Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is a temple in Arashiyama with a collection of 1,200 Rakan Buddhist statues. It’s one of Kyoto, Japan’s most unique and, frankly, bizarre temples. In this post, we cover whether this off-the-beaten path temple is worth your time, details about its fascinating history, and also offer some tips for visiting.
Honestly, I’m still not quite sure what to make of Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple. It seems to toe the line between kawaii and spiritual, and I didn’t even realize such a line existed prior to visiting this temple. In that sense, it’s probably the most quintessentially Japanese temple of anything you can visit in Kyoto.
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple somehow manages to perfectly marry the spiritual traditions of Kyoto with the kawaii culture of modern Japan. In so doing, it’s not irreverent nor is it gimmicky. To the contrary, despite its seeming contradictions, there’s something about Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple that just feels right. It’s an enjoyable experience, and one apropos of contemporary Japanese culture.
When we visited Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple in 2018, we noticed that storms (we believe it was a typhoon, but are not totally sure) had once again damaged the hillside near the temple. While this did not harm the statues or the temple itself, there was visible mudslide damage on the adjacent hillside. Donations were being sought to help recover from this.
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple, originally called Otagi-ji Temple, was first built in the Otagi District (central present-day Kyoto) by Emperor Shotoku in the latter half of the 8th century. At the beginning of the Heian period, the temple buildings were washed away and devastated when the nearby Kamogawa River flooded.
The temple was re-established by Senkan Naigu, a priest of the Tendai sect, and became a branch of Enryakuji, a temple on the opposite side of Kyoto, perched atop Mount Hieizan. The principal image of the temple was (and remains) Yaku-yoke Senju Kannon, which is a thousand-armed Kannon that protects against bad luck. This statue was carved by Senkan Naigu himself.
Over a period of three years beginning in 1922, Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple was transfered to its present location in the Saga District, in order to preserve it. Due to its unique location in the foothills, it has been ruined and rebuilt numerous times by natural disasters such as typhoons.
In 1955, Kocho Nishimura, a statue sculptor and repairer who was a Buddhist monk himself, was ordered chief of the temple, and started reconstruction of Kyoto’s most oft-ruined temple. From 1981 until 1991, he oversaw reconstruction efforts that added 1,200 carved stone figures of Rakan (disciples of Shaka, the founder of Buddhism) made by people from various parts of Japan.
The statues produced by worshippers–who consisted of both professional and amateurs–have amusing and content expressions, and are meant to warm the heart of visitors to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple. Because of this, the temple is now known popularly as “the temple of healing.”
(Note: Not much info is available online about Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple, but parts of this history do contradict what can be found on other resources. The above history is sourced entirely from the English pamphlet provided to guests of the temple. I’ll take the temple’s own word over Wikipedia.)
Tips & Info
There are a few ways to get to Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple. If you’re not already in Arashiyama, you’ll likely want to take the JR San-In Line to Arashiyama Station, and then walk or take the bus from there. You can also take a bus from Kyoto Station, along with other spots in Kyoto. As with any destination in the city, Google Maps is your friend for finding the most efficient route.
Logically, most of you reading this will hopefully be following our 1-Day Western Kyoto Itinerary and will be walking to Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple. Irrespective of whether you use that itinerary or your own, walking from Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple or other spots in Arashiyama is the best option.
The foothills below the temple are lined with quiet lanes of machiya homes and you’ll pass through a giant torii gate located near a thatched-roof teahouse along the way. When it’s time to leave Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple, you can then use the convenient bus stop directly across from the temple.
Despite Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple’s relatively small footprint, expect to spend a decent amount of time here. Normally, you could be in and out of a temple this size in about 10-15 minutes. Here, you’ll want to linger, closely inspecting each of the statues.
Some will make you chuckle, as you wonder why one of them is wearing aviator goggles while gleefully holding a walkman, or peeking out from behind a mask, or holding seashells (I think), and so on. It’s fun to search for the oddball statues, and the prominence of some of the most whimsical ones demonstrate that Kocho-san surely had a sense of humor about the project.
You’ll come away with way more photos than you know what to do with, because these kawaii creations are irresistible. I took nearly 200 photos here and had a tough time narrowing down my photos for this post because there were so many different statues I liked and wanted to share.
Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple is open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. (last admission might occur 30 minutes before then), and admission costs 300 yen for adults. Kids under 15 years old are free.
Aside from this, we don’t have any other tips. It’s a pretty simple temple to see and explore.
I’m not sure to what extent a further review is necessary. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple is really interesting, and really different from every other temple in Kyoto.
It reminds me a bit of Yokai (Monster) Street, and although it’s not that bizarre, it’s not what you’d expect from the normally solemn confines of a temple.
And yet, it works. Kocho Nishimura must’ve been a genius art director, because how he managed to lead a bunch of amateurs to craft genuinely interesting and funny statues that were stylistically appropriate for a temple is really an impressive feat.
It probably doesn’t hurt that despite only being a few decades old, the statues look ancient, so maybe we’re more inclined to give their shenanigans a pass because of that?
Regardless of the reason, Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple succeeds both as a temple and an offbeat point of interest in Kyoto. Everyone should be able to find something to like about it.
One thing that everyone can appreciate is that Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple draws few visitors. If this temple were in the heart of Arashiyama, Higashiyama, or Downtown Kyoto, it would be swarmed with tour groups wielding selfie-sticks trying to capture photos of themselves with the funniest statues.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’d just be a far less pleasant experience were it crowded. Instead, it’s an intimate and peaceful experience, and its location just far enough out of the main tourist districts, but not so far it requires serious effort to visit, is perfect.
Overall, we don’t just like it–we love Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple. It’s refreshingly different, and the pleasant trek out to this hillside location means you’ll encounter very few other visitors. This temple is way better than the concept might sound, and is definitely in our top 25 things to do in Kyoto. Now, if we can just get someone to found “Tanuki Temple” that features statues of our favorite raccoon dog in comical poses, we’ll be all set. Given the ubiquity and variety of the tanuki statue in Kyoto, it seems only a matter of time before our seemingly far-fetched wish is fulfilled.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple? Did you think it was worth the walk (or bus ride) out here? Any favorite rakan that we missed? Would you recommend this temple to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!