Zenkouji and Gokaicho, the Japanese festival that only happens once every 7 years

On May 31th 2015, for the second weekend of my short stay in Ina city,   I went to Zenkouji temple for the final day of their famous Gokaicho festival.  The Gokaicho  festival is held every seven years in Nagano city Japan.  At first  I never even knew it existed until about 3 days prior of the festival when I was told by a coworker.  I was very lucky indeed.

At first I didn’t think I was going to be able to make the final day of the Gokaicho festival since I was drinking the previous day and only had about 3 hours sleep.  But I knew that if I didn’t go, I wouldn’t be able to see this festival again for another seven years, and I may not be able to see it then, so I dragged myself out of bed and glad I did.

There were many things to see and do at the temple.  But it was PACKED and the lines to get in to every section of the temple  had about an hour or two wait.

When I arrived, the first thing I did was lineup and buy my ticket.  The wait was long but I met some nice people and had some good conversations while waiting.

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I decided to take on the most popular area first and lined up and entered the main hall.  As I made my way inside I was blown away with how beautiful it was.  The scent of burning incenses, the big Buddha statues, and the gold chandelier like objects hanging from the ceiling, all worked to help create a relaxing and delightful atmosphere, which made one forget about the bustling crowds.

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Beautiful view looking backwards toward the entrance from on top of the main temple hall

Inside the main area of the shrine is the temples main attraction,  a duplicate statue of the image of “Ikkosanzon Amitabha.”  This statue is believed to have been carved in India and brought to Japan via Korea sometime in the middle of the 6th century.  The original image has been kept from the public since the year 654.  The duplicate image of the standing Amitabha, was made in the Kamakura Period.  It is usually enshrined in the treasure repository of the temple, and only during the Gokaicho period every seventh year is the image open to the public.  A halo can be seen behind the image of the Buddha and to me personally kinda showed a mix of religions in an interesting way.

Viewing the sacred image

The image was a bit hard to see from behind the barrier where visitors had to stay behind.  It definitely would have been a lot nicer if one was able to get a little closer.  But as you near the object and barrier, you are able to see the priests chanting and reading books as they preform a ceremony.  This was a beautiful and interesting site to behold.

The rest of the temple

After exiting the main area, I went to explore more of Zenkouji temple and enjoy more of the Gokaicho festival.

I decided to check out the ‘Kaidan-meguri’, which I was excited to  experience and test my senses.  This was one of the highlights of Zenkouji temple and can be done any time of the year.  For this area, people are lead down some steps into a pitch black hallway which goes under the whole temple.  This  passage is suppose to symbolize death and rebirth.

There are no lights in this area and people have to slide their hand across the wall on the right as they walk through the path.   Although there were times were I felt as if I would get lost in the pitch black abyss, because I kept my hand placed on firmly on the wall as instructed, everything was fine.  Also because there were so many other people in front of me,  I kept bumping into people and having people bump into my back, so there is no way anyone could get lost.

About halfway through the walk, your hand will glide on top of a handle for a door.  This is said to be the door to heaven , and although you can not open it, you can use it to knock on the door which is said to bring good fortune.

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After I left ‘Kaidan-meguri’, I went out into the courtyard.  In front of the main temple was a huge pillar standing up.  This was the other main attraction of the festival.  MANY people where lined up in the blazing sun to touch this pillar known as “eko-bashira” which is attached to the sacred statue by a chord.  The belief is that by touching the pillar it is as if one is touching the statue… yup that’s what some people believe…

Myself however, I had minimal interest in touching it since I could feel I was getting burned (turns out pretty bad in the end), and had more things planned for the day so decided to skip the 2 hour line.

I then decided on a whim to go to the museum beside the temple which had many statues of Buddah and paintings detailing the story of the sacred statue.  The paintings were very beautiful  and filled with great historic events.  However, one down side is there were no English descriptions and a lot of hard to read kanji, but one can still see and enjoy the great art.

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A beautiful statue near the temple

The best temple I have ever been too?

Contrary to the many people who came to see the sacred image, I didn’t really care too much for it and had a “meh” feeling when I saw it in the end.  I guess probably because I am not Buddhist. But it was interesting to learn the history of the temple and the statue.  Also knowing that I saw this statue that was hidden from the public for so many years only to resurface every seven years for this special festival is pretty cool too.

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“The Mujina Jizo”, this cute lil figure is based off a Japanese folk tale and is a guardian deity of children.

However, it was the atmosphere, smell, people, positive energy that were the highlights of this festival for me.  If it wasn’t for the festival I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the temple as much as I did.  But thanks to the festival and my experience, Zenkouji is hands down the best temple / temple experience, that I have ever had / been to in Japan.  I may have to wait another seven years, but I will definitely try to go again the next time the Gokaicho  festival is held.

A park that was once a battlefield?!

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The famous duel of the two great samurai warlords Takeda Shingen (left) and Uesugi Kenshin (right).

After going to the Gokaicho  festival and walking around Zenkouji temple, I went to Hachimanpara Historical Park which is about a 10 minute drive away.  I wanted to go because of the huge battle that took place and the amazing and beautiful statue of the battle between Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin.  The park itself is a fair size and  there are many nice places to sit back and enjoy the nice weather.  There is also a very large hill you can climb up with a nice view overlooking the park.

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Here is a map showing how the battle formations took place.