Whimsical, fairytale-ish, and a spiritual environment that looks like it gave inspiration to the stone trolls in the Frozen animation movie, the Otagi Nenbutsu ji Temple is one of the most underrated places in Kyoto and is unlike the usually serious and solemn Buddhist temples in Japan or anywhere else for that matter.
Instead, you will be surrounded by thousands of happy and amusing faces carved in stone, bringing a vibe of joy and smiles to whoever sets foot in the area. Though the carved stones might look like a fancy whim of a talented sculptor, there is a deep story behind the sculptures that make this Japanese shrine one of the must-visit temples in Kyoto.
An 8th Century Japanese Temple
Though the shrine now sits in the western hills of Arayashima, Otagi temple was originally situated in Higashiyama during the 8th century. Unfortunately, the temple was a constant victim to floods and fires until only the three main structures (the main temple, the gate, and the Jizo hall) were left.
To preserve what was left of the temple, it was moved to its current location in 1922. Despite the relocation, the temple was still hit with misfortune when a typhoon damaged it in 1950 and the shrine had to be restored again.
The Priest & The Creation of The Sculptures
It wasn’t until 1955 when the temple appointed a new priest, named Kocho Nishimura, did its fortunes truly begin to shift for the better and made Otagi the temple it is today.
Nishimura wasn’t just a priest but also a talented sculptor of Buddhist statues. He began the restoration process of renovating the temple and giving it a unique touch unlike any other shrines in Japan with a never-seen-before transformation.
Over a long process of 30 years, the sculptures took form, and during the 1980s it became the temple’s main project to surround the shrine with thousands of creative and happy “rakan” statues. What’s remarkable is that these statues were actually created by amateur artists who came to learn sculpting from Nishimura.
Nishimura encouraged his students to bring forth the unique, personal figures hiding in the stones and hence the 1200 whimsical Buddhist stone sculptures were born with their own set of personalities. Each statue is shown with different actions, hinting at the individual sculptor’s passion and hobbies.
Some figures can be seen reading a book to a child, laughing, or even holding a camera. There are also structures that look like twins and some playing musical instruments.
The temple continued Nishimura’s lineage with his son and grandson taking over the shrine today. They successfully keep Otagi alive by infusing art (like photography and music) to relay Budhha’s message across the world.
Things to do at Otagi Nenbutsu ji Temple
Otagi is a fascinating area surrounded by Kyoto’s green trees and towering mountains. Visitors can go around the temple structures to take in the unique art created by the hands of talented artists and Nishumura’s vision.
Today, visitors play a fun game of trying to find a face that resembles their own among the statues. The temple also hosts events happening across the year for those who love experiencing local traditions and culture.
You can witness the Autumn Festival with performers dressed as Tengus (Japanese folk creatures) who make their way noisily through the crowd while carrying wooden boards. These masked Tengus then draw arrows and shoot them through the sky. If you are lucky enough to find a fallen arrow, then it is said that luck and fortune will be with you.
You can also check out their new year and sacred bonfire events on their official website.
While there are plenty of places to go to in Kyoto, Otagi Nenbutsu ji Temple is undoubtedly one of the best temples in Japan to visit and will surely uplift your spirits.
Details about the temple
It only costs 300 yen to enter the temple
Its remote location keeps crowds away all year round so you have enough time and space to explore the place.
You can see all the access routes to reach the temple by clicking here