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Otagi Nenbutsu-ji: Kyoto Temple With 1,200 Rakan Sculptures Practising Buddhism Via Art Collabs

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Arashiyama, Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is a hidden gem hand-crafted by decades of innovative art forms. At this temple, you’ll find whimsical stone sculptures expressing diverse emotions, and perhaps find one that you can relate to.

1,200 unique rakan sculptures covered in moss

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - rows upon rows of rakan statues
Image credit: @kyoteren

Rows upon rows of stone rakan sculptures line the lush mossy pathways of Otagi Nenbutsu-ji. Visually stunning in their serenity, these sculptures are depictions of Buddha’s disciples who have achieved enlightenment. 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - wall of rakan statues welcome you outside the temple
Image credit: @rgrhinsta

Acting like silent guardians of the hillside, an entire wall of rakan sculptures welcome you to the temple. 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - smiling and frowning, various expressions
Image credit: @taka_hitf

While most of them are smiling, there are sculptures that sport different kinds of quirky expressions, encapsulating the entire span of human emotions. 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - gaze into the statues to find a piece of yourself in them
Image adapted from: @bucketlistbums

These creative presentations, while set in stone, are meant to be subject to beholders’ interpretations, so you can gaze into each statue and see yourself in it. 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - a pair of rakan statues sharing a good laugh over wine
Image credit: @otagiji_official

Little interactions of daily life have also been incorporated into the rakan sculptures. Find a pair of them sharing a good laugh over wine – not quite what you’d expect to find at a Buddhist temple. 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - covered in moss and the guise of time
Image credit: @ykomi816

While most of these whimsical sculptures were only made in the past 40 years, the overgrown moss and crumbling rocky surfaces make the haven look more ancient than it actually is. 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - ethereal quietness
Image credit: @miicco7a

The entire place feels untouched by the modern world, with only time and the elements as its patrons. 

Artistic restoration project over three generations 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - bird's eye view
Image credit: Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple

If you’re already wowed by the rakan sculptures, you’d be in awe at the story behind them. The present Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is a legacy of centuries of reconstruction after multiple natural disasters since the beginning of the Heian period (794-1192). 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - Kocho Nishimura
Image credit: Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple

After Buddhist statue sculptor-turned-monk Kocho Nishimura was appointed to be the temple chief, he began the temple’s artistic transformation in 1981.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - people learning the art of stone sculpture
Image credit: Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple

Nishimura’s craft was so well-known that many made a pilgrimage to learn from him. Under his guidance, learners were encouraged to reflect their own individuality in their stone creations.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - 1,200 unique expressions
Image adapted from: @mk_kaji_ and @kyoteren

Over time, the small community of sculpting enthusiasts created 1,200 whimsical stone figures. Some of them hold objects that allude to the carvers’ own passions. 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - Kouei Nishimura
Image credit: Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple

The story doesn’t end here. Now, Nishimura’s son and grandson, both Buddhist priests, continue to practise Buddhist teaching in combination with their own art forms.

Practising Buddhism through electronic music

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - Kouei Nishimura jamming away on his electric guitar
Image adapted from: Kouei Nishimura

The most experimental venture here thus far has to be Kouei Nishimura’s music collaborations, as Otagi Nenbustu-ji might be the only place you’d find a monk jamming away on an electric guitar. 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - Kouei Nishimura playing the synthesiser
Image credit: Terin Jackson

After taking over the role of head priest from his father in 2003, Kouei Nishimura paved a new direction for the annual hana matsuri (花祭り; flower festival).

Originally, 8th April was a day to celebrate spring renewal on Buddha’s birthday. Now, music appreciation has taken the main stage at the temple’s rendition of the event. 

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - music collaboration with Esperanza during Hana Matsuri
Image credit: Terin Jackson

During the hana matsuri, Kouei Nishimura shares his music, which blends new age synth with classical harmonies, and collaborates with an eclectic assortment of music groups. 

In 2020, his guests were Esperanza, a home-grown folklorico group that plays traditional South American instruments.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - Kouei Nishimura's artistic path
Image credit: Terin Jackson

Similar to his father’s sculptures, Nishimura’s music compositions are based on Buddhist imagery. To him, “the music is the message”

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - Kouei Nishimura's YouTube
Image adapted from: Kouei Nishimura

The self-taught musician has released dozens of innovative albums that invite listeners into introspection. He also runs a YouTube channel that features his music performances and beautiful seasonal views at Otagi Nenbutsu-ji.

Getting to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji - rakan statues under autumn leaves
Image credit: Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple

Just a 20-minute walk away from the crowds at Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is a rare autumn foliage spot where you can enjoy the quietness all to yourself. The temple recommends visitors to soak in the sights of Arashiyama’s beauty before making their way over.

How to get there: 

  • By bus: take bus 62, 72, 92 or 94 in the direction of Kiyotaki-Arashiyama, alight at Otagi-dera mae and walk for 2 minutes to the temple. 
  • By train: take the JR Sagano Line from Kyoto station to Saga-Arashiyama, then a scenic 30-minute walk past the bamboo grove and Togetsukyo Bridge. 

Admission: ¥300 (~USD2.11) for adults, free for 15 years and under
Address: 2-5 Fukatani-cho, Saga-Toriimoto, Ukyo Ward, 616-8439, Kyoto
Opening hours: 8am-4.30pm, Daily
Contact: 0758-65-1231 | Website

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Cover image adapted from: @taka_hitf, Terin Jackson, @kyoteren