Vegetarian's Japan Guide

The Best Guide to Nagano’s Best Attraction – Zenkoji Temple

In addition to the ski resorts and the Jigokudani Monkey Park, Zenkoji Temple (善光寺), near Nagano Station, is one of the most popular destinations in Nagano Prefecture. The number of visitors the temple receives yearly is as many as 6 million people! The temple has a history of more than 1,400 years and many Cultural Properties in its precinct. In addition, plenty of shops lined the approach to the mountain gate of Zenkoji.

This symbol of Nagano City is located on a hill about 2 km north of Nagano Station. In fact, the prosperous city center was formed because of Zenkoji Temple instead of the other way around.

In the past, the area was not occupied by many people. This made it an ideal place for Buddhism study. But as it became more well-known, more and more pilgrims from across the country started visiting the temple. Seeing this as a great business opportunity, shops, restaurants, and accommodation facilities emerged in the Nagano City we know today.

Below is a list of buildings in Zenkoji’s precinct that we want to introduce to you!

Tip: Sotetsu Fresa Inn Nagano Zenkojiguchi is a nice hotel to spend a night after a day of exploration around Nagano Station.

Explore the Zenkoji Temple With a Guided Tour

If you prefer to be guided when you visit Zenkoji Temple or want to join one of the interesting activities, how about joining one of the below tours?

Here are a few options to consider.

How to Get to Zenkoji Temple

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To get to the temple, take a train to JR Nagano Station (長野駅) first. Below is a rough guide of how long it might take you to get to Nagano Station, assuming you are taking the bullet train and/or limited express.

  • From Tokyo: around 1.5 hours
  • From Nagoya: around 3 – 3.5 hours
  • From Osaka: around 4 hours
  • From Kanazawa: around 1 hour

From Nagano Station, you can either take a bus or change for Nagano Electric Railway (Nagano Dentetsu, 長野電鉄).

The JR Pass that Covers Nagano Prefecture

Consider getting one of the below passes if you depart from Tokyo. Some cover the Kansai region (Osaka/Kyoto) too!

A return trip from Tokyo will cost you 16,280 yen, almost the 5-day JR East Pass at 18,000 yen. The 5-day pass gives you unlimited train rides on all JR trains in the area, Tokyo Monorail, and Izu Kyuko Line. It also allows you to board the reserved carriages of bullet trains. Remember to purchase the pass through a reseller like Klook before arriving in Japan to save on the 10% tax.

Taking a Bus from Nagano Station to Zenkoji Temple

Several buses stop at the closest bus stop to the temple – Zenkoji Daimon (善光寺大門).

From Nagano Station’s bus stop no. 1, you can either take the City Loop Bus Gururin-gō (ぐるりん号) or other local buses bound for Uki (宇木), Wakatsuki (若槻), or Nishijō (西条). The buses are run by either Alpico Group or Nagaden Bus.

  • HERE is Gururin-gō’s timetable.
  • For other services’ timetables, please refer to HERE and translate the webpage to English by Google Chrome’s translation function at the right of the address bar.

The bus trip will take around 10 to 15 minutes, depending on which bus you take. From the bus stop, it is then a 5-minute walk to the temple.

Important: The bus routes are not operated by JR Group, and therefore, your JR Pass won’t cover the bus fare.

Taking Nagano Dentetsu to Zenkoji Temple

For those who plan to visit attractions along Nagano Dentetsu’s Nagano Line, taking a train to the temple may be a better idea.

Please get off at Zenkojishita (善光寺下). It is then a 10-minute walk to the temple.

HERE is the timetable for your reference.

Tip: Check out the different types of discount train tickets on Nagano Dentetsu’s website HERE to save.

Ⓒ photo-ac.com

Zenkoji Temple’s History

Zenkoji Temple is believed to have started as a result of the main Buddha statue – Shikiamidasanzon (一光三尊阿弥陀如来), which arrived in Japan from Korea in 552. The statue, made in India, is said to be the oldest Buddha statue in Japan. Furthermore, there are a couple more facts about this Amitābha statue (also known as Amida Buddha), which differs from the other Amida Buddha images you might have seen.

