It was still dark when we walked up Chuo-dori and subsequently Nakamise-dori, to arrive at the Niomon Gate, the southernmost gate of the extensive Zenko-ji temple complex. The sky was cloudy, and slowly, the elegant shapes of statues, trees, and stone lanterns were piercing through the dark light of dawn. More ominously, we saw the big, square contours of Sanmon Gate in the slowly lifting darkness. Snowflakes were coming down hesitantly, and in some places, we saw small quantities of snow on the ground. After entering the main hall of the temple, Zenko-ji Hondo, and putting our shoes in plastic bags provided by the temple itself, a Japanese woman took us to a place right next to a large statue of Buddha and in front of the elaborate altar of the temple. There was no one else around, except for Buddhist officials seated in one corner of the hall.
Soon, though, one of the Buddhist officials kneeled just metres away from us, and started performing what seemed like religious rituals. Frequently hitting a small bell, he provided sound in the otherwise silent enormous hall of Zenko-ji Temple. While we continued to watch, more people joined us, and other Buddhist officials appeared as well. Then, loud banging of a big drum somewhere behind us sparked off the preparatory ceremony proper.Now, a spectacle started which included the lifting of curtains hiding certain parts of the altar, the singing of monks, the shuffling of feet of pilgrims sitting down behind us. All the while, the large statue to our left, only sparsely lit by light coming from below, was looking down on us with what seemed like deeper wisdom. We were now fully aware that we were in one of the holiest sites in the land of the rising sun.
The history of Zenko-ji Temple is much older than Nagano, the city that has developed around it. Built in the 7th century, it was originally built before Buddhism split in several sects. Probably because of this reason, the temple is often seen as having a liberal stance towards different sects, and even believers of other faiths. It is also noted for treating man and women equally: the temple has both a priest and a priestess. Unfortunately, the morning we visited, we did not see any female official. Zenko-ji Temple is famous for the Ikko-Sanzon, the first Buddist image to make it to Japan in the 6th century. The image with obvious religious value has been subject of disputes, it has been lost, thrown away, and recovered, and now, is hidden somewhere in the temple. Alas, not even the emperors of the last 37 generations have seen it. Instead, a copy of the image is shown to the public every seven years, but we did not have this privilege. One of the other peculiarities of the temple is the dark corridor leading under the altar, and this is where we headed when the ceremony was over. Descending the stairs was easy enough, but then, darkness enveloped us completely and we were forced to touch the wall and thread carefully to find our way forward. The darkness is said to make every man equal, while it is possible to find the keys to paradise hidden somewhere in the wall - on the right-hand side. True enough, being in this tunnel of darkness brings about immediate changes: without any visual distraction, your thoughts automatically change and may lead to introspection. Once you surrender to the feeling of helplessness, it is actually a relaxing experience. Once out in the temple again, we moved to the exit, and since the day had now really started, were finally able to also enjoy the beauty of Zenko-ji Temple from the outside.
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