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
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.
Acting like silent guardians of the hillside, an entire wall of rakan sculptures welcome you to the temple.
While most of them are smiling, there are sculptures that sport different kinds of quirky expressions, encapsulating the entire span of human emotions.
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.
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.
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.
The entire place feels untouched by the modern world, with only time and the elements as its patrons.
Artistic restoration project over three generations
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).
After Buddhist statue sculptor-turned-monk Kocho Nishimura was appointed to be the temple chief, he began the temple’s artistic transformation in 1981.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.