Travel Inspiration  •  ,

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji: Kyoto’s best kept secret

November 21, 2016


Apparently some dreams do come true as I visited Kyoto, Japan this year. It was the most amazing experience of my life but I’m positive though that one of the best places to visit was the remote Otagi Nenbutsu-ji temple in Arashiyama.

The temple itself is about 12 centuries old and has been destroyed three times. The last time was in 1950s when a typhoon hit Nenbutsu-ji, leaving it in terrible state. In 1955 a famed sculptor and restorer of Buddhist statues named Kocho Nishimura became the head priest of Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, which was then a forgotten and desolate temple in the North of Kyoto. Nishimura didn’t have the funds to restore the temple to its former glory but in 1981 he had a magnificent idea.

Kocho Nishimura asked laypeople of Japan to carve rakan statues in stone and donate them to his temple. He even gave lessons and consulted the amateur sculptors. The response was surprisingly overwhelming and during ten years the temple amassed over 1200 statues.

Rakan is a kind of Buddhist “saint”, the one who attained Nirvana. The rakan statues of Otagi are rather laid-back, depicted with a sense of humour. Some of them hold modern props, like a guitar or a tennis racket, some are drinking sake. Other sculptors have apparently used the sculptures as a way to deal with problems of their life, as some rakans are crying or screaming. Some statues are extremely well-made but you can clearly see that most are the work of amateurs. It’s not important though as it wasn’t a competition, just a way to pray and support a forgotten temple.

Though Otagi Nenbutsu-ji seems to be extremely popular on Pinterest, it’s still fairly unknown and you won’t meet a lot of fellow tourists there. The pleasure of exploring a small, remote temple in a Japanese forest, finding your favourite rakan and just relaxing away was incomparable. I highly recommend visiting this place before it gets flooded by tourists like everywhere else in Kyoto!


The Otagi Nenbutsu-ji temple in the background

How to get to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji

Honestly, it’s not easy! I found that the best way to get there is by train to Saga-Arashiyama station. From there it’s about 20-minute walk but you’ll pass some other awesome places like Seiryō-ji temple, Saga Toriimoto (a well-preserved traditional street of Kyoto) and Adashino Nenbutsu-ji temple. Here’s the location on the map:

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