Friday, May 15, 2015

Photo Friday #9: Zenko-ji! フォト金曜日#9:善光寺!

フォト金曜日#9:善光寺!Photo Friday #9: Zenko-ji!

How about a little geography lesson? Japan is an archipelago, consisting of thousands of islands, but is typically portrayed as four main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, north to south. The country is further divided into eight regions consisting of 47 prefectures. For example, Kyoto is the capital city of Kyoto Prefecture, located in the Kansai region on the island of Honshu. Honshu--本州, meaning "main province"--is the largest, most populous island of Japan, making it a popular tourist destination.

In this week's Photo Friday post, we're taking a trip out of Tokyo Station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, bound for Honshu's Chubu region. Sandwiched between the Kanto and Kansai regions (home to Tokyo and Kyoto, respectively), the Chubu region can sometimes be overlooked as tourists pass through to better known locales, but has a charm all its own. Our Chubu destination may sound familiar; we're heading for Nagano, the capital city of Nagano Prefecture, where we visited this Buddhist temple:

善光寺本堂: Zenko-ji Hondo (Zenko-ji Temple Main Hall) - January 4, 2015
If you're a modern-day tourist in Nagano, you're probably visiting with one main thing in mind: winter sports. Nagano is famous for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics, and its mountainous terrain is perfect for skiing and snowboarding. Indeed, most of the tourists we saw in Nagano were hauling snowboards around with them, and I felt a little out of place without one. However, I still can't forget how painful it was to break my leg playing softball years ago, or how I lived in daily pain for five years following a back injury. Needless to say, I wasn't visiting Nagano for its outdoor sports. (When I saw an Australian girl in full winter gear on crutches in a Nagano convenience store, I immediately assumed her injury was sustained on the slopes, and my fears felt validated.)

When I was researching where we should go during our second trip to Japan--somewhere other than Tokyo and Kyoto--my friend Miho mentioned Nagano. Miho grew up there and went to school near Zenko-ji Temple. The more I read about the area, the more I wanted to visit and see its scenic vistas for myself. It was only an hour and a half out of Tokyo on the shinkansen, plus its cooler temperatures offered the bonus of potentially getting to see snow fall. We added it to our itinerary and arrived on Saturday, January 3.

After having our Sunday breakfast at the Mister Donut near Nagano Station, we headed for Zenko-ji Temple. It's about 2.2 kilometers, or just under 1.5 miles, from the train station to the temple, and as you approach Zenko-ji the road becomes a little steep. (Note that it's a shorter walk to the temple from Zenkojishita Station, but we enjoyed walking and seeing the city.) As it was early January when we visited, many people were presumably still doing hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the new year), so it was a little crowded. However, something struck me as strange as we got closer to the temple: we were the only Caucasian people in sight.

Japan is known for being a homogeneous country, but we saw handfuls of tourists and expats here and there: we met some Australians at Fushimi Inari Taisha, Germans at Tokyo Station, Americans at Roppongi Hills and Kabukicho, British at a pub in Shibuya, and so on. Even our hotel at Nagano was home base for several Australians eager to hit the slopes. But for some reason, Zenko-ji didn't seem to be a destination for other non-Asian foreigners, and we suddenly found ourselves the objects of a lot of attention.

Just some guy with a blonde in a Carp hat.
A group of high school girls approached us and waved, shyly saying "hello" to us; I said "hello" back, and they all giggled ferociously. An old Japanese man greeted us, asking where we were from; he shook our hands, thanking us for coming to Nagano and the temple. I was used to people staring at me in Japan--there aren't many tall, platinum blondes there!--but I was surprised by how amicably we were treated at Zenko-ji. Although Japanese people were usually friendly to us, nowhere else in Japan did so many random passersby make such a genuine, unsolicited attempt to make us feel welcome. It really left an impression on me. It could have felt awkward to be the only non-Asian tourists in sight, but the locals' warm demeanor put me at ease and really allowed me to enjoy strolling the temple grounds.

I wanted to visit Zenko-ji in part because of its rich history. Built in the 7th century, it predates many of Japan's sects of Buddhism, and thus is managed by two different schools--Tendai and Jodo-shu. Like many other temples (remember Kinkaku-ji?), it enshrines images of the Amida Buddha, but what makes it unique is that it houses what's believed to be the first statue of Buddha ever brought to Japan during the 6th century. To say this relic is sacred is a bit of an understatement: it's so revered that even the highest ranking priests at Zenko-ji are forbidden from seeing it, and has been hidden since 654! Every seven years, a treasured replica of the statue--with the replica itself dating back to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333)--is put on public display for a few weeks during Gokaicho, drawing pilgrims and visitors by the thousands. If you're lucky enough to be in Japan right now, you actually have until the end of May to see the Maedachi Honzon statue in person! (The rest of us can watch this video from a few years ago documenting Zenko-ji, the Gokaicho ceremony, and the preparations leading up to it.)

Zenko-ji's other attractions include the Rokujizo, statues of the six Bodhisattvas, as well as an interesting representation of the "key to paradise" of the Amida Buddha. Hanging on a wall in a pitch black, narrow basement corridor, it's said that devotees who manage to touch this metal key can gain enlightenment. Hungry pilgrims can also enjoy various treats from the food stalls lining the road to Zenko-ji. Seeing these vendors is commonplace at larger shrines and temples in Japan, but I especially enjoyed the regional (and vegetarian!) specialties available near Zenko-ji: piping hot oyaki dumplings and gohei mochi.

Centuries ago, it wasn't uncommon for Japanese cities to grow around castles, but Nagano grew around Zenko-ji. With its great "locals only" feel and ancient traditions, a visit to Zenko-ji should be included on every Nagano tourist's itinerary. As Nagano is surrounded by the Japanese Alps and offers tons of fun winter activities, it's easy to overlook the temple--particularly if you're suffering from temple burnout--but the city simply wouldn't exist without Zenko-ji. I know I'm looking forward to returning to the temple, someday!

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