Nagano Prefecture – roof of Japan

Nagano Prefecture

Nagano Prefecture is located on Honshu Island.  Of all Japanese prefectures – this one has the longest distance to the sea. It lies at the junction of eastern and western Japan. Often called “the Roof of Japan”, covers the Japanese Alps on the west and mountain ranges connected to the volcanoes (Nasu, Fuji and Norikura-dake) in the centre. The Japanese Alps National Park covers the highest peaks in the country. Park which looks like European Alps, offers excellent ski stations and numerous hot springs.

The city of Nagano is located in the northern part of the prefecture, in the basin of the Shinano River. It has developed in the 13th century, around Zenkoji Temple, which today is the largest tourist attraction in the prefecture. Every year, there are more than 6 million pilgrims come to visit this place. It is also said, that every Japanese wants to visit this place at least once in their lives.

Nagano – the mystery of longevity

In terms of average life expectancy, Nagano prefecture ranks first for both men and women in Japan. The average life expectancy for men in Nagano is 80.8 years and for women 87.2 years. Compared to the world statistics, Japan ranks in third place in terms of the longest-living men (after Iceland -79.5 years and Hong Kong – 79.2 years) and in first place in terms of the longest-living women.
Since Japan ranks at top of the rankings compared to all other countries, the people of Nagano Prefecture are some of the longest-living in the world.

Nagano Prefecture is surrounded by soaring 3000-meter-high mountains known as ” the backbone of Japan “. As such a highland resort, there is clean air, clear water and beautiful nature. Living and eating the foods produced in such an environment may be related to the high average life expectancy of Nagano Prefecture. This Prefecture is also a well-known producer of organic food, especially vegetables and fruits (lettuce, asparagus, apples and grapes).  In terms of quality and naturalness – fruits and vegetables is one of the highest-rated in the country.

Promotion of well-being …

One secret is that Nagano, whose population exceeds two million, has over 10,000 health promotion volunteers organized throughout the prefecture who work every day. Educational workshops take place in the entire prefecture. The result of this work can be well seen.

In Nagano PrefecturJapan, Nagano Prefecture - roof of Japane, there is not only the average life expectancy highest one in the country, but also the average life expectancy in a good health and physical condition are the best. In Nagano it often happens, that elderly people are less eager to benefit from third-party care, medical or nursing care, as their health condition remains excellent in the long term. The key concept for promoting well-being amongst older people seems to be working well and is a great example of good practice (source:

Winter Olympic Games

Nagano became famous after the Winter Olympic Games, which took place here in 1998.

Interesting facts about the Winter Olympics

  • The Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament was unique. For the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, there were professional hockey players in the National League of Hockey. During the Olympic Games, the Hockey league has been suspended.
  • For the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, a women’s ice hockey tournament was held.
  • Curling and snowboarding were introduced – for the first time, as part of the Olympic Games tournament.

They were the third Olympic Games and second winter Olympics to be held in Japan, after the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo. Nagano is so far one of the southernmost cities to host a Winter Olympics.

The Olympics cost a huge amount of money. A new hotel database, stadiums and tourist infrastructure have been built in the city, which is currently not fully used. When the Winter Olympics were over, the public demanded to publish all costs which were spent on the event. The Vice-chairman of the organizing committee burned 90 volumes of documents in which the detailed Olympic budget was saved, as he was ashamed to show it to the public.

After the Olympic Games

  • Currently, in the city, there is Olympic infrastructure still available for public use.
  • M-Wave Nagano – it is the headquarters of the Nagano Olympic Museum
  • Olympic Stadium – currently a sports park known as the Minami Nagano Sports Park
  • The White Ring, a figure skating discipline was hosted. Currently, this hall is home to many sporting events
  • Big Hat Nagano – in this place Olympic tournament of ice hockey was held. Currently, ice hockey tournaments are still being held every year. There is also a theatre in the hall that serves as a venue for musical performances and various public meetings.

How to get there?

From Tokyo to Nagano, you can take the Hokuriku Shinkansen train (about 1h 40 min). From Nagano Station, the temple can be reached by bus (about 15 min) or on foot (about 30 minutes walk). The walk can be a nice experience itself because on the way you can visit many shops with some nice souvenirs. To get to the temple you will walk through Nakamise-dori street, which has a commercial atmosphere. There are numerous temples (Shukubo), where pilgrims can stay for a night, abbots’ residences and numerous shops and food stalls.

On the way from the train station to the temple:

Zenkoji Temple

It is a famous pilgrimage centre, which every Japanese wants to visit once in a lifetime. After Toda-ji Temple in Nara, it is the second-largest temple in the country.

The Zenkoji Temple was built in the seventh century to shelter the first statue of Buddha Amitabha (Buddha of the West Paradise). The statue was brought to Japan by Honda Yoshimitsu. According to the legend, the statue was a gift from the Koreans to the emperor Kinmei, due to the occasion of the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in 552. During the epidemic times – the figure was thrown into the canal and found several years later by a poor peasant, named Honda. In the place where Zenkoji Temple is located today, Honda built a shelter for the statue of Buddha – a kind of home chapel. The shrine became a temple in 670.

The monastery gained popularity during the Kamakura era when the cult of Buddha Amitabha expanded throughout Japan.

