Nagano's Zenko-ji Temple: Getting Blessed at the Crack of Dawn

Early one November morning - about 5 AM - I started a walk from Nagano Station toward its most famous temple.
 The sun comes up early here, and when I was close to the temple's final approach the sky was just starting to show signs of the sun's arrival.
 Surrounding buildings made it difficult to photograph in such low light, but this is the Niomon (second) gate to the temple. I wasn't alone; if you look closely there are several people on a tour standing at the entrance to the gate.
 There are several buildings around the main temple building, and since the building itself didn't open until 7 AM (there's something I never thought I'd say) I had some time to wander the grounds and take my photos.
 The sun seems to come up slowly in November in Nagano, and things stayed pretty quiet. Some people were doing yoga in open spaces, and others were paying early morning visits to different shrines.
This is大勧進, which doesn't really translate well into English. It's called the Daihongan Abbey in English. It's a side temple on Zenko-ji's grounds.

Zenko-ji was founded in 642 as an independent temple, when "The Image of Sangoku Denrai" came to Japan from India, via Korea. Apparently this image has been hidden since 654, and nobody has seen it in the millenium and a half that has passed.
There is a pond and small courtyard outside this temple.
Here I am back at the nioman gate as the sun starts to provide more light. I couldn't get a good shot, but there are two guards inside the gate, just somewhat visible in the photo above.
Continuing on there's a large plaza area and the Sammon (Third) Gate. This is quite large and can be toured for a small fee.
Finally, I reached the main temple.
A small area to the left of the temple has some trees and lanterns.
This is the area to the left of the temple, viewed from the temple itself. The building in the photo is the Kyozo Sutra Repository, with the Daikanjin Abbey behind it.
There are more trees to the right of the temple, the Shoro Bell Tower, and the Temple Office. That's the Sammon Gate on the right.
Imperfection in humanity is a key theme, and Zenkoji Hondo (Main Hall) has a rotated column.
Behind the temple is another garden area with more lanterns and paths. I couldn't get a good photo of it, but behind the temple is the traditional tiered Chureiden Pagoda; there is also a cemetery across the street.
The temple Hondo opens at different times depending on the time of year and sunrise. On my visit, the temple opened at 6:32. Before the temple opens, O-juzu Chodai, the rosary blessing, occurs as the priest walks through the gate to the temple. You can see people lined up waiting to receive their blessings. I ended up being in that procession at the temple entrance, and received a blessing from the abbot.

At 6:32, people could enter the temple and sit on the tatami mats, and observe the morning service. You start in the Hondo (Main Hall) and then you visit the Naijin (inner sanctuary), which is where you sit to observe the morning service. Your final stop inside the temple is a tour, or walk, through the O-kaidan, a pitch black passage beneath the temple. You find your way through by feeling the walls. Near the end of the passage you hopefully can feel a wheel which you spin for good luck.

The ceremony itself, inside the Naijin, involves a lot of synchronized chanting; the abbot does some blessings of images during this ceremony, which is a little difficult to see, but most of it will just be listening to the chanting. This was my first Buddhist blessing and first service, though it was my second pilgrimage.

If you visit for the morning ceremonies, note that you will sit on your knees or cross-legged ("Indian style") for a long time, and your tour through the O-kaidan will be slow and crowded because those who watch the morning ceremonies will all take the pilgrimage. If you're not interested in the morning ceremonies you should visit later in the day. There are three more O-juzu Chodai blessings during the day, though their actual times can vary.
I was back outside by about 7:30. Some people who took the pilgrimage left, others remained for more of the morning services. I couldn't sit any longer on my legs - when I had got up the first time to take my trip through the O-kaidan, my legs were completely numb and I couldn't feel the ground at all or even tell if I was walking! By then, the sun was up and I could take some more morning shots of the temple.
Here's the Sammon Gate again.
Looking across a bridge at one of the side temples. Looking at the kanji on the sign, it says Daikanjin right to left.
There is a river or pond area (I'm not sure exactly which it is) between the main pathway and the side temple buildings.
Back at the Niomon Gate. You can see the statues inside a little better, but due to the bird-proof screens and strong shadows it's very difficult to photograph them.
This must be a theatre along the street that leads to the temple.
I walked back to Nagano Station from the temple, and saw this small Olympic monument along the main street. After doing a little research, I just found out that the parking lot behind it was Central Square, which was used for medal ceremonies. Apparently the structure still exists with the parking lot "inside" the square.

It is possible to do a temple stay here, living life as a monk for a while and eating monks' food. I don't know the details of how that can be done or any costs (monetary or labor-based) that includes.

Zenko-ji is open 24 hours a day, though as mentioned before, the main hall opens around sunrise until about 16:00. The Kyozo (Sutra Repository - apparently this building closed right now for maintenance) and museum are open 9:00-16:00. Admission to the Naijin-ken, O-kaidan, and history museum is via a 500-yen combination ticket.

To get there from Nagano Station, I recommend walking two kilometers north along Chuo Dori (a slightly hilly path), which takes about 30 minutes. You'll pass by the above monument and be able to see the Olympic site, and get a good bit of exercise. You can also take a bus from Nagano Station; use the Zenko-ji Exit and take any bus from Bus Stop #1. It takes about 15 minutes and costs 100 yen; from the Zenkoji-Daimon bus stop it's a 5-minute walk to the main hall through the gates as you see above. If you want to go to the temple very early in the morning, like I did, you will probably have to walk from the train station.

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