No matter how austere and beautiful a temple is, after a while they all start to look the same to me but Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple has character to spare. Or should I say “characters” (plural) as it’s home to 1,200 stone sculptures which makes it pretty unforgettable.
Nestled into the western hills of Kyoto, this Buddhist temple was blissfully free of the hoards of tourists and locals that I had become accustomed to in Japan.
After a hectic morning rushing around Arashiyama, I leisurely paced the rows upon rows of stone figures covered in a springy film of moss. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple easily took the top spot on my list of favourite experiences in this charming and traditional city.
So distinctive with different facial expressions and poses, I was half-hoping and half-terrified that the sculptures would spring to life like the rock trolls in Frozen.
Did I accidentally stumble into the Valley of the Living Rock?? Will they pressure me into marrying the nearest male and declare us “trollfully wedded”??
Well…as long as he’s cute.
History of Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is a Buddhist temple that was founded by Empress Shotoku in the 8th century. It was originally developed in the historical Higashiyama district before being flooded and relocated to its current location on the outskirts of Arashiyama. Disaster struck again when a major typhoon hit in 1950, causing even more damage to the neglected temple.
In 1955 Kocho Nishimura, a skilled and accomplished sculptor was appointed as the head priest of Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple. Visitors would come from far and wide to seek his instruction which is how the temple became filled with 1,200 rakan sculptures.
Rakan are disciples of Buddha and were considered to be enlightened with wisdom and imbued with supernatural powers. Kocho-san encouraged his pupils to put their own spin on their carvings, resulting in a unique blend of kawaii and austerity.
As you wander the rows of moss-covered stone sculptures, you’ll delight in discovering the whimsical tableaus of characters with varying poses and facial expressions – cheers-ing with sake, fist-pumping in the air with boxing gloves, holding a portable cassette player, etc…
What to do at Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
+ Find your likeness: Stroll along the many rows of rakan sculptures and find one that resonates with you, whether in spirit or physical resemblance.
Visitors like to leave a coin offering on the head of their favourite for good luck! Obviously my spirit sculpture was the one with the arms raised joyfully as if in triumph like “Yes! Ramen-time!” A close second was the one that looks like it is laughing maniacally like an evil baby genius.
+Say A Little Prayer: If you’re in need of a little divine intervention, buy an Ema board, or a wishing plaque, from the front for 1,000¥. Scrawl your entreaties on the back and tie it to the rails surrounding Fureai Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Love and Mercy.
How To Get To Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
A little out of the way on the outskirts of Arashiyama swing by Otagi Nenbetsu-ji Temple when you’re already in the northwest of Kyoto.
Aim to hit the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove early morning to beat the tourists. After admiring Tenryū-ji temple, grab much needed caffeine at % Arabica then head across the river to the monkey park. Indulge in a late lunch at Sushi bar Naritaya before catching Kyoto Bus 94 towards Kiyotaki for a quick 20-minute ride to Otagi Nenbetsu-ji. There’s a stop right in front of the temple. There’s a full day in Kyoto planned for you!
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
📍 2-5 Sagatoriimoto Fukatanicho, Ukyo-ku
⏱️ 8am – 5pm (Gate closes at 4:45pm)
💶 300¥ (approx. $3)
For more tips on how to plan an authentic trip to Japan, check out this post.
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