Winter Olympics


 Olympics Front
 Sport by Sport


Temple Opens 1,400 Years of Tradition to Visitors

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 1998; Page C4

 Nagano's 1,400-year-old Zenkoji Temple welcomes people of all religions — a fitting symbol for the Olympic Games. (Joel Richardson/The Washington Post)

NAGANO, Feb. 3 — The Zenkoji temple, cultural center of this city, is known for welcoming those from all races and all cultures — with Christians, Muslims and Buddhists alike slipping off their shoes to enter the main sanctuary. Taka-Kazu Fukushima thought it fitting, then, that the crowd gathered alongside the temple balcony this afternoon — the crowd that had come to watch Fukushima and his fellow Buddhist priests cast out evil demons and pray for good luck — was heavily populated with tourists who have arrived here for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games.

Today is "Setsubun" in Japan, an annual festival that marks what the Japanese consider the eve of the first day of spring. The Buddhist monks and priests — as well as Japanese dignitaries — toss toasted soybeans at the crowd in a ritual that is supposed to drive away evil and usher in a year of good luck. To ensure a successful transition, one must eat the same number of soybeans as one's age.

"I can see a lot of foreigners, and less Japanese," said Fukushima, who studied at the University of Michigan several years ago. "That is good. There is a uniqueness to this temple. We don't belong to any sect. People feel free to come inside whether they are Christian, Muslim. Our motto is very fitting to that of the Olympic Games."

In an odd pairing of tradition and modern technology, this 1,400-year-old temple is about to become the backdrop for worldwide viewers of the Olympics, thanks to the mammoth CBS broadcast booth that casts a shadow, literally, over the sacred temple grounds. The city of Nagano was built around the temple, and, knowing this, CBS executives wanted to build their Olympic operations around the temple as well.

The network paid $375 million for its broadcast rights, but was granted permission to build its booth in the temple area only after long, delicate negotiations.

CBS's arrival here has not been entirely smooth. According to Fukushima, some of the Buddhist priests and monks — himself included — are a bit overwhelmed by the sheer size of the CBS building, and by the large numbers of CBS crew members who populate the temple grounds. And according to sources at CBS, complaints about the excessive noise on the grounds prompted Rick Gentile, the network's Olympic coordinator, to send an in-house memo requesting that the staff keep it down. Gentile did not return a call requesting comment.

"I agree with CBS," said Fukushima, who believes that it is only fitting that the network center its coverage around the place that is, in all ways, the heart of this city.

"But the only thing we have to say is, 'That is too big!' Oh, it is such a big, tall building. And there are too many CBS men! They are everywhere!"

Designated as a national treasure, the wooden temple has a wide, curved thatch roof and is open to the air, with staircases rising on both sides and a wide balcony that runs along its perimeter.

Visitors have long come to the temple to pray, to rub smoke on their bodies from the huge incense burner outside the main temple building (it supposedly brings good luck) and to rub a statue of Binzaru, a physician and Buddha's most intelligent follower, in hopes of easing their own physical pain.

Mainly, though, people come to pass through the pitch-black hallway that houses the famous golden triad, which is known as the "Ikko Sanzon Amida Nyorai" and is considered the first Buddhist image ever to enter Japan (it arrived from Korea in 552). The image is never shown to the public; instead, visitors are requested to remove their shoes and descend a staircase into total darkness, then make their way down a twisted hallway with only the touch of their fingertips on the rough walls as a guide. The tunnel is beneath the altar that holds the triad, and there is a sense of near-total sensory deprivation as visitors make their way through blackness, hoping that their fingertips will brush the lock that graces the wall directly beneath the image. Those who touch the lock are said to be guaranteed a place in paradise.

The old though, has become more than a bit tinged by the new, and the Olympic experience has made that all the more obvious. Next to the Roko Jizo — the statues that represent the six benevolent deities — tourists can poke their heads through a poster board of a speed skater or a ski jumper and have a picture taken. Nearby, UPS, a major Olympic sponsor, is showcasing a 1928 Ford Model A delivery truck.

Not even the temple offices have escaped the encroachment of the Olympics. Today, next to the neat rows of muddy boots and winter shoes lined up outside the entrance, there were four sets of big black rubber webbed feet, part of the costumes of four people dressed as the "Snowlets" — the cartoonish, owl-like mascots of the Nagano Games. Just like every other visitor to the temple, the Snowlets had to remove their shoes before entering. Their brightly colored fuzzy bodies were propped alongside the wall as well.

"I hate Snowlets!" Fukushima moaned when he saw them. "That is not our culture!"

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top | Nagano Section

Olympics Front | Sport by Sport | Gallery | History | Nagano | Countries
Yellow Pages