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Gokaicho: A once-in-seven-years experience at Nagano's Zenkoji temple

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By Vicki L Beyer

Every seven years, Zenkoji temple in Nagano holds an event honoring one of the oldest Buddhist images in Japan. The event, known as "Gokaicho", is taking place now through May 31, and offers a rare opportunity for visitors to pay their respects.

The image, a wooden standing statue of the Amida Buddha also known as Ikkosanzon Amitabha, is believed to have been carved in India and brought to Japan via Korea sometime in the middle of the 6th century. At this time, there was substantial conflict in Japan as to whether Buddhism should be allowed into the country and the statue was thrown into a canal in Osaka. Honda Yoshimitsu, a samurai from Shinano (the old name for Nagano Prefecture), fished it out of the canal's waters and took it with him to Shinano where he established Zenkoji in 642 for the purpose of holding the sacred image. He could never have imagined the substantial religious establishment his temple would become.

In 654, for reasons that have been lost to time, it was decided that the image should become "hibutsu", a hidden Buddha. The statue was wrapped up and stored in a casket behind the temple's main altar, only being brought out for special visitors or specific ceremonies.

Perhaps because a wooden statue even being brought out occasionally was causing the image to decay, a replica was produced in the 13th century. It is this replica that is now displayed every seven years for the Gokaicho.

Rumors abound regarding the original statue, including that it in fact no longer exists and its casket is actually empty. The last time it was seen was in 1720, when a priest opened the casket on orders from the shogun to confirm its existence. There is another rumor that Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had the image removed to Kyoto briefly in the 16th century, opened the casket and actually touched the sacred image. He reported that it was warm to the touch, as a living being would be.

The Gokaicho attracts millions of visitors over its 57-day period. As part of the event, and to facilitate providing all visitors with an opportunity to "touch" the sacred image, a pillar known as "eko-bashira" is erected in front of the Main Hall of Zenkoji and is connected to the statue by a special cord strung between the two. Touching the pillar, pilgrams are "by extension" touching the image.

Visitors can also go through a pitch-black tunnel that runs under the temple's altar which is meant to symbolize death and rebirth. While in the tunnel, visitors are as close to the casket holding the "hibutsu" as it is possible to get.

Besides the daily opportunity to touch the "eko-bashira" and traverse the tunnel, upcoming special events during the Gokaicho include:

• May 5 (11:30 a.m.) - Butto Hana-matsuri, a festival to celebrate the birth of Buddha that provides special blessings for children to grow strong and healthy. • May 9 (10 a.m. - 2 p.m.) - Chunichi-teigi Daihoyo, special services following a colorful procession of traditionally-dressed children and priests during which colorful paper lotus petals are strewn along the parade route. • May 17 (5 p.m.) - Shinonoi Lion Dance, a parade involving two enormous lions operated by several men hidden beneath the elaborate costumes of the lions. • May 31 (10 a.m. - 2 p.m.; 5 p.m.) - Kechigan Daihoyo, the final service at which the replica statue is returned to its special cabinet.

Zenkoji is a popular destination for Buddhist pilgrims even without the Gokaicho. The temple is non-sectarian but particularly revered by the Tendai and Jodo sects of Buddhism. Because of its role as a pilgrimage site, it is surrounded by "shukubo," subordinate temples and other small inns that provide overnight accommodation for pilgrims. Most are open for visitors and each seems to have its own personality. Some also offer "shojin-ryori," Buddhist vegetarian meals.

The main approach to Zenkoji is via Nakamise-dori, a street of shops south of the temple. The "nio-mon" (guardian gate) marks the original southern boundary of the temple, although it is now surrounded by commercial establishments. It is when reaching the Sanmon gate, atop a slight rise, that the visitor has truly entered the temple grounds.

Under the eaves of the Sanmon gate are written the three kanji characters for Zenkoji (善光寺). The first of these is particularly stylized to look like the face of a cow. This is to commemorate an old legend involving a cow bringing an old woman to the Buddhist faith. According to the legend, an old woman with no religious beliefs worked as a cloth dyer. One day as she was rinsing some dyed cloth at the river a cow came by, caught the cloth on its horns and took off. The woman gave chase and found the cow at Zenkoji. It was just on dusk and the evening light revealed a message to her that she was being led by the cow to Buddhism. She subsequently found her missing cloth at the foot of a Kannon statue nearby. These events caused her to become a devout Buddhist.

Beyond the Sanmon gate and across the courtyard where, during the Gokaicho, the "eko-bashira" stands, is the main temple, which was built on this site in 1707. A number of the temple's earlier iterations, in various locations nearby, had been destroyed by fire, as tall buildings with thatched roofs are prone to lightning strikes. Standing 30 meters in height, the current main temple is one of the largest wooden buildings in Japan. To the west of the courtyard stands the Kyozo, a building that houses a special rotating library of sutras; to the east is the Bell Tower. Nearby are six Jizo statues, each a guide through one of the six Buddhist hells through which one must pass to restart the cycle of life.

To the northwest behind the main temple stands a pagoda that contains ashes of 2.4 million people who have died in wars in the past 150 years. The first floor of the pagoda also houses a small museum with displays on the history of the temple and its icons. One particularly interesting bit of history is that Zenkoji existed before the community of Nagano, which actually grew around the temple. In fact, the 19th century train station in the area, although now known as Nagano Station, was originally known as Zenkoji, as it served to bring pilgrims and visitors to the temple.

© Japan Today

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