This spring is special for Zenkoji Temple in the city of Nagano in Nagano prefecture. Millions of people will visit the 1,400-year-old temple as they do not want to miss the opportunity to worship its secret Buddha only once in six years. A replica of the hidden principal image is shown to the public at the temple’s main hall from April 5 to May 31. The event is called “Gokaicho,” which attracted 6.73 million visitors in 2009.
As the case in religion, practices in Buddhism are very strict. The principal image of Zenkoji Temple, Ikko-sanzon Amida Nyorai, came to Japan from ancient Korean kingdom Paekche (Kudara) in 552 with the arrival of Buddhism, making it the country’s oldest Buddha statue. The Amida triad image has been withheld from public view since 654. Even priests of the temple can not see the statue because of the Buddhist commandment requiring absolute secrecy of it.
Then, a replica of the principal image was created in the Kamakura Period. Even this replica, Maedachi Honzon, is hidden and has usually been kept in the treasure repository of Zenkoji Temple. The replica is moved to the main hall of the temple and exhibited only once in six years, or in the years of the ox and sheep based on the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac. In 2015, the year of sheep, visitors can directly worship Maedachi Honzon, which is designated as an important cultural property.
It is not exactly certain why the ceremony takes place every seven years. The custom began in 1955, before which the timing was irregular. Some say it may be the right time to take a look back over your life once in seven years.
During the period of “Gokaicho”, a 10-meter tall wooden pillar is erected in front of the main hall of the temple. The sacred pillar “ekobashira” is connected to Maedachi Honzon by “zen no tsuna” or the rope of good. It is believed that those who touch the pillar can receive the grace of Buddha.
※In Japan, there are two different kinds of counting, including the year of born or not. Some documents say Gokaicho is once in seven years.
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