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Gokaicho: Zenkoji’s special once-in-seven-years celebration

Gokaicho: Zenkoji’s special once-in-seven-years celebration

Zenkoji Temple (善光寺 Zenkō-ji), located in Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken), is one of the most important and popular temples in Japan. The significance of this centuries-old temple to the development of Nagano was instrumental, having been around to witness the change of the many major Japanese cities from castle towns, harbour towns, or temple towns within the region.

 

(Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn) 

 

Built in the 7th century, Zenkoji Temple is home to Japan’s first Buddhist image—a Buddha statue that is rumoured to be the first ever brought into Japan from India when Buddhism was first introduced. This statue is kept hidden behind the doors of the temple, but there is an important ceremony called Gokaicho (御開帳 Gokaichō) revolving around the statue that is held within the temple grounds.


Greetings from Zenkoji! This was us standing in front of the sacred pillar “Eko-bashira” in front of Zenkoji’s main hall. (Image credit: JR East / Kobori Akio)

 

During our trip to Japan early June, we made our way to Zenkoji and were lucky enough to be a part of the Gokaicho festivities (善光寺前立本尊御開帳 Zenkoji Maedachi Honzon Gokaichō). This special event is held every 7 years in spring (by the traditional Japanese counting method) and it celebrates the history and heritage of Zenkoji with the public display of the “Maedachi Honzon” (前立本尊)—a replica of the original hidden Buddhist statue that is housed inside the temple. The Gokaicho draws in hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over Japan, where various ceremonies and events are held throughout late March until late June. Initially, the next Gokaicho was scheduled to take place in 2021, however due to COVID-19, the festival was postponed to 2022.

 

(Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn)

 

Our journey began from Nagano Station (長野駅 Nagano-eki), where we boarded the bus from the Bus Rotary in front of the station’s Zenkoji Exit (善光寺出口 Zenkō-ji deguchi). The 15-minute bus ride took us to Zenkoji-Daimon Bus Stop (善光寺大門 バス停 Zenkō-ji Daimon Basu-tei), which is the easiest way to access Zenkoji Temple. 


(Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn)

 

While walking towards the temple in the temple grounds, we passed through the Niomon Gate (仁王門 Niōmon), where the two guardian statues “Agyo” (阿形) and “Ungyo” (吽形) towered over us.

 

(Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn)

 

After which, we entered the Nakamise-dori (仲見世通り) stretch where there were plenty of shops selling interesting souvenirs and yummy local delicacies. It was interesting stopping at the various shops to see what was available and what the local gourmets were. Particularly during Gokaicho, tentaged-stalls as seen above are set up to sell Gokaicho-exclusive memorabilia such as limited edition Peyung Yakisoba (ペヤング焼きそば) packaging and flavour, and t-shirts.

 

(Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn) 

 

Stepping into the main temple ground, we were greeted by the Eko-bashira (回向柱 Ekō-bashira), a sacred pillar that was erected in front of the main hall with a golden thread attached. It is believed that the Eko-bashira is used to convey the wishes and prayers of worshippers. With our coin offerings in hand, we lined up alongside fellow visitors to make our prayers. Once we dropped our coin in the saisen-bako (賽銭箱 offertory box), we joined the left lane where we were required to place our right palm on the Eko-bashira and make our wishes. Joining the right lane would mean using the left hand instead. 

 

(Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn) 

 

Right behind the Eko-bashira is a large incense burner just in front of the main hall. Here, we hovered our hands around the burner and directed the incense smoke over our bodies. This gesture is said to cleanse the body and symbolise healing. You can also offer incense sticks which are available near the incense burner. Once this was done, we headed into the main hall where we were able to view the “Maedachi Honzon”, which was moved into the inner sanctuary of the temple’s main hall and revealed to those in attendance. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed inside the main hall. Having made our prayers and swiftly snagging an omamori (お守り amulet), it was time to make our way back to Nagano Station—not before checking out all the other activities that were available around Zenkoji Temple.

 

(Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh & Julia Yee) 

 

Just outside the main hall, we spotted a photospot to take a photo with the signage to commemorate today’s visit. The paper was delicately cut and the design was beautiful. We were so worried about handling it as it looked fragile but the frame made it sturdy and easy to hold onto. 

 

Spice and ice-cream? Not bad! (Image credit: Julia Yee)

 

One thing Nagano Prefecture is known for is their Shichimi Togarashi (七味唐辛子 Shichimi Tōgarashi) which is a blend of seven spices from the long-established brand Yawataya Isogoro (八幡屋礒五郎). Upon exiting the main temple grounds, there were plenty of shops selling the shichimi tōgarashi and shichimi togarashi-flavoured food. One that caught our attention was shichimi-topped soft-serve ice cream. Our curiosity got the better of us, so we tried both the Shichimi Chocolate and Shichimi Vanilla-Chocolate Mix flavours. The initial taste just tasted like regular soft-serve, but after a few mouthfuls, we started to feel the spice! Despite being a unique combination of flavours, the soft-serve was delicious. 

 

(Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh) 

 

Another fun activity that we took part in was the Zenkoji Gokaicho Sightseeing Stamp Rally (善光寺風景印めぐり Zenkōji fūkei shirushi meguri). ​​In commemoration of the opening of Zenkoji Temple in the 4th year of Reiwa (令和), a sightseeing stamp tour campaign was held. It is a campaign run by the local post offices, in which you would have to visit five post offices within the vicinity of Zenkoji to collect all the sightseeing stamps. There was a map listing all the locations of the participating post offices printed on the card as well, making it easy to follow. One thing we found out was that the post offices close relatively early, and as it was already past 5pm, we had to visit the remaining post offices the next morning. 

 

Banners promoting Gokaicho in front of Nagano Station. (Image credit: JR East / Julia Yee) 

 

Overall, the experience at Zenkoji Temple was a very spiritual and enlightening one. We were blessed to be able to participate in the first Gokaicho since the pandemic and it really opened our eyes on the significance of this occasion. The balance between traditions and modernity of Nagano City (長野市 Nagano-shi) is what makes this place a must-visit during your next trip to Japan.

 

Zenkoji Temple (善光寺)
Address: 491-i Nagano-Motoyoshicho, Nagano-shi, Nagano 380-0851
Nearest station: Nagano Station (長野駅)
Access: 15-minute bus ride from Bus Stop 1 at the Bus Rotary in front of Zenkoji Exit of the station and get off at Zenkoji-Daimon Bus Stop.
Opening hours: 
Tel: +81 26 234 359

 

Header image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn

 

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