Six of the several Jizo statues to be found
within the grounds of Zenkoji
Zenkoji's physically impressive Hondo (main hall) is one of
the biggest wooden buildings in the country
Can you spot the five doves in the calligraphic
Talk about starting my recent Japan visit with a bang: Not only did I have the good fortune to spot Mount Fuji before my plane landed on Japanese soil but I also managed to touch the "Key to Paradise" lodged in the dark bowels of Nagano's Zenkoji later that day, thereby ensuring my eternal salvation!
Best known to most non-Japanese for having hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics, the central Honshu city of Nagano is better known to Japanese people as a historic temple town that grew up around the Buddhist temple known as Zenkoji, founded in the 7th century and reputedly home to the first Buddha image ever brought to Japan. A hibitsu (i.e., "hidden Buddha") since the year 654, just a (13th century) replica of that sacred statue is unveiled to the public -- and only once every six or seven years at that!
Suffice to say that my day's good luck did not extend to my getting to see the hibitsu -- or, for that matter, even its replica. However, there still was plenty to see (and feel) at Zenkoji, including impressive large wooden gates, a number of statues of Jizo and other religious figures, still other Buddhist works of art housed in Zenkoji's main hall, the upper floor of its main gate and the lower floor of a pagoda (that houses both a historical museum and a memorial to the 2.5 million people who died in wars in the area in the past 150 years or so), and a pitch-black passage running under the main altar known as the O-kaidan that's home to the precious "Key to Paradise".
A popular pilgrimage site for centuries -- not least because it's the uncommon Japanese temple that's been open to women as well as men through the ages -- Zenkoji has both a high priest and priestess, and is considered a place for physical healing as well as spiritual enlightenment. To this day, many visitors to it make a point to rub smoke from the large incense burner located in front of the Hondo on their bodies for health and good fortune. They also rub the statue of Binzuru, a physician supposed to be Buddha's most intelligent follower, located inside the Hondo's Outer Sanctuary to alleviate their physical aches and pains; and it was touching to see physically able younger individuals helping frail elderly people who had congregated to do so.
Quite a few folks also do go and attempt to touch the "Key to Paradise" -- but flights of steps leading into and out of the O-kaidan prevent the infirm from doing so, and the light-less nature of the tunnel makes it so that those uncomfortable with spending several minutes finding one's way about in complete darkness would find it quite the scary ordeal. Alerted in advance that the Key (which actually feels more like a door knob) was embedded in a waist-high space along the passage's right wall, I made sure to touch that wall's surface at all times -- and found this action helpful in keeping me oriented as well as to achieve the goal of those who enter the tunnel.
On my first trip to Japan back when I was a teenager, I decided to take up the challenge of crawling through the narrow hole in one of the large columns at Nara's Todaiji (Great Eastern Temple). Although I did eventually succeed in doing so (and in so doing, was granted enlightenment in my next life!), at one point I felt like I'd never make it through and, instead, be stuck there forever!
While I didn't panic near as much at any point while inside Zenkoji's O-kaidan, it was quite the relief to eventually get to the end of what felt like a really long tunnel that was so dark that one really couldn't see anything but pitch blackness throughout one's time in there. At one point, I accidentally bumped into someone who appeared to have paused to catch her breath and felt so embarassed. At the same time, it made me fearful that I'd get bumped into by the person behind me and got to quickening my pace even while groping blindly about in the dark! ;S