The Amida Buddha statue in Zenkoji is actually a statue with three images. Apart from the Amida Buddha, Kannon Bodhisattva and Mahasthamaprapta, which supported the Amida Buddha in the Pure Land, are also in the same statue with the same aureola radiating from their back. Other differences include the hand gesture and the Buddha’s clothes covering both shoulders.

This currently hidden statue was not always enshrined at Zenkoji. In fact, it was once abandoned by those who were against the spread of Buddhism in Japan.

Fortunately, the servant of Shinano Province’s Kokushi, Honda Yoshimitsu (本田 善光), picked the statue up and enshrined it in Iida City (飯田市) in Nagano Prefecture. It wasn’t until 642 that the statue was brought to where Zenkoji is located today. In 644, with a request from Empress Kōgyoku (皇極天皇), a proper temple with worship halls was built and named Zenkoji after Honda Yoshimitsu.

Kokushi (国司) was the official the central government sent to oversee a province.

Since the temple’s establishment, it has suffered more than ten fire-related emergencies. Fortunately, Zenkoji was able to be restored after each disaster. Thanks to continuous support from aristocrats and various powerful feudal lords, including Genshi (源氏) in the Kamakura period, the Takeda clan in the Sengoku period, and the Tokugawa clan in the Edo period.

The Amida Buddha statue of the temple seemed to have a fate of traveling around during its early years. In 1555, it was transferred to Kōfu (甲府) in Yamanashi Prefecture by Takeda Shingen (武田 信玄) before it was transferred to the custody of the Oda clan, the Tokugawa clan, and the Toyotomi clan, which saw the statue traveled in various provinces in Japan. In 1598, after Toyotomi Hideyoshi passed away, the statue finally ended its long trip that lasted for more than 40 years, returning to Zenkoji Temple.

In the Edo period, after receiving a large piece of land from the Tokugawa shogunate, Zenkoji was able to restore the main worship hall Hondō (本堂), which was damaged in the turbulent Sengoku period. At the same time, a mountain gate and more halls of various purposes were built as well.

With support received from Tokyo, the temple received many pilgrimages at the time. A custom of visiting Zenkoji Temple on the way back from the Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮) was subsequently born.

Different from Kōyasan (高野山), which forbade female pilgrims from entering its precinct, Zenkoji is known as a temple that treated both genders equally. This is why images of women can commonly be seen at the back of ema back then.

Ema (絵馬) is the wooden plate where the Japanese write their prayers and hang at shrines and temples. For more information about ema, please read our article on Kyoto’s Kifune Shrine.

Which Sect Does Zenkoji Belong to

Whilst Zenkoji doesn’t follow the teaching of a particular “sect”. It is currently co-managed by the head monk of the Tendai and Pure Land schools, which co-existed in the temple. The reason why it doesn’t belong to any sects is that it was established before Buddhism was split into different sects in Japan. The concept of “sect” didn’t exist at the temple’s inception.

What to See in Zenkoji Temple

Zenkoji has many national and prefectural cultural properties with a long history and a wide precinct. Among the buildings, there are also a few national treasures.

The Main Worship Hall – Hondō (本堂)

The current Hondō was rebuilt in 1707. Due to its high historical value, it is currently Japan’s national treasure.

The worship hall is of a Shumoku-zukuri Style (撞木造り). Shumoku is a handheld mallet used to strike bells commonly seen in Japanese temples. Because the T-shaped ridge of the building resembles the mallet, the architectural style is called Shumoku-zukuri. The feature of Shumoku-zukuri is that the internal space can be used efficiently, so more people can be inside the hall at any given time.

©善光寺

With a dimension of 24 meters x 54 meters and a height of 30 meters, the main hall of Zenkoji is the third-largest building among those that are national treasures (after Tōdaiji (東大寺) and Sanjūsangendō (三十三間堂)).

The interior of Hondō (本堂) is subdivided into a couple of areas. The main Buddha statue is enshrined at the very end of the hall in the Nainaijin area (内々陣) beyond the Naijin area (内陣) and is usually covered by a curtain. Keen to see it? Participate in the morning ritual O-Asaji (お朝事) held each day. As the starting time of the ritual differs every day, please refer to their website HERE for more information.

