As soon as I heard of Otagi Nenbutsu-ji I knew I’d love it. It’s not listed in the guidebooks or on most Kyoto websites, getting lost amongst the city’s 1600 other Buddhist 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: cute, scary, sad, serene, funny, bizarre. We spent ages amongst the sculptures and kept noticing new things.
Otago Nenbutsu-ji temple is hidden away at the far end of the beautiful and popular Arashiyama neighbourhood in Kyoto’s western hills.
Spending a day in this area is one of the top things to do in Kyoto (you’ve probably heard of the bamboo grove), but hardly anyone makes it up to this delightful temple, so you can enjoy it without the crowds.
The quirky figures are scattered amongst a few small temple buildings and pagodas in a shady 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.
Many temples in Kyoto feature ponds where coins are thrown for good luck. Here one of the rakan has become the target.
The Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Story
Otagi Nenbutsuji isn’t just a fun and absorbing place to wander; it has a fascinating story, too.
The original temple was founded back in the 8th century, but it was the unlucky victim of floods and fires so moved to a safer location in 1922.
Unfortunately, disaster hit again in 1950 when the temple was severely damaged by a typhoon.
In 1955, Kocho Nishimura, a Buddhist statue sculptor and monk, took over as head of the temple and began its artistic transformation.
It took over 30 years to restore and in the 1980s the main project became the creation of the 1200 rakan sculptures.
Remarkably, the statues were created by amateurs who came to the temple to learn carving from Nishimura. He urged them to bring forth the unique figures hiding in the stone and they all had different responses to the challenge.
Nishimura’s son and grandson still run the temple and create their own art.
How to Get to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
The temple makes a great day out when combined with Arashiyama’s other attractions.
On our first visit we took the train on the JR San-In/JR Sagano line from Kyoto station to Saga Arashiyama station (240 yen, 20 minutes).
There are a few different stations in Arashiyama with different routes up, so I recommend checking Google Maps for public transport directions.
When travelling from Gion on a different visit, we walked to Kawaramachi station, took the train to Omiya then the Randen tram to Arashiyama, which took about an hour.
In the morning we visited the Iwatayama Monkey Park and Tenryu-ji temple where we had a delicious vegetarian lunch at the Shigetsu restaurant (3300 yen).
After lunch we walked in the Arashiyama bamboo grove (expect crowds) and then headed uphill north to Adashino Nembutsu-ji 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 (about 40 minutes from Tenryu-ji), but it’s an enjoyable and beautiful one through quiet traditional streets with the backdrop of lush green hills.
There are a number of other temples you could stop off at along the way. Jojakko-ji is another quiet spot with beautiful gardens and Gio-ji has a picturesque moss garden. See my Kyoto temples guide for more details.
On our next visit we’d like to stop at the 400-year-old Hiranoya teahouse which is just past Adashino Nembutsu-ji.
You could also take a taxi (around 1000 yen from Saga-Arashiyama Station) or infrequent bus—for details see the Otagi Nenbutsuji website.
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Details
Entrance to the temple costs 300 yen (under 15 free). It’s open from 8 am – 5 pm (last entry 4.45 pm).
The address is 2-5 Fukatani-cho, Saga-Toriimoto, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto 616-8439. You can find it on Google Maps here.
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is one of the quirkiest, most interesting temples we’ve ever visited, and it’s our favourite of the 20+ Kyoto temples we’ve visited. We highly recommend making time for it if you visit Arashiyama.
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