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Nagano - Central attractions

San-mon Gate, Zenkō-ji Temple, Nagano
Azalea garden, Zenkō-ji Temple, Nagano

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Zenkō-ji Temple 善光寺

The main attraction in Nagano, Zenkō-ji, is a mystic place, home to a hibutsu ("secret Buddha"), a hidden Buddha statue that has not been shown to the public for over 300 years. Zenkō-ji is one of Japan's oldest temple, believed to have been founded in the 7th century by Yoshimitsu Honda, and housing what is said to be the first Buddhist image brought to Japan (from China) in 552 : Ikkō Sanzon (一向三尊).

The image was declared sacred in 654 and has since been kept hidden from the public. Every 6 years in spring, a replica ("Maedachi-honzon") is taken out of the treasure house and displayed to visitors in the Main Hall ("Hondō" 本堂 or "Kondō" 金堂). This event is called Gokaichō (御開帳). The last display to date was in April and May 2015. The next one will be in 2022.

One of the particularity of this temple is that it does not really belong to any Buddhist schools, though it now has affiliations with the Jōdō and Tendai schools. Its long-standing popularity emanates from its unusual tolerance in accepting female pilgrims ever since ancient times - something of a rarity among Japanese Buddhist temples, which traditionally forbid access to women. There are now some 60 branches of the Zenkō-ji temple throughout Japan following the same principle.

The Main Hall was first built in 644, burnt many times and was last reconstructed in 1707. It is one of the biggest wooden building in the country and has the largest hinoki-thatched roof in Japan.

The Main Hall contains a statue of Binzuru, a doctor who was said to be Buddha's follower. Visitors to the temple touch the statue in order to cure their ailments. A small ticket window sells tickets to the underground passage under the holy altar ("ruridan"). Once you have descended into this pitch-black tunnel, try to find the key to the Buddhist paradise in the darkness. It is a heavy metallic object on the right-hand side.

1998 Winter Olympics

In 1998, Nagano hosted the 18th Winter Olympic Games and 7th Paraolympic Winter Games. This was the second time Winter Olympics had been held in Japan, after the 1972 Winter Olympic Games in Sapporo. As of 2010, Nagano is the southernmost host of the Winter Olympic Games.

The Olympic facilities have been reconverted for regular use and can be visited. There are four main venues: 1) the M-Wave, designed to host the speed skating events and now housing the Nagano Olympic Museum (open 10am-5pm on weekends and public holidays only, free admission) ; 2) the Aqua Wing, one of the two ice hockey venues and now used as an indoor swimming pool ; 3) the White Ring, which hosted most of the skating events and now converted into a gymnasium, 4) the Big Hat, the other ice hockey hall, now serving as a multipurpose hall.

The M-Wave and the Big Hat each have a seating capacity of 10,000, while the White Ring can hold 7,000 spectators and the Aqua Wing 5,000. The M-Wave has the world's largest wooden suspension roof.

Other Sights

The celebrated five Battles of Kawanakajima took place between 1553 and 1564 in the southern part of the modern city of Nagano. They opposed the daimyō Takeda Shingen of the Kai Province to daimyo Uesugi Kenshin of the Echigo Province. The fourth battle was the most decisive and features in many TV dramas, such as Furin Kazan (2007) and the movie Heaven and Earth (1990). The site of the battle has become a parkland, with a municipal museum of the history of the Zenkōji plain.

Map of attractions in Nagano

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