Japan has so much to offer, at times I feel overwhelmed and think I won’t have time to see it all. With a full-time job and very limited leave days it’s even harder, but I have been doing my best to make most of my summer weekends and venture out to different regions to discover new places and spaces. A few weeks ago my friend and I hopped on a bus to Nagano, often referred to as the Japan Alps, to see two ancient sights – Zenko-ji Temple and Matsumoto Castle.
The ride up the mountain range drenched in the lush pine forest is a sight to behold. It was raining the entire day during my trip, and the gloomy clouds and the thick fog made everything look even more eerie and atmospheric.
Our first stop was in a little town Nagano to see Zenko-ji Temple which has been an important pilgrimage site since the 7th century and is considered to be one of the most important Buddhist temples in Japan. For centuries it has been welcoming believers of all faiths and even admitted women when other temples forbade it.
According to a legend Zenko-ji’s golden triad was the first Buddhist image to arrive to Japan in the 6th century. The original statue is never shown, but every seventh year a sacred replica is displayed for a few weeks in a grand ceremony called Gokaicho.
The passage to the temple is traditionally lined up with little food and souvenir shops, craft stalls and soba restaurants. If you come here early in the morning, you’ll see how the head priest and head priestess hold a joint service to pray for the prosperity of the assembled pilgrims. The crowd lines up and is tapped by the priest by his rosary as a sign of blessing.
Visitors also stop by the large incense burner, waving the smoke over themselves for good fortune and health.
Inside the main temple, you can rub the worn wooden statue of the ancient doctor Binzuru, famous for his miraculous powers and ability to fly, for reliefs of aches and pains.
I particularly loved the inner chamber, where you can view temple’s main altar from up close. My friend and I took our time to sit on the tatami floors there, and take in the moment while also admiring the golden lotus-shaped fixtures which seemed to float in the air, and breathe in the aroma of incense.
Although it is the underground passage that attracts the most pilgrims and provides quite thrilling experience. We descended into the pitch-black narrow tunnel in the basement which we walked through in search of the “key to paradise”. The key (which in reality is an iron latch) is attached to a wall along the corridor and is believed to grant salvation to anybody who touches it. Basically I left Zenko-ji Temple completely enlightened and sin-free. Or at least I want to believe I did.
Take your time to browse the rest of the grounds. We particularly enjoyed the smaller temple which had unique displays of tapestries, Buddhist statues and a massive Sand Mandala. I have never seen one up close before. Its intricate details are simply astounding and to think all this is “painted” by colored sand is nothing short of amazing.
After spending a couple of hours on the temple grounds we continued our journey to the castle town of Matsumoto. It is quite picturesque and is full of character and culture. There is a lot to discover including traditional local crafts like tensan (a fabric woven from silk), lacquerware, and Azumino glass. Nakamichi street is a great spot to peruse old merchant houses and hunt down some unique vintage finds.
Variety of nice restaurants and cafes and relaxing atmosphere actually prompted me to come back some time and spend the night. Matsumoto can also be a great base if you want to visit Kamikochi.
Although on this particular day we wanted to see the crowning glory of the city – Matsumoto Castle dating back to the beginning of the 16th century. Nicknamed Crow Castle, this spectacular fortress seemed to be a black twin of Himeji Castle. It is one of the original castles in Japan and is built on plains rather than on a hill or mountain.
The wooden interior of Matsumoto Castle features steep wooden stairs, openings to drop stones onto invaders, openings for archers, as well as an observation deck at the top, sixth floor of the main keep with nice views over the surrounding city. Exhibits on each floor break up the challenging climb, although like Himeji Castle there was nothing to indicate how “rooms” were set up and used.
At the end of the tour, we lingered in the “moon viewing room” to admire the views, and take advantage of the beautiful light to take some photos, while on the way out I got to play a samurai!
Thus another fun-filled weekend drew to an end and it was time to head back home. As exhausted as we were after a long trip, we still felt rejuvenated and inspired by the endless beauty of the places we saw and were already looking forward to the next weekend’s trip.