In one of my random adventures in Japan, I found myself at the oldest and most significant Buddhist temple in the county. Zenkō-ji Temple is in Nagano, the capital of the province with the same name and host to the 1998 Winter Olympics. I'd actually had no intention of going there. It just happened to be part of another tour and so along I went, once again not really knowing what I was going to see and experience.
To be honest, not being Buddhist, I'd never heard of the Zenkō-ji Temple before, yet here I was standing before the most magnificent collection of temples. Whilst the Zenkō-ji Temple is the main temple and the original one on the site, built in the 7th Century, 642AD, many other temples have sprung up around it over the years. Deities that can help you with everything from still births to final school exams all have their own place of residence and their own loyal collection of monks and priests. It's just a matter of finding the right temple to go to and the right deity to pray to depending on your circumstances.
Progressing up toward the main Temple, you come to the Niomon Gate which is guarded by two massive statues that represent the beginning and end of life. It's a grand and commanding statement before you even reach the Temple itself. When you get there, out the front there's a massive incense burner that continuously swirls with smoke. Before entering, you need to cleanse yourself with the smoke so you can enter the Temple in a purer state, free of evil spirits and with a nice hickory fragrance. The front entrance is adorned with the back to front swastika, a symbol used by the Buddhists hundreds of years before the Nazis pinched it for themselves. (Just as a side note, a quick search of the Temple did not reveal any hidden Nazi gold.)
It does however, have a massive statue of the Buddha. However, nobody has seen this for centuries, since 654 AD to be exact, so it may or may not be there. Consequently, this poses a great philosophical question. If a statue exists inside a concealed chamber where nobody can see it, does it really exist? Hmmmm… perplexing indeed!
The story behind this mysterious statue dates back to when the Temple was first established. The monk who had the statue of the Buddha commissioned, realised that the image of the Buddha was too pure for the eyes of humans and must therefore be concealed within the Temple and so that's what they did.
However, there's still a connection which can be had to the original Buddha and this requires you to walk in total darkness through a passageway under the Temple, all the time whilst trying to find a brass handle which connects directly to the Buddha. It’s said that if you discover the handle and move it back and forth, your life will change forever. Walking in complete darkness is always a surreal experience. You lose all perception of depth, time and surroundings and it was just that, total and utter darkness. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face.
I brailed my way along the right hand side of the tunnel. I'd been told to stick to the right. I'm still wondering what would have happened if I'd gone left. Maybe something cool such as what happened in Big Trouble In Little China, but then again, I'm mixing my Asian cultures here and nobody dresses as if they're from the 80s.
It felt as if I'd been in there forever, when suddenly, the wall felt different, it was metallic… It was the lever!!! I cranked the lever several times, just to make sure it was life-changing. With my task of connecting with the Buddha done, I kept feeling my way through the darkness till I popped out to find myself almost exactly where I'd started.
This truly is an amazing place to visit. It doesn't matter if you believe in Buddhism or not. It's a remarkable and stunning site steeped in an amazing history and well worth exploring.
The monks had a replica of the original statue created, although recreating something from a statue that nobody’s ever seen before is one of the more remarkable feats of this order of monks. Having not seen the replica of the unseen statue, I can really comment on how good a job they did with it. However, if you want to see it for yourself, once every six years they bring out the replica Buddha and this becomes a focal point for pilgrims and tourists alike. All in all an amazing and fulfilling experience no matter how you look at it.