Nagano Gokaicho Festival
The hidden statue
Every seven years, the famous Zenkoji temple, located in the city of Nagano, unveils a replica of the first statue of Amida Buddha: an event that attracts more than 5 million visitors!
If there is one event on your calendars, it is the Gokaicho festival. Because in addition to being an important meeting for the Buddhist community, it only takes place every seven years.
Zenkoji Temple in Nagano is the heart of the festivities. This very popular temple welcomes Buddhists of all persuasions, including women. It honors one of the oldest Buddhist images in Japan: the first statue of the Amida Buddha, over a period running between April and May.
Admiring The Amida Buddha Statue
The Gokaicho festival brings together, due to its rarity and its subject, more than 5 million visitors. Believers and the curious flock to this temple, located a stone's throw from one of the busiest areas of the major city in the Japanese Alps, to admire this statue of Amida Buddha, known as Ikkosanzon Amitabha. It would have been carved in India and brought back to Japan via Korea in the middle of the 6th century.
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But at the time, a significant conflict shook Japan regarding the authorization of the Buddhist worship. The statue is therefore thrown into a canal in Osaka. But a samurai from Nagano prefecture, Honda Yoshimitsu, rescues her from the channel waters and takes her to Shinano, where he erected the Zenkoji temple in 642 to keep the sacred Buddha there.
A Well-hidden Statue
It was not until 654 that he decided that this statue would become "hibutsu," a hidden Buddha. The figure was therefore wrapped and placed in a coffin behind the temple's main altar. To prevent the wooden statue from being damaged, a replica was designed in the 13th century; the same one was exhibited to the public every seven years during Gokaicho.
But what happened to the original statue? This is where things get complicated. The last time she was seen was in 1720, when a priest, on the shogun's orders, opened the coffin to find that the statue was still there. Since then, no one can attest that she is still there; rumors would have it that the coffin has been empty for a few hundred years.
The Wire Of Salvation
In front of the multitude of visitors, the temple set up an "eko-bashira" pillar in front of the main hall of Zenkoji, connected to the statue by a cord. By touching the post, the pilgrims thus feel the figure by extension. Enough to allow the 5 million visitors to "touch" the sacred Buddha. The replica of the famous Buddha is also presented during services each morning. Visitors can also walk through a tunnel that passes under the altar, which symbolizes death and rebirth. Passing through this tunnel, visitors also pass as close as they can to the coffin of the wooden Buddha.
Various events are also organized during the festival, such as a mini-festival, "Butto Hana-matsuri," which aims to bless children, so they grow up healthy. Processions are also organized where colorful paper lotus flowers parade or a parade where two gigantic lions move around the temple.
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See You in 2022
The end of the festival rings with Kechigan Daihoyo, the last service, during which the replica of the statue returns to its place, out of sight. Before reappearing seven years later.
The next edition of the Gokaicho Festival will take place in 2022.
Little practical information: the surroundings of the temple and the district in which the temple is located are often taken by storm by visitors wanting to attend the festival. We advise you not to go there by car. Shuttles are set up from Nagano Station to reach the temple. But walking there is also possible if you don't want to queue too much for the shuttles. You will need to allow about 30 min of walking.