It feels suspiciously like a winding, pitch-black underground corridor with a low ceiling.
As Buddhist temple experiences go, this one at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano, Japan, is something a little bit different.
Underneath the main hall's inner sanctuary is an underground passage, through which visitors walk in complete darkness in search of the "key to paradise". This key is attached to the wall along the corridor and is believed to grant salvation to those who touch it.
The passage itself can be no more than 20 or 30 metres long and it only takes about three minutes to stumble blindly through. Needless to say, in complete darkness it feels much longer.
|Zenkoji Temple in Nagano; home of the "key of paradise"|
One of the temple's monks explains to me that the passage mimics the one we experience after death when our souls go on a journey in search of paradise.
As instructed, I walked down the steps into the corridor holding my shoes in a plastic bag in my left hand (my "worldly goods") and fixed my right hand to the smooth wooden wall to act as my "eyes".
I have to bend forward to avoid hitting my head on the low ceiling beams. Within metres of entering the corridor, it is pitch black.
I started to feel slightly claustrophobic as I was wedged between two large tour groups. Apparently, up to eight million people visit here each year. By the sounds of it, they all came today.
The temple is certainly popular, which is interesting given most Japanese don't exclusively adhere to one religion, but have incorporated aspects of several religions, particularly Buddhism and Shinto.
I kept my right hand on the wall and used it to navigate my path forward. Unable to see, I repeatedly ran into the person in front of me (or at least what I thought was them) and the journey was complicated by twists and turns around several corners.
Delving into the bowels of the main temple, the third largest wooden structure in Japan, is an unusual way to appreciate it. While the Zenkoji compound was founded in the seventh century when Buddhism arrived in Japan from India via Korea, the main temple itself was rebuilt in 1707.
Zenkoji is home to Japan's first Buddha image, brought here in the year 522 from Korea. It is the temple's most revered object and is wrapped and stored in a box behind the main alter, somewhere close to where I was blindly wandering. The temple's commandments prohibit it from being shown to anyone. Apparently the last time someone laid eyes on it was in 1720.
|Bodhisattva are enlightened beings who postpone Buddhahood to save others|
My feet are a little numb. It's about minus 2 degrees Celsius outside and it has started snowing. If I had known I would be taking my shoes off and standing on cold timber floors I would have worn thicker socks.
I wonder if I will be thinking about clothing after I've died too.
Despite hearing the shrieks and chatter of others in the corridor, there are moments of peace from sensory deprivation.
There are also moments of panic. It reminds me of the small, dark Cho Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. What if I take a wrong turn down here? I reassured myself that I had my mobile with me and could always call for help. At the very least, I was glad I had downloaded the flashlight iPhone app. Even though the use of any lights down here was strictly forbidden, I was ready to deploy it should push come to shove.
As promised, but unseen, towards the end of the "journey" there was a metal door lock or key fixed to the wall. This is the "key to paradise" I've been searching for in the darkness.
A little further on, after turning the final corner, there is a glimmer of light from the stairs which lead back up to the main hall.
After only a few minutes down in the disorientating darkness, it was surely like seeing paradise itself.
|Approaching the temple's main hall|
|A guardian at the temple's gates|