Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple ( 愛宕念仏寺) is one of the lesser-known temples of Kyoto, located on the outskirts of the Saga-Arashiyama area. It is a hidden gem amongst the 1,500 or so Buddhist temples that dot the Kyoto area. Rather remote, it is a great destination for your Japan trip – a spot to visit for a relaxing escape from the typical tourist crowds that swarm other more popular temples and shrines of Kyoto.
The defining feature of Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple (home page) is the over 1,200 stone sculptures that inhabit the grounds. These sculptures are the “rakan,” or disciples of Buddha. What make these rakan so special are their unique expressions, which vary from statue to statue. Not a single statue in the entire temple is the same!
This past summer, I decided to pay a visit to this shrine myself during a vacation to Japan with a good friend. The beauty of the temple and the peace of mind it brings are unlike any other experience you could expect of a typical vacation. To this day, it remains amongst my top favorite places to have ever visited, not only in Japan but in the world.
The Story of Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple
The history of the Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple dates back to the Nara Period from around year 770. However, its original location was different from where it stands today. Due to the Temple’s long and unfortunate history with disaster, its location changed several times.
The First Disaster
The temple was first built in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto (then the Otagi District, hence the name) by Emperor Shotoku. But one day, a flooding of the nearby Kamogawa River resulted in the complete devastation of the original building. A priest of the Tendai Sect from Mount Hiei, Senkan Naigu, decided that this was not the safest location for a temple. He decided to rebuild it somewhere out of reach of the floods.
A Safe Home for Otagi Nenbutsuji
Priest Senkan Naigu rebuilt the temple in the northeastern area of Kyoto, closer to the mountains and away from the river. He established it as a branch of Enryakuji Temple. Though people presumed it would be much safer up here, it was no match for other natural disasters such as typhoons and fires. Nor could it stand against the wear and tear of neglect. All but three parts of the temple fell into ruin once more. Only the Main Hall, Jizo Hall, and Temple Gates survived.
The three surviving buildings were dismantled and reconstructed in 1922 at the location you see today. However, despite another attempt at relocation for safety, calamity would soon find the temple again. In 1950, it was the unfortunate victim of natural disaster and suffered severe damage in a typhoon.
Restoring Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple
The history of Otagi Nenbutsuji as we know it today begins more recently, in 1955. At this time, monk and sculptor Kocho Nishimura became the new head priest of the temple. And he wanted to do whatever he could to restore it.
Nishimura was famous for his construction and rebuilding of Buddhist structures and temples. He was also highly adept in the craft of stone carving. This skill and the nature of the reconstruction project gave him an idea. With the help of the locals, he would bring the temple back to life.
A Community Effort
Nishimura was a well-known sculptor in the community, and famous for his Buddhist pieces. Many students came to learn sculpting from him. He decided to take new apprentices under his wing and teach them how to carve the rakan. He set about his biggest project, beginning with the construction of the first 500 rakan.
Over the course of about 10 years, he trained 1200 students. That’s the same number of rakan statues that inhabit the temple. That’s not a coincidence. Each and every rakan sculpture you see throughout the temple grounds was indeed carved by one of his students.
This is why you can see so much variety in the style and expression of the sculptures. Each one is a reflection of its creator! Nishimura challenged his students to bring out their own unique features when sculpting the rakan. The name of each individual student is also carved in the back of each sculpture.
Now that you know the story… let’s go see the Rakan!
Getting to Otagi Nenbutsuji
Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple is located a bit off the beaten path from the rest of Kyoto’s main tourist attractions. It’s actually not too far from Kyoto’s famous bamboo forest. (If that’s on your list, you might want to add Otagi Nenbutsu-ji to visit on the way.)
Admission is 300 yen, and the temple is open to visitors from 8:00AM to 5:00PM. The grounds aren’t very large and a visit can easily be squeezed into your sightseeing itinerary around the Arashiyama area of Kyoto. There are different travel routes to get there, depending on where you are staying, or if you are visiting along the way from another attraction.
On my trip, we rode the train to Arashiyama Station (Hankyu-Arashiyama Line), and took the bus (62 bound for Kiyotake) to Otagidera-mae. The bus passes through Arashiyama Koen, a cute park and shopping area I also recommend visiting on the way back for some souvenirs.
Entering Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple
Upon entering the temple we received a pamphlet in English. We arrived a little later than planned, and it had rained the previous day, so it was pretty empty. During our entire time there, I don’t think I saw more than four other groups of visitors besides my friend and I. It’s a great place to visit, especially if you don’t like crowds.
The temple area is not huge. While it does have stairs, they aren’t as long as those found in other Shinto shrines. You could probably explore the entire grounds in under an hour. But then you’d miss out on all the amazing Buddha expressions, and what fun would that be!?
