In Zenkoji temple is a famous passageway. The theory goes that descending the staircase symbolizes entering Hell. If Hell is other people, they are right.
The entrance seems un-forbidding enough. You have your ticket taken, place your shoes in a bag, and queue up before an un-impressing staircase. As the line crawls forward, you read the informative signs: “Keep hand on right wall at hip height”. Then, your turn comes up.
The stairs down are steep. Each step takes you – and the long worm of people – further into darkness. The hall continues straight for a fair distance. Your eyes adjust to the flickering light of the entrance that briefly illuminates overhead beams. To your right your hand traces the smooth wood of the wall. To the front and back is the press of fellow travelers, and, to the left? Blackness of interminable depth.
The slow march of bodies inches forward through a simple procedure. Go forward until you bump into the person ahead. Now you turn a corner and every last photon of light is extinguished. No sense of scale remains. Your right hand, pressed to the wooden wall, provides you with your only measure of distance as it encounters the occasional pillar. The darkness is absolute. Your eyes struggle in vain to adjust to the stygian black.
You hear the sounds of hammering. It grows louder. What is this? The regularity of the beat suggests some construction project. Perhaps in the floors above? Forward you move, and the hammering glows ever louder. And you ever more nervous. Then, you are upon `it`.
Affixed to the right hand wall, at hip height, is an iron door knocker. Each pilgrim has been striking it in turn. You also knock it, keeping up the ritual that had perplexed you earlier.
Perhaps this marks the spot underneath the sacred image? The image which can never be shown to the public, and which the mere likeness of can only be displayed once every seven years?
The mystery solved, the line seems to speed up. Soon another corner brings one into the first light. Another staircase and one has returned to the start. While physically you are back to where you began, mentally you have traveled a long distance. Confused and disoriented you, stumble into the light of the surface world, wondering in what fashion this event will integrate with the rest of your life.
Zenko-ji （http://www.zenkoji.jp） is a Buddhist temple located near Nagano Station in Nagano prefecture. The famous passageway Jeff went on is called the O-kaidan, or crypt passage, and can be taken once inside the main hall.
Jeff Lait, a computer programmer by trade, is occasionally dragged around Japan by his wife, Caitilin. A trip to Zenko-ji in Nagano prefecture, taken as part of her research, inspired this piece.