Zenkoji Temple in Nagano: The High Priestess and the Bumbling Idiot

Nagano Temple

I’m never at my best first thing in the morning.

We’d woken early at our temple lodgings in the Zenkoji temple complex in Nagano. The accommodation in the two-storey wooden house had been basic but the hospitality typically warm. Fearful that the winter nights in such an old place would be uncomfortably cold I’d packed the warmest nightwear I could gather, only to find that as in the modern hotels in which we’d stayed elsewhere in Japan, cold weather outside means extreme heat inside. On this night however, the night-time toilet run involved a journey along the wooden corridor, down the steep rickety staircase and through a communal washing area, all of which were closer to the temperatures in the snow-covered street outside.

Nagano Temple

We shuffled in the morning gloom to the nearby temple for the 7am morning prayers, passing two monks carrying umbrellas along the way. Snow had been falling steadily for the last two days and was now deep and crisp underfoot. Nagano is an unusual Japanese city in that it developed around the temple, rather than around a harbour or a fort. Zenkoji temple dates back to the 7th century and is home to the oldest statue of Buddha in Japan, the Zenkoji Golden Triad. This sacred image is hidden from public view and its replica is only brought out for show once every seven years in a grand ceremony (the next occasion will be in 2015).

Pilgrims have come here for centuries to pray and also to seek eternal good fortune. An underground passage runs below the main sanctuary of Zenkoji Hondo, the magnificent 18th century wooden main hall. In pitch darkness visitors to the temple fumble their way through a corridor in search of the Key to Paradise. Those who find and touch this heavy metal object are guaranteed eternal salvation.

Nagano Temple

Having completed the eternal salvation task successfully the day before we now sat on the floor mats in front of the sanctuary and settled into a lull as the monks began the melodic rhythmic chants that formed the acoustic backdrop to the morning ceremony. The High Priest arrived and began his prayers at the back of the sanctuary, making first three anti-clockwise circles with his right hand, then three clockwise circles, repeating this continuously as he opened the large doors to the inner sanctuary.

The ceremony continued for two hours but we had breakfast to eat and a train to catch so slipped away from the hypnotic chants quietly, lacing up our boots before leaving through the main entrance. Here a man waved to us, making a praying gesture and furtively pointing ahead. Unable to make out his intentions I smiled and made a prayer gesture back to him. He continued to signal to us and I, not knowing what he wanted, started to walk down the steps towards my waiting breakfast. Sam had twigged by then and stopped, calling me back in time before I walked headlong into a serious breach of etiquette. The High Priestess or abbess of the temple complex was approaching and everyone around had dropped to their knees to receive a blessing as she passed us. Just in time we assumed the correct position to receive the High Priestess’s blessings, a prayer and a holy hand stopping briefly over our heads.

Nagano Temple

Embarrassment saved and offence averted, we ate a hasty breakfast before making our way to the station, only to find that the overnight snow had stopped the Nagano bullet train for the first time in 17 years. It seems that guaranteed salvation and sacred blessings can’t address every situation.


Disclosure: We were in Japan to research a series of commissions (links to follow in due course). Many thanks to Inside Japan Tours, the Japan National Tourism Organization and Virgin Atlantic for their valuable help along the way.

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Freelance travel writer

One Response to “Zenkoji Temple in Nagano: The High Priestess and the Bumbling Idiot”

  1. Mr Tips #

    Zenkoji temple is an amazing place. I was there in 2005 when I travelled across all of Japan.

    There was a huge amount of snow at the time, so a lot of my photos look a lot like the ones you’ve posted.

    March 12, 2014 at 6:43 am