Zenkoji Temple, Nagano, Japan

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Looking out from the Zenkoji Temple in Nagano. The swastika in eastern religions is not what you think.

If you know your swastikas, and I have to admit learning a little about them when I studied Eastern religions in college, you know that, Nazis aside, they actually mean “It is good.” So, don't freak out when you see one on a Japanese temple. They've been around a lot longer than Japan's erstwhile ally of the mid 20th Century.

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A line of Bodhisattvas guide you up the stairs to the temple.

Outside the Zenkoji Temple is a line up of six Bodhisattvas seemingly welcoming you onto the temple grounds. One interpretation of the role of a Bodhisattva is that this is a person who has achieved Nirvana, but has willingly stayed behind in the illusory world of man to help the rest of us on the path. Very nice of them, don't you think?

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The Abbess's residence in Nagano.

We got up at dawn to hear the monks' prayers in the Zenkoji Temple. The monks chanted for an hour, but near the end of the service, a higher pitched voice went solo for a few minutes. I thought it was a young boy, but Kris assured me it was a woman. Turns out, there is an Abbess at this temple. And she has a beautiful voice. And her home looks lovely in the early morning light.

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The Abbess, shaded by her attendant.

I also caught a shot of the Abbess herself on her way back to her residence after prayers, before the attendant policeman stopped me.

See posts about many other of our visits to historic Japanese sites in our list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan.

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10 thoughts on “Zenkoji Temple, Nagano, Japan”

    • Yes, Matt, you are absolutely right. I posted the photo to Pinterest, and some woman went absolutely nuts, and said she didn’t care if it was an ancient symbol, that there was no way it should be displayed today. She was a little overwrought.

  1. Yes it was a bit weird the first time I saw swastikas in Japan and learned the real meaning to them….usually when I have challenging situations like this I take multiple exposures and do an hdr technique to render…thanks for linking up today

    • Noel, I’ve been trying to avoid HDR, although I’m going to have to give it a try one day soon when the situation warrants. In general, I don’t like the unreal quality of the results, but maybe I’m just being too much of a traditionalist. As for the swastika, the Japanese actually use it on their tourist maps to indicate a temple location.

  2. I had a similar situation with a photo yesterday. Wish I had read your post before I took the shot. Will have to remember this tip next time.
    Interesting how the swastika is so tied to Nazis when it was used long before by other cultures. Its use in Africa dates back to the 12th century or so.

    • Marcia, the old adage is “Expose for shadows, develop for highlights.” That’s pretty simplified, but it works. If I were to get into more detail, and if I’d had more time, I would have taken my light reading off the pillars, stopped down at least three full stops from there, and hoped the outside didn’t blow out too much. I find myself shooting in manual a lot more these days instead of aperture priority. Going back to my roots, so to speak.

  3. I won’t lie, Cathy. It was the swastika that caught my eye. But you see them all over in Zen temples. On the pillars, on the beams, above the altars. The various Japanese tourist maps even use them as the legend symbol for a Buddhist temple. And what could be farther from Nazism than a Buddhist temple?


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