Today, let’s observe a joyful parade with marchers bearing shrines and take a closer look at the grounds and surrounding neighborhood of Zenkoji Temple in Nagano. Yesterday, I wrote about the Zenkoji Gokaicho, a special event every seven years in Nagano. A sacred replica of a Buddhist statue is on view for just a couple of months and we were fortunate enough to visit Nagano while the festivities took place.
Part of what makes visiting temples appealing is that they are more than just a single structure. I like how there are always grounds to stroll through, with smaller shrines to see and sometimes memorial gardens or cemeteries. After entering Zenkoji’s Main Hall, we took a break from the crowds and ventured behind it for a stroll.
Elsewhere on the temple grounds, we encountered a wedding party. (Spotting a bride always gives me a big dollop of happiness.)
A Japanese mother helped show Liam how to scoop water and throw it at what I think is a children’s shrine.
I stood under the kind gaze of this Buddha while listening to the priests chant a prayer. (Encountering music is like getting a double dollop of happiness. By this point in our day, I was really, really having a good time.)
There was so much beauty around us that I can’t begin to capture it all here. But, here’s a few more images from in and near the temple:
On Sunday, we had a few hours between checking out from our hotel and our bullet train departure, so we took another stroll toward the temple. Nagano was buzzing. Tents were getting set up along the road with craft and food vendors and several outdoor venues were hosting performers. We listened, briefly, to a school choir perform and a taiko drumming troupe comprised entirely of children.
At the temple entrance, we veered away and followed side roads. I’m so glad we did. We came across a series of homes, shrines and hotels with beautiful entrances. Each was more delightful than the one before.
On our return walk, we were drawn forward by the sound of drums. Soon, it became clear that we had stumbled onto a festival procession. Groups of men and women were carrying mikoshi. Each one looked different, but the ornately decorated boxes are designed to carry a deity inside, traditionally during a festival. I was fascinated to get to see this ritual in person. We’ve seen mikoshi on display, and Liam and I watched a version of it when we went to a festival-of-festivals in Tokyo Dome, but this was the first time we’ve seen the tradition up close in action.
The volunteers wore colorful and lively clothing and headbands. At times, they chanted as they walked. They also sweated. It was clear the mikoshi are not lightweight — gods are heavy to carry — and the participants rotated in and out of carrying duty pretty regularly. We watched as they all swayed past us and then swayed back again. It felt like organized chaos.
I loved seeing the ritual but what I loved most was watching how much those participating were enjoying themselves. Sure, some of them looked exhausted, but most looked pleased to be an integral part of an ancient tradition. This wasn’t just a re-enactment: It was sweaty and messy, real and palpable to everyone whose shoulders were getting bruised by those heavy poles. The Japanese aren’t afraid to put a little muscle into their faith.
At one point during a pause in the parade, a group of the volunteers spotted Liam and invited him to join them. He hesitated momentarily but was persuaded by their friendly smiles.
We had a train to catch so couldn’t linger as long as we might have liked. The gods were still in transit when we departed. Our own journey back to Tokyo was a little smoother and definitely quieter.
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