©善光寺

Shortly before and after the morning service, you can also be a part of the O-Juzu Chōdai (お数珠頂戴), which is the Rosary Blessing. When the head priest of either the Tendai sect or the Pure Land school is on his/her way to Hondō, the priest will stroke the head of believers who knelt on the approach with their mala beads. It is a special way of receiving a blessing from the priests at Zenkoji that will entice many individuals.

For tourists who come to the temple during normal opening hours, the most popular activity at Zenkoji is taking the Ordination platform tour (O-Kaidan Meguri, お戒壇めぐり). Although the Amida Buddha statue is hidden during the day, you can go underneath it. By doing so, it is said that you effectively have built a connection with Amida Buddha, and one day, he will guide you to the Pure Land where you can live eternally and enjoy eternal joy.

Touring the 45-meter dark pathway is really popular. On long weekends and/or holiday periods, the queuing time can be as long as 3 hours Σ(゚Д゚).

Tip: If you plan to close to Zenkoji at one of the 39 sub-temples, for example, you can drop by the Hondō again at night for a lit-up worship hall.

Sanmon Gate (山門)

The two-story mountain gate completed in 1750 is an Important National and Cultural Property.

©善光寺

When you stand in front of the gate, pay close attention to the plaque with Zenkoji (善光寺) written on it. See if you can see five doves hidden in the three Chinese characters. This is also why this plaque is called Hatoji no Gaku (鳩字の額).

Also, because the word “Zen (善)” on the plaque looks like a cow’s face, it reminds people of a Japanese idiom, Ushi ni HIkarete Zenkoji Mairi (牛に引かれて善光寺参り).

The idiom came from a story where an old lady who was greedy and didn’t believe in Buddhism was chasing a cow that had her clothes stuck on its horn. The old lady was eventually led to Zenkoji. The incident allowed the old lady to learn what Buddhism is about, and she later became more generous and a believer. The phrase has since been used to describe the situation of being guided for the better by something you never thought of or by someone else’s invitation.

Tip: Don’t just walk past the Sanmon. Remember to head up to the second floor to look beyond the temple’s precinct, including Hondō. While it will cost some money, we believe it is worth it! You will also meet Manjushri Bodhisattva, who looks after learning and academic excellence in the worship hall on the second floor.

Scripture and Sutra Hall – Kyōzō (経蔵)

The Kyōzō was completed in 1759 and is an Important National Cultural Property.

Inside the hall, a set of complete Buddhist scriptures is stored. It is said that by rotating the shelf that comprises the complete Buddhist scriptures stored inside, you get the same blessing as reading the entire scriptures.

©善光寺

Other National Important Cultural Properties in Zenkoji

Other Important Cultural and National Properties in Zenkoji’s precinct include the statue of Nirvana in Shaka-dō (釈迦堂).

The 1:1 scale life-size statue was made in the Kamakura period. In the Sengoku period, the 1.66-meter tall bronze statue traveled around Japan with the main Amida Buddha statue.

Also, inside the treasure hall (Hōmotsuden, 宝物殿) in the Daikanshin (大勧進) section of the Zenkoji Temple, there are numerous smaller items such as the oldest blueprint in Japan, which are now important cultural properties.

The Daikanshin in Zenkoji Temple refers to the area with buildings related to the Tendai school.

Tip: If you love lotus flowers, come to Daikanshin in July. It is when the many lotuses in the pond will bloom!

The Bell Tower and the Bonshō Bell ( 鐘楼・梵鐘)

©善光寺

Near the main worship hall, the bell hung in the bell tower is an Important National Artwork (重要美術品).

The bell, made in 1667, is struck twice daily at 10 am and 4 pm. Furthermore, this bell announced the opening of the Winter Olympic Games held in Nagano in 1998!

You might also notice the bell tower has six pillars. While some might think four pillars should be enough, there is a reason it has to be six.

In Japanese, Amida Buddha is pronounced as Namu Amida Butsu (南無阿弥陀仏). As there are six characters, six pillars were made!

©善光寺

Niōmon Gate (仁王門)

©善光寺

Niōmon serves as the front gate of Zenkoji Temple.

