Zenkoji is the most famous temple in Nagano City. It has beautiful grounds and a lot going for it, but for this post, I want to try something different. I want to focus on the O-Asaji morning ceremony and my experience with it. This will be a long read (clocking in at just over 1500 words), so I hope you will indulge me as I spend a bit more time with my subject than I normally do in other posts.
Zenkoji is known as a hub for some serious spiritual believers. Many temples and shrines don’t really carry strong religious followings, I am told, but Zenkoji continues to draw pilgrims from all across the nation. The interesting thing to note here is that the temple itself, while Buddhist in founding, is now non-sectarian. Zenkoji has a lot of interesting progressive things going for itself: It allows worship from all believers regardless of race, creed, or religion. They were also open to having women worship and enter the priesthood, although I could not find specific dates while I was there for my visit. It’s known to have the “Key to Salvation” underneath the temple. You go down, in pitch-black, to rub the key to ensure you are saved. I don’t know what kind of saving that is in religious terms, since they are non-sectarian, but I was not able to go down and rub it. Mainly because I was very cold and wanted to get back inside my hotel to drink hot tea. Call me silly but I find a little salvation in every cup of tea!
One of the main draws to the temple is O-Asaji, or the morning ceremony and blessing. Since photography in many places is prohibited, and I was more concerned with having the experience, there won’t be any pictures for this.
I woke up at 6:30 AM in January to participate in O-Asaji. I slipped on my warm sweater and gloves and made my way outside my hotel. Luckily, I was staying in a traditional Japanese Inn just a one-minute walk from the entrance of the temple. The location couldn’t have been more perfect, and I couldn’t imagine having to wake up even earlier to transport myself from somewhere further away to make the 7:00 AM deadline.
We climbed the stairs and saw a row of pilgrims awaiting their blessing. I got in line and peered around, realizing that I didn’t need to be in this line. This line was for people wishing to participate in the ceremony in the main hall. You need to pay to enter the main area so I assume these people were partitioned separately from others wandering the temple grounds for that very reason. We climbed up the stairs to the main hall and just stood around for a few minutes, waiting for the head priest to show up.
Sure enough, he came out of his chambers and began walking down that main pathway where the paying worshippers were lined up. A kind man who worked at the temple began positioning us on the outer terrace of the main hall to also receive our blessing. Fun fact: You only need to pay if you want to sit in the main area of the main hall. You can still receive a blessing and watch the ritual from further back at no cost.
The man lined us up along the path the head priest would be coming. We had to kneel and remove any head coverings to receive the blessing. The head priest’s umbrella carrier set down the umbrella and took his leave as the head priest ascended the stairs. One by one, he walked by with his Mala (Buddhist rosary) and tapped everyone on their head. Just as quickly as he came, he was gone around the corner of the temple, making his way to the priest’s entrance on the side. Everyone stood up and the kindly man from before ushered everyone inside.
Once inside, if you were a non-paying freeloader, you could either stand in the back near the gong and taiko drum stand (careful! They will ring a gong and it will be very loud if you stand close to this area!) or kneel on a small tatami row next to the large wooden offering box where you throw coins. My wife and I opted to stand somewhat close to a pillar near the gong and drum stand. Those who chose to pay the small fee to enter the main area entered, temple workers and volunteers at the ready with plastic bags to store their snowy shoes in. Once everyone entered, monks and worshippers, the chanting began.
If you’ve never seen monks chant live, it’s an experience I recommend at least once. Under the large wooden rafters and carved figures of the temple, it really gave this incredible impact to the varying tones of the monks. It may surprise some, but not all the monks have all the chants memorized, so you will see them setting up small prayer books on stands before they kneel down. During this part of the ceremony, the head priest prays for everyone’s salvation. There was a brief moment during the chanting when the kindly man came by once more and ushered all of us not in the main area back outside.
This is where an unexpected treat happened. See, according to their website, it will either be the head priest or the head priestess who comes to tap their mala on your head. This to me seemed like an either/or situation. When we got outside, the man lined us up again as he had when the head priest moseyed up the trail to begin his morning duties. Everyone knelt down again and I peered down the path leading up to the stairs. There, coming up the path with the umbrella carrier, was the head priestess. The only reason I was able to recognize her as the head priestess was because of some extra ornaments in her hair (and the umbrella carrier, of course). She was dutifully coming to the ceremony and passing on blessings with her own mala. As she climbed the stairs, the umbrella carrier stepped aside once more, and she tapped my head with her rosary. Once she had gone around the bend, we were brought back into the temple once more to witness the rest of the ceremony.
Towards the end of the chanting, there were rhythmic tappings of the takio drum at the front of the temple by one of the monks, and the clanging of the gong right behind me in the back. When they finished, a somber stillness fell over the temple. The monks were busy closing their books, getting ready to leave. A worker or volunteer to the side was preparing warm drinks for the monks, probably amazake, a warm low-alcohol fermented rice drink enjoyed in the winter. The ones who had paid reluctantly began to rise and make their way back to the shoe rack to retrieve their shoes. Again, we stepped outside onto the terrace.
Out here, one of the security guards was lining people up again. We were to kneel and remove our hats so the head priest could bless us once more on his way back to his chambers to complete the O-Asaji. We did as instructed, minus one older gentleman, who forgot he was wearing a hat. The head priest just looked at him and tapped the rim, waiting for him to remove his hat. He hurriedly removed the hat, the head priest tapping him on the head and working his way down the line. After he finished, we followed his path down the stairs back towards the main entrance of the temple. I’m not entirely sure where the head priestess disappeared to; I kind of thought she would wind her way back like the head priest did, but perhaps she had some other business to attend to.
All of this happened in the span of maybe 25 minutes. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to take part in this. Buddhism has played a pretty important role in my adult life, mainly in the cultures and countries I’ve lived in, as well as in my own personal practice of mindfulness. Something to keep in mind, though: The longer the days are, the earlier this ceremony will be. Since I went in the winter in January, the sun didn’t rise super early, and the ceremony was held at 7:00 AM. As you stretch the days entering summer, in June and July, you’ll be looking at a 5:30 AM start time for this ceremony. Sure, the weather will be nicer, but if you’re not a morning person, this might not be the best time for you to visit.
For me, this was worth standing in the cold morning mist to participate. It was a slice of the culture that I was able to participate in without being intrusive or distracting. That’s always a fear with foreigners when approaching things like this: Preserving the authenticity of it all. I was very thankful that the temple employees and volunteers knew what they were doing with directing people so they could get the most out of their visit.
If you visit Nagano City, you would be remiss to not visit Zenkoji temple. If you don’t mind the early morning wake-up call, then participating in the O-Asaji is something I would highly recommend you do.