The Fascinating Otagi Nenbutsu-ji

Arashiyama in Kyoto, also known as the mountain across the Ōi River, is a nationally designated Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty (a collective term used by the Japanese government’s Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties to denote Cultural Properties of Japan.) Found in the quiet Arashiyama neighborhood is Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, a Buddhist temple that is most unique.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji was founded by Empress Kōken, also known as Empress Shōtoku, the 46th Empress of Japan. She reigned as Empress Kōken from 749 to 758.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, Arashiyama, Japan. | bethom33

Following the Fujiwara no Nakamaro Rebellion, she reascended the throne as Empress Shōtoku from 765 until her death in 770. She was the sixth of eight women to take on the role of empress regnant in the entire history of Japan. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is most famous for the collection of 1200 Rakan statues standing on the temple grounds. The statues are said to represent the disciples of the historical Buddha.

The original Otagi Temple was initially built in the Higashiyama area in 770. The temple however, was destroyed when the Kamo-gawa River flooded. During the Heian period (794-1192), the temple was rebuilt in north-east Kyoto. The civil war in the midst of the 13th century caused major damage again to the temple. Through the years, the temple fell into ruins and only three structures remained, the main hall, the Jizo Hall and the temple gate. In 1922, drastic measures were taken to preserve what was left of Otagi Nenbutsu-ji.

Preserved Otagi temple structure, Kyoto, Japan. | Patrick Vierthaler

The temple’s structures were dismantled and reassembled in its present location. Otagi Nenbutsu-ji was yet again put to the test in 1950 when a major typhoon caused massive damage to the temple.

Despite the damage to Otagi Temple, it still remains standing today. At its gate stands two Nio statues that greet visitors at the entrance. Inside are the 1200 rakan stone statues that keep with rakan traditions.

Rakan statues, Japan. | 663highland

The statues were donated in 1981 in honor of the refurbishment of the temple. They were mostly carved by hundreds of sculptors, amateur and professional, who were taught by the famous sculptor, Kocho Nishimura. The sculptures are fascinating to observe. Each one has a different expression, unique in its own right, and bears the artist’s imprint.