Zenkō-ji in Nagano

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I travelled to Japan a few years ago, and for various reasons it was an incredibly important trip to me. I got to see some amazing sights, meet some wonderful people and tasted some delicious food. There were also lots of new experiences – including, but not limited to, robot restaurants, bullet trains, Harajuku shopping, and naked public bathing (which I WILL NOT be blogging about) – including a fantastic early-morning Buddhist ceremony at Zenkō-ji temple in Nagano.

A town has built up around this temple, which is a very important one in the history of Buddhism in Japan. It was founded in the 7th century, though the temple that stands today was built about 300 years ago.

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Our tatami mat bedroom with futons

We stayed in the temple lodgings and had an early night so we could be up bright and early the next day for the ceremony at sunrise. If I remember rightly, we had to be up around 4am. At this point of the trip, though, time was meaningless – I’d only arrived in Japan 24 hours before and my circadian rhythms had no idea what was going on.

Our guide took us for a tour of the temple surroundings and explained what would happen during the morning ceremony.

img_3528-nagano-temple1.jpgWe lined up in a row to receive a blessing from the head-priest (being rather heavily bopped on the head with prayer beads) and then we headed inside the temple for the ceremony to begin. We sat crossed-legged on the floor and the monks began to chant. It’s such a mesmerising sound, with the voices, bells and drums. I appreciate this isn’t strictly music, though (leaving aside a potential “but what is music” debate) but I these sounds certainly put the listener into a thoughtful and meditative frame of mind. I’m not religious but I can certainly see parallels with the music of Christian services. It was a great way to greet the day.

Understandably, we couldn’t record or take pictures during the service, so I have scoured the internet to find sounds that are similar. This is the best I can find.

After the ceremony we returned to the temple lodgings for vegetarian Japanese breakfast. Completely set up for the day, we were then ready to go and meet some cheeky snow monkeys – not a musical experience but I just had to share these pictures!

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Find out more about the temple

I travelled to Japan with the company Inside Japan tours – I’d highly recommend them if you are looking to book a trip.

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