Nagano and the First Buddha

We’ve elected to stay overnight in Nagano before heading off to our next snow experience in Nozawa, another Onsen town built around hot springs. It reminds me that this is earthquake territory; the windows are often reinforced with wire in the glass.

We have an afternoon here, which is sunny and mild, and after esconcing ourselves in our room at the hotel, we wander off to see the Zenko-ji shrine, which turns out to be one of the main pilgrimage sites in Japan.

It was built in the 7th Century, and is reputed to house the first Buddha statue to arrive in Japan. Reputed, since no-one has seen it for centuries: it’s so secret, that even the monks are not allowed to view it, let alone the emperors. The shrine is impressive, a whole precinct of 39 buildings. We arrive at the main building to experience the end of a Buddhist ceremony, complete with notes struck on gongs and giant prayer bowls which echo their song throughout the building.

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At the entrance stands a wooden sculpture of “the oldest doctor in the world” – Binzuru, claimed to be one of the 16 disciples of Buddha, who forsook enlightenment and remained on earth in order to continue to do good. The statue has the smooth glossy shine of millions of hands that have touched it for good health, the face rubbed almost featureless over time.

In the main grounds there are the Rokujizō: statues of the six Bodhisattvas, who gave up Buddhist enlightenment, in order to provide salvation to others.

We discover a bakery that makes the most amazing pastry – apple turnover, chocolate croissant and lemon cheese Danish tempt us – yummy. The main street leading to the shrine is beautiful, plants along each side, and we spot some early crocus (croci?), snow-drops and friesias popping up their heads.

We decide not to brave the cold for dinner, but stay and sample one of the restaurants at the hotel. We settle on the grill, which has a pleasant bar – and I must say, the Japanese think of everything. One can smoke at the bar, thanks to several vacuum fans stationed about which suck in the smoke. Ingenious – if one wants to smoke.

W samples some Japanese scotch, and I am tempted by a port (even though there’s no storm), but they don’t have any – instead I am given a taste of Jerez sherry – yum delicious, I’ll have some of that! I pull out my google translate to let the maitre’d know about the Andalusian horses – he looks suitably impressed, or is that just bemused? Maybe the translator doesn’t do such a good job – I know from French or German translations they can end up a bit dodgy – is that the same for Japanese? Maybe that’s why our blind masseuse didn’t quite get it?

Next stop, Nozawa, but not before a good night’s sleep.



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