Nagano’s Path to the Pure Land

Foot detail of guardian god at the Zenkoji Niomon

In Nagano, all paths lead to Zenkoji. Possibly one of the most important and influential Buddhist centres of worship in Japan and a pilgrimage site, Zenkoji has had a long and important history in Nagano. In fact, with Zenkoji being founded somewhere in the 7th century, Nagano grew up around it. For centuries Zenkoji was Nagano’s sustenance and fortune, drawing pilgrims from the humble commoner to the powerful shoguns alike.

So imagine if you can, as if viewing a time-lapse scene in reverse – where the roads, the cars and the buildings, and even JR Nagano station disappears, there stands a glorious temple, its broad path paved with large stones, heralded by magnificent gates and lined by the soft glow of candles lit in 48 wooden lanterns. On each lantern, a prayer is etched on stone tablets – the first of which is to save all people and the last of which is the hope that the path to the pure land begins and ends at Zenkoji for the hopeful thousands who find their way to Zenkoji.

We walked the path in reverse that day – from Zenkoji down the broad avenue of Chuo dori to JR Nagano and along the way, discovered Nagano’s quirky little details. If you know me, you know I love finding the tiny details in a place I visit – they give the city an identity beyond the usual tourist attractions. 

The path to the pure land is lined by many sub-temples! If you think of Zenkoji as the mothership, then imagine that all around it are many smaller sub-temples as satellites. We peeked into these serene enclaves of silence and calm, captivated by the contrast of green leaf with warm wood.

The path leading to Zenkoji comprises big blocks of stone worn smooth by the feet of countless pilgrims over the centuries. These are still intact. However the old wooden lanterns that line the straight path leading to Zenkoji are slowly being replaced with newer ones. But in my eyes, nothing can replace the patina of old wood, stripped by the elements and weathered by time. Here’s the old and the new side by side:


The Niomon or ‘New Gate’ is not really new. It was erected 100 years after the old one burned down in a fire. The tall and fearsome guardians’ role is to prevent evil spirits from entering the sacred grounds of Zenkoji. Eyes protruding in a glare and teeth bared in snarls, they stand menacingly behind a fence of chicken wire.

I am drawn to the detail and the anatomically dramatic and realistic human form. The feet attract me – back then when I first saw them in 2009 and now when I see them again. The mastery of the curves of bone and tendon and the grain of the wood combine to leave me awestruck at the craft and skill of the sculptors. Hanging in front of the guardians are shoes, straw sandals of pilgrims past, as if to honour the long arduous journey to get there. Suspended there among them is a pair of ballet shoes. Perhaps a different sort of journey but one that is no less important to its owner:

In Zenkoji, indeed in many Japanese towns, you’d see shrines popping up here and here where you least expect to see one. You could be in the middle of a busy street when you glance up and there it is, a small unobtrusive shrine in a corner, under the eaves of a shop, or a larger space marked by the ubiquitous stone lanterns. Mostly, these shrines are dedicated to Jizo. But here in Nagano, we found one that is different. And it came with a charming story too:

Once upon a time there was a mujina (racoon dog) who felt bad about eating other animals for survival. In his remorse and penitent urge to reform, he decided to dedicate a lantern at Zenkoji. So he transformed himself into human form and went to Zenkoji. There, he checked into an inn. Relieved that all had gone well so far, he went to bathe in a public bath and carelessly showed his true form as a racoon dog. Understandably, the people were afraid and angry and chased him away so he never got to dedicate his lantern. One of the head priests heard about this and heard about his failed intent. Feeling sorry for the mujina, he built and dedicated a lantern on his behalf. The lantern still stands today in the grounds of Zenkoji. Legend has it that even now, racoon dogs in the countryside will still pray whenever the lantern is lit. I don’t know if that tale is true but I’d like to think so, I’d like to believe in repentance and second chances, whether it is for a mujina or for humans.

From this crossing, all of Nagano stretches before you. The tree-lined Chuo dori is a straight and pleasant walk down to JR Nagano. Away from the temple zone, there are still surprises to be found. We saw signs that told us that the seven gods of good fortune lie scattered along this route. We decided to go in search of these tiny shrines that house each of the seven gods.

We found most of them easily enough. They were usually just on the side of the road, perhaps in a small compound or altar. But the goddess of music and knowledge, Benzaiten, was the most elusive. We finally found her in a cul de sac, off one of the covered shopping arcades. Blink and you’ll miss it because the door to the cul de sac was shut. Beyond these (right) is a short lane that leads to the shrine itself.

Nagano is pretty when you get to know her. The road is lined with planters and hanging baskets full of gaily-coloured flowers. Perhaps it was spring but the blooms added a nice touch. Along the way, there are plenty of seats as well, many arranged as if ready to host a gaggle of old ladies on their morning chat.

There are few cars on the road. Walking down Chuo dori that day felt like we were on a leisurely Sunday stroll in a pretty alpine village somewhere. You got the feeling that this wasn’t a big city but a small village. Nagano may have shot to prominence after it hosted the winter Olympics in 1998 but it hasn’t put on any airs. The city still retains its quiet homely feel. All around are posters lobbying for Japan to host the Olympics in 2020. By now you know Japan’s won the bid to host but looking at Nagano’s laidback air, I don’t think that will change the former Olympic town’s friendly feel at all.

We came across a cluster of former kura, now converted into upscale dining spaces, a furniture shop that sold beautifully burnished slabs of cedar for tabletops at close to $3000 to $5000 a piece, and an atmospheric lane of restaurants and eateries. Chancing upon it just when the day was merging into night and the street lamps came on, it was nearly empty and wistfully magical, like a lost slice of time in Nagano (below).

We ended our journey in one final shrine for the day. This is where we found the last of the seven gods of good fortune – the god of longevity. And in the quiet shrine’s empty compound, there stands two statues -a father who renounced the world he lived in to find solitude as a hermit monk and his son who bravely searched the mountains for him.

It’s an epic story of love and loss that resonated with me perhaps because I am a mother and the thought of that little boy wandering so far and so alone in search for his lost father left me feeling more than a little stricken.

How torn and desolate his mother must have felt, left alone on the border, unable to cross into the holy mountains with her little boy in his search, simply because she was a woman and considered unclean and in the end, ill and left to die alone, still waiting for her son to return. That’s not the end of the story though but I won’t spoil it for you. You’ll just have to make a trip to Nagano to find out how it ends.

The road to the pure land does not sound easy and it may mean giving up the people you love and the  life you’ve known. I don’t think many of us are called to make these difficult choices today but if there’s ever a choice you have to make on whether to make Nagano a stop or not, I hope this post helps to convince you that Nagano is worth more than just a quick browse or that its only claim to fame is Zenkoji. Look deeper, walk further and suss out your own paths in Nagano. It’s a pretty rewarding stop even if the pure land is not quite your eventual destination.

Getting to Nagano: 

The Asama shinkansen connects Nagano to Tokyo in one quick and handy 80 minute scenic trip. Trains from Matsumoto make the trip in 50 minutes only.




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