Zenkōji Temple is the centrepiece of Nagano, and one of the most important sites in Japanese Buddhism. It contains a secret Buddha statue claimed to be the first ever brought to Japan, and from the temple's establishment in the seventh century to this day, the devout still come to it on pilgrimage.
Of course, it has also become a major tourist destination. Perhaps most poular is the "underground passageway" beneath the main hall's Inner Sanctuary: a corridor drenched in utter darkness, narrow and with several right-angled turns, in which people can pay to stumble through in search for the 'Key to Paradise': a metal twirly-whirly thing which apparently conduces to enlightenment and spiritual awakening. Helpful hint: it's on the right wall, about halfway up, approximately three quarters of the way through the tunnel.
The Zenkōji leaflet does in fact make a powerful observation about this corridor: in the absolute darkness, 'all people are completely equal'. From this I assert that although a lot of us fear the darkness or equate it with Bad Things, that approach is misled. An excess of light can be equally harmful to an excess of darkness: if nothing else, the absence of darkness would prevent us from sleeping or seeing the stars. If the dark reminds us of our fundamental equality, that only adds to the reasons we should respect it.
Though the temizuya purification font for cleansing oneself of materialist impurities, with the Pepsi logo occupying the bench beside it, is a more questionable juxtaposition.
The extensive temple grounds contain a lot of statues and monuments. Behold some of the curiously specific things the memorials devote to:
And spot the five doves hidden in the kanji on the Sanmon Gate plaque:
But the best was yet to come. After consuming some of the region's excellent soba noodles on the approach road, we returned to the temple at 10pm to find a crowd beginning to gather. Police and camera crews monitored the scene, and excited crowd members watched live television of New Year events on their gadgets: the atmosphere anticipated midnight. With no knowledge of what to expect, we stuck around as winter tightened its claws, the chill of the air breaking through our layers...
By New Year's approach, the throng had grown to saturate the square. Then came a countdown in Japanese, and on its completion, the full agglomeration of people surged into the temple hall, like a throng erupting forth on the high street at the release of a new iPad, showing more enthusiasm in those few joyous seconds than every crowd I had seen thus far in this country combined. The goal of their advance was the offering receptacle at the front of the temple hall, where the most devout stood in prayer in the foremost row, while everyone in range hurled their money at the box or white sheets beside it.
Most of these offerings were coins, and I hope whatever spirits are no doubt depending on these monies for their divine accommodations and nutrients will excuse the limiting of my contribution to a 1-yen coin, and consider the mitigating circumstances of a student budget and non-existence of income. Yet we were surprised to see significant numbers of banknotes on those sheets as well, of 1000-yen values or more.
Do these generous donations suggest sincere devotion still attends events like these, in this one of the leading bastions of Japanese spirituality? Or is there more a conspicuous, social intent behind such large offerings, by where those of deep wallets enjoy that that depth be known? Such things would make a fascinating research topic indeed.
Next, one of the most popular destinations in Japan for Japanese and foreigners alike, and how its beauty and heritage well earn it its reputation.