Nagano's Darkroom – Nagano, Japan - Atlas Obscura

Nagano's Darkroom

Nagano, Japan

This ancient temple is set up to take you on a pilgrimage of self. 


Japan’s Zenkoji temple in the eloquent Winter Olympics city of Nagano is exactly what you imagine when thinking of a Japanese temple or shrine - dignified structures covered in clouds of incense, 1400 years old, and flooded with 8 million yearly worshippers looking for luck and love in peculiar ways.

At Zenkoji, the eternal quest for fortune during your short time on this earth is molded into a type of hide and seek in a tunnel, or “darkroom.” Beneath the main temple the monks have hidden the so-called ‘Key to Paradise’, and to find it is a challenging adventure for even the most avid explorers. The Key to Paradise is hidden in a tunnel where the sun doesn’t shine - as a matter of fact, there is not a single ray of light to be seen, unless it reveals itself in a spiritual way.

The road to nirvana must be traveled in socks - at the entrance to the tunnel you must take off your shoes before you descend into the mysterious darkness. Once in the tunnel, the first thing you need to do is fight off the panic. The sensation of not being able to see anything is overwhelming, but you are never alone - the first pilgrims that came before you have already started their quest. Since the goal is to find and grab hold of a golden key somewhere in this land of darkness, there is a lot of grabbing going on, and not every hand finds the key….

The symbolism of this pitch-dark quest for nirvana is beautiful. The darkness invites you to reflect, to search for personal enlightenment,  and to calm down and find your way. All who manage to get to this state of Zen and bring their heartbeat to a steady rate can start looking for the key. Whether you find it or not, it is said that once you exit the tunnel you will feel the utmost relief, a sense of liberation or feeling of being born again, an unforgettable experience.

Know Before You Go

ZenkojiMotoyoshicho-491 NaganoNagano Prefecture 380-0851, JapanTel: +81‎

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January 23, 2013

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