History of Zenkoji Temple
Things to see at Zenkoji Temple
Events at Zenkoji Temple

Zenkoji Temple, located in Nagano prefecture, has a history of about 1,400 years, and is one of the most significant temples in Japan. It was the first temple in the country to receive a statue of the Buddha.

The temple is home to a number of national treasures and important cultural properties. Its underground passage tour is said to guide visitors to the “key to paradise”, and is something that one can only experience here at Zenkoji.

About Zenkoji Temple

Zenkoji Temple was founded approximately 1,400 years ago, and was the first temple in Japan to receive a statue of the Buddha

The Buddha Statue is called the “Ikkosanzon-Amidanyorai”, and was brought to Japan in 552, which is the year that Buddhism was introduced to the country. The statue was brought from India through the Korean peninsula. It is said to be the oldest Buddha statue in all of Japan.

Since being founded, the temple has been popular amongst powerful lords and leaders, such as Minamotono Yoritomo, the founder of the shogunate system, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate that lasted for over 250 years.

Zenkoji: a non-sect temple

Most temples are affiliated with a certain sect of Buddhism, but Zenkoji is not under any sect. This is because when Zenkoji was built in 642, Buddhism had just arrived in Japan, and there were no sects yet formed.

Because Zenkoji is not affiliated with any sects, the temple has been popular as a place of worship for all people, regardless of religious background. In fact, there was a saying during the Edo period (1603 – 1867) that one should visit and pray at Zenkoji at least once in their life.

Sights at Zenkoji Temple

Here are some of the sights at Zenkoji Temple.

Sanmon Gate

Sanmon Gate

At the entrance of the temple is Sanmon gate. The huge gate was built in 1750, and has continued to welcome visitors over the years.

On the words “善光寺” (Zenkoji) at the top of the gate, there are five pigeons and a head of a cow hidden between the letters.

Why the pigeons were carved is unknown, but the head of the cow is supposed to be a reference to the old saying “getting pulled into Zenkoji by a cow (牛に引かれて善光寺参り)”, meaning to do something good unintentionally.

The view from the second floor

You can enter the Sanmon Gate. On the second floor of the gate, you will find the god of academics, Manjusri Bodhisattva. The view from the second floor is great, and from there, you can see the path to the temple and the main hall of the temple.

On the inner walls of Sanmon, you can find graffiti-like scribbles. Those are actual scribbles drawn by visitors during the Edo period. The visitors would write their name and where they came from when they visited Zenkoji.

Hondo (Main Hall)


The Hondo (main hall) of Zenkoji, is designated as a national treasure. It has been rebuilt numerous times, and the one standing today was built in 1707.

The architecture is representative of the mid-Edo period. It measures 29 meters high and is 54 meters long.

Pat the Binzuru statue for good luck

Right as you enter the hondo, you will see the Binzuru statue. Binzuru is a disciple of the Buddha. It is said that if you pat the area of the Binzuru statue that is injured or sick on your body, then that area on your body will heal.

An experience that is unique to Zenkoji is the Underground Passage Tour, called “okaidan-meguri (お戒壇巡り)” in Japanese.

You can walk through the dark, underground passage that is right beneath the hondo, and the objective is to find the “key to paradise” that lays right under the Buddha statue.

The key is said to be the closest you can get to the Buddha statue. Since it is pitch black in the passage, it will be quite hard to find it, but it is definitely worth a shot.

The approach to the temple

The temple approach

From the entrance to the temple premise to Sanmon gate is a 400-meter approach made of stone. The path is made of 7,777 pieces of stone, and was made in 1714.

There are many shops and restaurants on both sides of the approach. You can find local food stands and souvenir shops.

Oasaji (morning prayers)

Every morning at sunrise, oasaji, or morning prayers, are held at the hondo. The monks at Zenkoji lead the prayers, and you can hear the sounds of the wood blocks being played during it.

Anyone is allowed to participate in the morning prayers. You can register on the morning of your visit.

Events at Zenkoji Temple

Here are some of the events held at Zenkoji Temple.

Gokaicho (every 7 years)

Hondo during Gokaicho

Every seven years, Gokaicho is held at Zenkoji. Gokaijo is when a replica of the Buddha statue is shown to the public. The original statue is never shown to the public, as it is considered extremely sacred.

During Gokaicho, a special post, called Ekobashira, is set up. Touching the post is said to be just as lucky as touching the replica Buddha statue.

The next Gokaicho is scheduled for 2021.


Nearest station: Zenkoji Daion 善光寺大門 (Bus stop)

From Tokyo Station

【Tokyo Sta.】Hokuriku Shinkansen / for Kanazawa
→【Nagano Sta.】Alpico Bus / for Zenkoji
→【Zenkoji Daimon Bus Stop】

From Matsumoto Station

【Matsumoto Sta.】JR Shinonoi Line / for Nagano
→【Nagano Sta.】Alpico Bus / for Zenkoji
→【Zenkoji Daimon Bus Stop】

Experience the Shukubo housing!

When staying in the Zenkoji area, you can stay at a shukubo. Shukubo are special accomodations for those visiting the temple to pray, and there are 39 of them around Zenkoji.

At these accomodations, you can experience Zen meditations and try out a Buddhist priest-style vegetarian meal. You can also get guided to the morning prayers.


491 Motoyoshi-cho, Nagano-shi, Nagano
5:00a.m. to 4:30p.m.
*varies by season
Open year-round
〈Temple Entrance〉
Adults: ¥500
High school students: ¥200 
Junior high school students and below: ¥50 

〈Sanmon Gate〉
Adults: ¥500
High school students: ¥200 
Junior high school students and below: ¥50 
【English and Chinese】
Fridays, Saturdays and holidays from 10:00a.m. - 15:00p.m.
Registration:  Komagaebashi Information Center
Fee: free

Nearby Destinations

Category: Parks / gardens

Kawanakajima Kosenjo Park

1384-1 Oshimada-machi, Nagano-shi, Nagano