As soon as I heard of Otagi Nenbutsu-ji on the Quirky Japan site I knew I’d love it. It’s not listed in the guidebooks or on most Kyoto websites, getting lost amongst the city’s 1200 other temples, but it’s definitely the coolest temple we visited.
It features 1200 stone sculptures of rakan, the Buddha’s disciples, all with different facial expressions and poses. We spent hours amongst the sculptures, always noticing new things to see. There is everything from cute to scary to sad to serene to funny to bizarre.
Otago Nenbutsu-ji is hidden away at the far end of the beautiful and popular Arashiyama neighbourhood in Kyoto’s western hills. The quirky figures are scattered amongst a few small temples and pagodas in a shady temple complex.
Many are covered in moss and crumbling away, but this just adds to the atmosphere and the feeling of discovering a lost treasure.
Others are better preserved and you can clearly make out the surprising poses. Who expects to see a pair of drinking buddies in a Buddhist temple?
The range of expressions is amazing.
Otagi Nenbutsuji isn’t just a fun and absorbing place to wander, it has a really interesting story too. The original temple was founded back in the 8th century but was the unlucky victim of floods and fires so moved to a safer location in 1922. Unfortunately disaster hit again in 1950 when it was severely damaged by a typhoon. It took thirty years to repair the damage but when it was finally restored worshippers celebrated by donating the 1200 rakan sculptures. A famous Japanese sculptor even taught many amateurs how to carve from stone. They all had a different response to the challenge.
Many temples in Kyoto feature ponds where coins are thrown for good luck. Here one of the rakan has become the target.
How to Get to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji
The temple makes a great day out when combined with Arashiyama’s other attractions. We took the train from Kyoto station to Saga Arashiyama (230 yen, 20 minutes) and visited the Iwatayama Monkey Park and Tenryu-ji temple where we had a delicious vegetarian lunch at the Shigetsu restaurant (3000 yen). After lunch we walked along the bamboo path and through quiet traditional streets north to Adashino Nembutsuji temple. Keep walking past this temple until you reach the red torii gate – go through this and walk for 10 minutes more. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is on the left. It’s a fairly long walk but an enjoyable and beautiful one through quiet traditional streets with the backdrop of lush green hills. You could also take a taxi or infrequent bus – for details see the Otagi Nenbutsuji website. Entrance to the temple costs 300 yen.
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is one of the quirkiest, most interesting temples we’ve ever visited, and easily our favourite of the 10 or so we visited in Kyoto. We really recommend making time for it if you visit Arashiyama.
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