Japan, Nagano, Zenkoji Temple
Zenkoji Temple

Temple of Tolerance

The temple is unusual for several reasons:

  • Two Buddhist sects celebrate their services, one after the other (Tendai and Jodo)
  • The temple has always been open to women, which is unique compared to the rest of the temples. One of the Buddhist sects is headed by a woman, who is a Chief Priestess.
  • The location of the temple is also exceptional. It is situated on the north-south axis, just next to Mount Omine, which is considered a symbol of the West Paradise. Due to the strategic location of the temple, there was a military base in this place in the 16th century. Over the past several hundred years, there were built many mausoleums at the foot of the mountain, in hope of a future rebirth.

History of the temple and Meiji period

Zenkoji Temple has experienced many rises and falls over the last few centuries, including numerous fires or earthquakes (the largest occurred in 1847). Repeatedly destroyed, but each time it was rebuilt in full glory. It has been rebuilt 11 times already.

Japan, Nagano, Zenkoji Temple

During the Meiji period, a series of reforms were undertaken in Japan between 1868 and 1912, to modernize the country. These were times of intense: social, political, cultural, economic and religious transformations. During this period, the emperor’s authority was strengthened, and the Meiji politicians became deeply involved in confirming his authority. According to the constitution in 1889, religious freedom was allowed in Japan, but until then, Buddhism was a subject of intense criticism. At that time, there were many attempts to overthrow the dominating position of Buddhism. Many of the ancient Buddhist temples were transformed into Shinto shrines,  separating these two religions for the first time in history.

To increase the role of Shinto shrines, in 1871 they were recognized as state institutions. They were established to protect national customs and beliefs. This intensified social unrest and the population began to act against Buddhist temples. Although officially the government did not support and accept such behaviour did everything to deepen the bad mood and strength negative emotions.

The Chief Priestess

In 1870, when the anti-Buddhist movement intensified, the 117th Chief Priestess of the Zenkoji Temple was a woman, Seien Niko. With her attitude and determination, she saved the temple from suffering in a deteriorating situation. When public aversion against the Buddhists intensified, the Chief Priestess went to the Imperial Palace in person. She has made an entreaty for Zenkoji Temple to remain as a Buddhist temple. She expressed her belief, saying, “It may be possible to take off my clerical robe which I wear on my body, but there is no way to take off the clerical robe which I have worn deep in my heart. Since I have sworn to dedicate myself to Buddhism, I will never stop being a disciple of Buddha all through my life even under any severe persecution.”

Thanks to her decisive attitude, she was allowed to stay in Zenkoji Temple and continue cultivating Buddhism. She became the restorer of Zenkoji Temple and protected its light of Buddhism.

The current abbess is the 121st Chief Priestess Takatsukasa Seigyoku. The chief priestess and her staff are devoted to various memorial services. They take care of Girl Scout activities as well as the management of nursery and nursing homes.  With such an approach they are taking responsibility for regional welfare.

In the temple area

Two gates are leading to the temple. The first one is the Niomon Gate, guarded by two impressive deities. Behind the gate, there is a wide avenue along which the Rokujizo statues are. They are guardians of the Bodhisattva deity. They sacrificed their lives to take care of those who need it. The Bodhisattvas are said to be able to commune with the six realms of hell, starvation, beasts, carnage, human beings and divine beings.

Next to them, there is the seventh figure of Jizo – Nurebotoke. The figure was created in 1722.  It is also called “wet Jizo” because its role is to protect the temple against fire.

In front of you, there is a monumental 2-storey Sammon Gate, dating back to 1750. The gate has been recognized as an important cultural asset. There are a few statues inside:  a statue of the Bodhisattva Monju and four celestial kings (Shitenno). It is open to the public, you can enter the second floor there, and admire the panorama of the temple.

After passing through the gate you will reach Hondo – the main temple. It is a huge building, considered the National Treasure. It was built of 60 thousand wooden beams. Inside, the temple is beautifully decorated and there are also several statues of Buddha. This most important statue (the original, first one) remains hidden and inaccessible. It can’t be seen not only by the tourists or faithful but also by the monks. A copy of this statue is shown to the public for several weeks, every six years.

The Olympic Bell

There is an ancient belfry on the site of the temple, named Shoro. The temple bell was built in 1667, but the tower was destroyed and reconstructed in 1853. When the Winter Olympics were organized in Nagano in 1998, the opening ceremony began with the sounds of the bell. The melody that brings out the bell is chosen as one of the “100 most beautiful sounds in Japan”. It was believed that his pure sounds would reach the hearts and souls of all who could hear him.

After leaving the Main temple, you should visit nearby temples as well. What you can find there are little shrines, beautiful nature, silence and original type of accommodation, as there are guest houses as well.


It is the residence of the Chief Priest of Zenkoji Temple, Tendai Sect of Buddhism. There is a small but charming garden, a few small temples and Buddha statues. The road to this place leads through a red bridge over the shore of the lake. This bridge is a dream background for a memorial photo for the newlyweds. On that day, when we visited Zenkoji, young couples were standing in line to take photos in this place.

Nagano shopping

On the way, back from the temple, it is worth visiting (probably) tJapan, Nagano Gondo Dori Shopping Streethe longest commercial avenue in Nagano, named Gondo Dori. This is the place where mainly local vendors offer their products. There are many original, very old, small shops specializing in one type of product only. You can find there a store offering umbrellas, a store with brushes or foldable fans. The whole street is under a glass roof, so it is possible to come here regardless of the weather conditions. There are also souvenir shops, small grocery stores, cafes and restaurants. Prices are very affordable.

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