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How to Enjoy Zenkoji, the Must-See Tourist Spot in Nagano

Zenkoji is one of Nagano's most famous tourist destinations. It is a historic temple that has long been loved in Japan and is always crowded with worshippers from around the country. This time, we offer a detailed look at the highlights of Zenkoji.

What is Zenkoji?

Zenkoji is a temple with around 1,400 years of history. It has long been said that one visit to Zenkoji in a lifetime ensures a peaceful passage into the next life. It enshrines was is said to be the oldest statue of Buddha in Japan and is also thought to be the source of Japanese Buddhism. The temple does not belong to any sect and is open to a wide range of people. There are guided tours in English and Chinese on weekends and holidays, so be sure to take advantage of them!

What is Zenkoji?

491 Nagano Motoyoshi-cho, Nagano-shi, Nagano

1. Niomon

This is the first gate that worshipers pass through to enter the grounds. It was originally built in 1752, but has twice been destroyed by fire. The current gate was rebuilt in 1918. Jyogakusan, which is Zenkoji's honorific mountain name, is written in a frame at the top of the gate. The gate is protected by imposing statues of Nio, the two guardian Deva kings, as well as Sanmen-Daikokuten (Three-faced Great Black Deva) and Sanpo-Kojinzo (guardian deity of the three jewels). They were sculpted by two famous modern sculptors, Takamura Koun and Yonehara Unkai, and are characterized by muscles and physique that are more defined than in traditional Nio statues.

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1. Niomon

491 Nagano Motoyoshi-cho, Nagano-shi, Nagano

2. Sanmon

The Sanmon gate, which is a designated Important Cultural Property of Japan, was built in 1750. It had aged over the years, but underwent extensive repairs in 2007, and has now been restored to its original form. The framed sign of Zenkoji at the top of the gate is popularly referred to as "the frame of dove writing". There are five doves hidden among the three kanji characters. The current frame is a recent replacement of the old one, which is now exhibited in the Zenkoji History Museum. A statue of Manjushri, to whom the gate is dedicated, surrounded by the Four Devas, can be found inside the gate. The gate also has an altar room with murals that have been restored with vivid colors.

Entrance Fee: Adults 500 JPY; Students (high school) 200 JPY; Children (elementary and junior high) 50 JPY

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2. Sanmon

491-I Nagano Motoyoshi-cho, Nagano-shi, Nagano

3. Hondo

The Hondo (main hall) houses the statue of Buddha being attended to by two Bodhisattvas, to which Zenkoji is dedicated. It is a temple structure that is representative of the mid-Edo Period (first half of the 18th century). The current building was rebuilt in 1707 and is designated as a national treasure. With a frontage of 24m, height of 29m, and depth of 54m, it is one of Japan's largest wooden structures. It is a relatively deep temple compared to most temples. A Naijin Ticket (Adults 500 JPY) is required to see the Naijin (the room with tatami mats) and the Zenkoji History Museum. There are also tickets that allow you to view the Sanmon as well (Adults 1,000 JPY).

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3. Hondo

491-I Oaza Nagano Motoyoshi-cho, Nagano-shi, Nagano

Okaidan Tour

If you go to Zenkoji, don't miss the Okaidan Tour (requires a ticket to the Naijin). It is a tour around the dark corridor underneath the Hondo. There is a Gokuraku-no Ojo-mae (the lock of paradise) right underneath the statue to which the temple is dedicated, and it is said that by touching it, you are ensured rebirth into paradise.

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Okaidan Tour

491-I Oaza Nagano Motoyoshi-cho, Nagano-shi, Nagano

4. Kyozo

This is a hall with a polygonal roof that was built in 1759 and is designated as an Important Cultural Property of Japan. Inside, there is an octagonal rotating shelf for sutras. It is said that turning it by pushing its crossarm allows you to get the same benefits as reading all of the complete Buddhist scriptures that it holds. The hall had long been closed due to preservation efforts, but it reopened in October 2017 for the first time in around nine years.

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4. Kyozo

491 Oaza Nagano Motoyoshi-cho, Nagano-shi, Nagano

5. Nakamise-dori

This is a street that runs from the Niomon to the Sanmon. It is lined with a variety of shops, including souvenir shops and restaurants. It has a long history that dates back to the Middle Ages and is said to have started with street vendors and hawkers.

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You can walk around and enjoy food like the regional oyaki (buns of vegetables or azuki beans wrapped in a batter made of flour or buckwheat and water) and soft serve ice cream made with plenty of miso, which is a Shinshu specialty.

*This is a picture of "oyaki".

5. Nakamise-dori

Nagano Motoyoshi-cho, Nagano-shi, Nagano

6. THE FUJIYA GOHONJIN

Fujiya opened in 1648 as a ryokan hotel. It is a historic hotel where many famous people, including members of the imperial family, warrior lords, and Japan's first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, have stayed. The art deco style building with a mixture of Japanese and Western styles that was built in 1925 is designated as an Important Cultural Property of Japan. The interior is a space that melds the traditional sukiya-style of architecture with elements of Western architecture. It has been renovated and reopened as THE FUJIYA GOHONJIN, with a restaurant, lounge, and pastry shop. It is beloved as a landmark of the main path to Zenkoji.

6. THE FUJIYA GOHONJIN

80 Daimon-cho, Nagano-shi, Nagano

Zenkoji has long been an object of worship and a place of comfort for many people. There is much to see both inside the temple grounds and around it, so be sure to visit!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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