Take the first step toward heaven


NAGANO — Here’s one way to assure yourself a place in heaven. Get to Nagano City’s noted Zenko-ji Temple by June 1 and catch a glimpse of its most sacred icon — the Maedachi Honzon. According to tradition, making the arduous pilgrimage to this temple to pray to Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of Gokuraku Jodo (Pure Land Western Paradise), guarantees salvation. Now, with the easy access afforded by the shinkansen — constructed for the 1998 Winter Olympics — and the availability of organized tours to the area, admission to heaven is just a few hours away.

The Maedachi Honzon (literally, “icon standing in front”) is on display for a short period of time called go-kaicho (the unveiling). Go-kaicho is only held every six years, and then only for two months, through April and May. Consequently, visitors make a special effort to go to Zenko-ji during this period. During Golden Week this year, Zenko-ji was Japan’s No. 1 travel destination, drawing more than two million visitors.

What makes the Maedachi Honzon so special? According to the temple’s legends, it was created by Amida Buddha. During the time that Buddha lived in India, there was a rather impious man of high status called Gakkai, who showed no interest in the teachings of Buddha. But when his only daughter, Nyoze, fell ill, he was persuaded to repent and pray to Buddha. Suddenly, in the sky, the Amida Buddha appeared with two attendant deities, Kannon and Seishin, and healed Nyoze. Then Amida Buddha himself created this representation of the Amida triad.

Reportedly the first Buddhist image to arrive in Japan, its subsequent journey here makes quite a story. The Amida triad, the legend goes, used its supernatural powers to fly to the ancient Korean kingdom of Paekche where the rather impious King Song ruled. Beholding the icon, King Song saw the error of his ways, repented and became a believer in Buddha. The tireless image then “swam” to Japan, becoming the center of controversy in the Imperial court where opposing factions fought over whether Buddhism should be accepted into the country.

The holy Amida triad was unceremoniously dumped in a canal in Kyoto. It remained there until a man named Honda Yoshimitsu happened to pass by. The icon then leaped out of the water onto the man’s back. He carried it back to his home in the Nagano region and enshrined it in what eventually became Zenko-ji Temple.

The Maedachi Honzon on show during go-kaicho is actually a replica of the original image, called the Ikko Sanzon. This original Amida triad is believed to be so sacred that it is never (that’s right, never) displayed.

A steady stream of visitors mill about the broad courtyard in front of the hondo (main hall). A wooden beam about 10 meters tall, called the eko-bashira, stands in front of the hondo. This beam is erected only during go-kaicho. A white cord runs from the beam and into the hondo, right up Maedachi Honzon itself, where it is attached to the fingers on Amida’s right hand. People crowd around the eko-bashira to touch it, even rub their hands on it. The physical connection to Amida via the cord is as close as one can come to a direct communion, like having one foot in the Western Paradise while still alive.

Just inside the hondo on the left side, pilgrims line up for go-inmon chodai. A priest touches the temple’s seal (inmon) to the petitioner’s head. The seal actually comprises three smaller seals, each corresponding to one of the three gods in the Amida triad. This unusual ritual is another way for the visitor to have a direct physical experience of the Amida triad.

If you go farther into the hondo, you can see the illuminated Maedachi Honzon far ahead on the main altar. If you wish to see it from up close and offer a prayer directly before it, you will have to pay a small fee to enter the large tatami area in front of the altar. On crowded days, the line can wind around for some distance, but the wait is worth it.

To the right of the Maedachi Honzon sit three statues central to Zenko-ji’s founding. The central statue is of Honda Yoshimitsu. To his left sits his wife, Yayoi, and to his right his son, Yoshisuke.

Every visitor to Zenko-ji can re-enact this central drama of death and salvation in a ritual called the kaidan meguri. To the right of the three seated statues is a short staircase leading down into a pitch-dark tunnel. Feeling along the walls, pilgrims grope for the wall-mounted “key to Paradise.” At the end of the passageway, one ascends another staircase back into the light of this world.

Zenko-ji itself is nondenominational. The temple’s religious activities and general administration, however, are taken care of by the priests of two main sub-temples, Daikanjin (belonging to the Tendai sect) and Daihongan (belonging to the Jodo sect). Early each morning, priests chant sutras in the main hall. The deep-throated chanting in the shadowy, cavernous hondo creates an otherworldly atmosphere and reawakens in the listener a nostalgia for a time when religion was central to human experience and a pilgrimage to Zenko-ji was a meaningful personal endeavor.

If the sutras are a pleasure to the ears, the early morning processions of the chief priest (of Daikanjin) and the chief priestess (of Daihongan) are a treat for the eyes. At about 5:30 a.m., the chief priest leaves the gate of Daikanjin accompanied by a few attendants, one of whom holds a large red umbrella over him. Dozens of visitors (well over 100 on crowded days) line up and kneel as the chief priest approaches. He passes by, ever so lightly touching his juzu (prayer beads) to their heads, conferring his direct blessing in a ritual called o-juzu-chodai.

During go-kaicho, in addition to the chanting of sutras, the chief priest is responsible for the daily opening of the cabinet containing the Maedachi Honzon. Hundreds of people crowd the hondo each morning to witness this special moment. For good spots in the inner tatami area, in front of the altar, some visitors have been waiting for hours. The chief priest ascends the few steps in front of the cabinet, kneels and pauses. Then a spotlight shines on the altar like a light from heaven, just as the chief priest opens the cabinet’s doors. The golden Maedachi Honzon glows as if radiating an inner light. The effect is dramatic, and a collective gasp rises from those assembled.

During the chief priest’s prayers, the chief priestess has made her procession from Daihongan to the hondo — giving those who missed it the first time around one more opportunity for o-juzu-chodai. Actually, there are four chances altogether. For while the chief priestess is conducting her ceremony in the hondo, the chief priest exits and returns to Daikanjin. About 15 minutes later, finished with her prayers, the chief priestess leaves the main hall to return to Daihongan.

If all the activity in front of and inside the hondo grows tiresome, I recommend visiting the small treasure halls, or museums, that can be found in Daikanjin and Daihongan. As interesting as the Buddhist statuary or scroll paintings may be, the temples themselves are a draw, offering a respite from the busy clatter outside. Once inside you can walk along the corridors and enjoy the tranquillity of the interior gardens.

Twice during go-kaicho, in a ceremony called the teigishiki, the priests of the temple make a grand procession in front of the hondo. Twelve priests, each under a red umbrella, line up in two columns as the chief priest or priestess is carried in on a palanquin. As special prayers are offered at an altar just before the eko-bashira, thousands of spectators jostle for a better view.

This is Zenko-ji at its most majestic and spectacular. And you have one more week to see it.