The short street between the Niōmon and the mountain gate, Sanmon (山門) is called Nakamise-dōri Street (仲見世通り). You will have a great time browsing through the shops and restaurants on both sides of the street.

The gate was first established in 1752 but was destroyed twice due to disasters such as earthquakes. The current gate was built in 1918.

At the top of the gate, you will see the plaque with Jōgakusan (定額山) written on it. This is Zenkoji’s Sangō (山号), which is an honorific mountain name prefixed to a temple’s name.

Zenkoji’s Opening Hours and Admission Fees

  • As the opening hours of the worship halls at Zenkoji differ, please refer to their official website HERE to plan your visit. You will also find admission information on the same webpage.
    • For the exact time when Hondō will be open on the day of your visit, it might be easier to refer to the Google Calendar HERE at the bottom of the page. It has the starting time of O-Asaji Service (お朝事) for each day.
    • Hondō is open an hour earlier than the morning service.

Unjoden (雲上殿)

©善光寺

Unjōden, around a 5-minute drive from Zenkoji, is where the temple stores the ashes of its pilgrims.

Remember back in the Edo period when the Tokugawa shogunate granted the temple a vast amount of land? Although nowadays there are many other buildings situated between Zenkoji and Unjōden, in the past, the land all belonged to the temple.

As tourists, we won’t be coming here to pray or chant for our loved ones who have passed away. It is Unjoden’s gorgeous cherry blossom scenery that we come here for. On the sides of the road from Zenkoji Temple’s north to Unjōden, 650 cherry trees will be blooming from mid to late April!

As Unjoden is situated on high ground, you can also get a wide view of Nagano City center, surrounded by mountain ranges.

How to Get to Unjoden

  • From Zenkoji, it is around a 30-minute walk.
  • From Nagano Station’s bus stop no.1, take local buses bound for Wakatsuki (若槻) and get off at Taki (滝).

Specialties of Zenkoji that You Have to Try at Nakamise-dōri Street (仲見世通り)

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Back in the Edo period, seven local specialties were sold at the shops around Zenkoji, which pilgrims would bring home as souvenirs after visiting the temple. The seven specialties are therefore known as the Seven Specialties of Zenkoji (善光寺七名物).

Although not all seven have survived the test of time, we still get to try three when we go to the famous temple today!

For more information about the best shops and restaurants around Zenkoji Temple, please read our article on Nakamise-dōri Street.

Zenkoji Omotesandō Illumination (善光寺表参道イルミネーション)

When the time gets closer to Christmas, the trees on the 1.8 km road leading to Zenkoji Temple from Nagano Station will be decorated with thousands of light bulbs that create a warm atmosphere. This is probably the only time of the year you will be willing to spend 30 minutes walking to get to the temple (´▽`*). The temple itself is also the venue where the lighting show will take place.

Ⓒ ながの観光コンベンションビューロー

In 2022, the Zenkō-ji Illumination took place from the 10th to the 18th of December from 5 pm to 10 pm.

Other Attractions Around Zenkoji

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Click the photo to find out where else to visit around Nagano Station!

Besides Zenkoji Temple, there are a couple more attractions and sweets shops that might interest you.

For more information, please refer to our article on A Guide to the Attractions Around Nagano Station!

Explore the Chestnuts Town – Obuse

If you aren’t in a hurry, we recommend you stop by Obuse for the delicious chestnut desserts and the dramatic ukiyo-e that the town is famous for.

Find out more about what you can do and where to go, and of course, where to eat when you get to this gorgeous town with our Obuse article (=゚ω゚)ノ.

You can even visit someone’s backyard without notifying the owner!

Obuseto
Find out how to get to this scenic spot by clicking the photo!

Visit the Snow Monkeys in Jigokudani Monkey Park

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Click the photo to find out how to see the monkeys in the hot spring!

We have all seen humans enjoying the hot spring. Especially in winter, you might have indulged in the onsen yourself to warm up and let the rich minerals moisturize your skin.

But have you ever seen monkeys doing the same?

If you are interested, follow our article on Jigokudani Monkey Park to find out the best time of the year to visit and how to get there!

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