The 1200 Rakan of Otagi Nenbutsuji
The vast number of rakan statues drew us in right away! Unlike the usually serious nature associated with temples, the variety of expressions on the rakan made for a rather lighthearted atmosphere. Despite their more recent history, the course of nature has caused the statues to look much older than they really are. Most are covered in moss. But this only adds to the whimsical vibe of the ground. It looks like an enchanting land, right out of a fairytale.
The expressions range from calm to powerful to downright comical. I must have spent a full two hours or so just trying to get a good look at every expression.
Otagi Nenbutsuji Bends the Rules
While you may be familiar with the rules and taboos to be mindful of when visiting a Shinto shrine, this Buddhist temple is a bit more relaxed. For example, most places of worship strictly prohibit touching the figures and taking pictures. Otagi Nenbutsuji, however, encourages it!
You still must follow general rules of respect and common courtesy, of course. However, you are allowed to take photos, and there is even a statue you are specifically encouraged to touch.
A Yen For Your Thoughts
In Western countries, some people toss pennies into fountains for good luck. In some Kyoto shrines and temples, people toss a five-yen coin into a pond. In Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, people place coins on their favorite rakan instead!
I placed a coin on my favorite rakan in honor of my grandmother. (This one was my favorite by the way! Is that a classic Walkman!?) For some reason, I thought of her every time I saw this one, and I knew she would have loved him, too. There’s probably a reason he was my favorite!
This Fureai Kannon is a Buddhist statue that was made to be touched. The way to pray to this deity is by placing your hands on it. This is because this statue, enshrining the Bodhisattva of Love and Mercy, is also a statue for the blind. A monk at the temple constructed it when he realized there were no statues for the visually impaired. He even included the Fureai Kannon’s text in Braille on the wall.
Boddhisattva of Space
If you climb up the stairs behind the Main Hall, you will see the statue of Kokuzo Bosatsu. This beautiful golden statue is representative of the Boddhisattva of Space. Worshippers believe that praying to this deity brings wisdom and compassion as infinite as space itself.
At the foot of the small hill that houses the Boddhisattva of Space is a small pagoda called Taho-to. Underneath the pagoda stands a Buddha preaching his word to his disciples. To the right stands a statue of the famous Buddhist monk Saicho (or Dengyo Daishi).
Otagi Nenbutsuji Main Hall
The Main Hall dates from the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333) and is an Important Cultural Property. It enshrines the Yakuyoke Senju Kannon, the thousand-armed Kannon who protects from evil spirits. The Jizo Hall enshrines the Hiyoke Jizo Bosatsu. This is the Bodhisattva that stands for protection against fire.
You can take pictures of all the statues in the hall. There are even cushions for those who want to spend some time in quiet contemplation. Buses don’t run very frequently (about one every hour or so). Neither of us wanted to rush, so we took our time exploring, and spent about 30 minutes in the Main Hall in quiet meditation as we waited for the next bus.
Because it had rained the day before, you could still smell the fresh, dewy mountain air. With no people around and away from traffic, by sitting in silence, you can hear the sounds of nature all around you.
Before leaving, we came to the Sambo-no-Kane Bell. You can ring it for good luck! (But not too hard – they are quite loud!)
This bell is the “Sambo-no-Kane,” or the Bells of the Three Treasures. Each bell has a symbol carved onto it, representing these three treasures: Buddha, Dharma (teachings), and Sangha (priests/community). It is said that ringing the bell calls forth the Buddha, and brings you good luck.
We left the temple with a peace of mind we had not expected to experience on such a busy trip. Feeling refreshed, we even stopped by the Arashiyama Koen shopping area to pick up some snacks and souvenirs on the way back to the hotel.
We took the bus back towards Arashiyama Station, but got off a few stops early at Arashiyama Koen to check out the riverside shopping area. It is a quaint little street with souvenir shops and cafes by the Katsura River. After some sightseeing, we walked back to the train station.
The son and grandson of the original head priest Nishimura still run Otagi Nenbutsu-ji today. The temple holds occasional events and ceremonies, many of which seek to celebrate the teachings of Buddha through art and nature. Both of the Nishimuras practice their spirituality as Buddhist priests. At the same time, they continue to practice their craft, remaining true to the spirit of the artistic vision of Kocho Nishimura.
Otagi Nenbutsuji Access & Information:
Address: 2-5 Sagatoriimoto Fukatanicho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8439, Japan
Admission: 300 yen (free for 15 years & under)
Access: There are several different ways to access the temple, depending on where you are coming from. Here is the specific route via Google Maps that I took from Hankyu Line, Arashiyama Station.