular movement within Buddhism, making it accessible to everyone.
The impressive wooden structure of the prayer hall dates from 1707. At that time Nagano was not a big place at all. In fact, it started with a temple and the city was built around it. This way of working is very unusual in Japan. Usually it starts with a castle and the temple will come later. But enough about the historical backgrounds of this holy place. Please take some action, because where is the key to paradise?
Zenkoji Temple, key to paradise?
And then it’s time to go inside. An entrance ticket is required, because inside the temple there is a remarkable sight. There is an underground passage here. It can be visited, but I want to say it: it is not suitable for claustrophobic people. The corridor is completely dark, but if I succeed in touching the key to paradise, this will ensure happiness after death. Well, that seems like a pleasant thought to me!
In good spirits I step into this tunnel and damn it: it’s really dark! Slowly I let my hands slide along the wall and all of a sudden I have a bite. But at the same time I also hear someone shouting. For the rest I plead to be innocent. I don’t know if I have touched the key to paradise, but once I leave the tunnel it at least relieves my mind.
Tip: around the Zenkoji Temple there are a number of small hills with viewpoints. These are also indicated on various signs in the city. It is a good way to take some nice pictures of the city of Nagano and its surroundings.
Finally, a ticket for the entrance of the temple is also valid for the Historical Museum. This museum looks like a pagoda and is located behind the main building of the Zenkoji Temple. Unfortunately I didn’t have time for this myself.
Planning a visit to the Zenkoji Temple in Nagano?
How to get there?
From the train station of Nagano it is a 30 minute walk to the entrance of the Zenkoji Temple. By bus from the train station only 10 minutes. Another option is to go to Nagado Nagano train station. From there it is a 5 to 10 minute walk to the sanctuary.
Access to the main building and the key to paradise costs 500 yen. The ticket includes the Zenkoji Historical Museum. It is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., as is the Sanomon Gate. The Zenkoji Temple is open from 6am to 4.30pm.
Would you like to read more about Nagano and the countryside?
- Nagano: Top 6 sights, accommodation and transportation
- Jigokudani Monkey Park | Meet the Japanese Monkeys in Traditional Onsen
- Matsumoto Castle | Discover the original black castle of Japan
- Nakasendo Trail, Kiso Valley | Walk the Road of the Samurai
And what is your opinion of the Zenkoji Temple and the key to paradise? Feel free to leave a message below!