Kyoto’s beauty and charm cannot be denied. However, it has led to a rather serious case of overtourism, so much so that in order to disperse traffic, the Government has now begun promoting more off-the-beaten-track destinations previously untapped by tourists. While Arashiyama is one of Kyoto’s biggest tourist hotspots, we think it’s still possible to experience a sense of tranquillity there. The key? You guessed it: get off the main drag. One spot we recommend is Otagi Nenbutsuji, an 8th century Buddhist temple featuring 1,200 whimsical stone rakan statues throughout the grounds and a head priest who has composed over 40 synth albums. Intrigued?   

Otagi Nenbutsuji is located in Arashiyama, Kyoto and is famous for its 1,200 stone rakan figures. Get off the beaten track and explore!

First of all, the setting can’t be beat. Otagi Nenbutsuji is located at the base of Mount Atago in the charming Saga-Torīmoto preserved village, 2.8km uphill from JR Saga-Arashiyama Station. It’s just far enough to deter many day-trippers, which makes it perfect for those averse to crowds. Though you could walk there in under an hour, we’d recommend getting dropped off by taxi or bus and walking downhill afterwards. It pays to save your energy because there’s plenty to explore in the area!

Getting to Otagi Nenbutsuji

Otagi Nenbutsuji: Like a phoenix from the ashes 

Like many temples in Japan, Otagi Nenbutsuji has a long history of destructions, rebuilds and relocations. It was originally founded in 766 in Higashiyama, but was moved to its current spot in Arashiyama in 1922. Sadly, the temple fell victim to many more natural disasters even after the move. Though there are centuries of dates and details, we’ll jump ahead to when the Nishimura family came into the picture. 

In 1955, forty year old Kocho Nishimura was appointed the new chief of Otagi Nenbutsuji. This accomplished Buddhist sculptor and teacher at Tokyo University of the Arts was tasked with the job of restoring the temple, and these efforts in the 1980s brought a new level of attention to this quiet corner of Kyoto.  

Otagi Nenbutsuji is located in Arashiyama, Kyoto and is famous for its 1,200 stone rakan figures. Get off the beaten track and explore!

The 1,200 Rakan

The project that captured attention was the creation of 1,200 stone statues depicting rakan, the followers of Buddha. It proved quite a task for one sculptor, so Nishimura enlisted the help of amateur artists from all over Japan who came to learn and practise the art of stone carving. It’s thanks to this variety of artists that the 1,200 statues are all so wonderfully unique. Some depict the likeness or a hobby of the sculptors themselves, while others are memorials representing loved ones. This video shows footage of the project underway. It’s great to see the rakan before they accumulated their characteristic green moss. 

Strolling through the grounds, you’re delighted over and over again by the craftsmanship, personalities and humour of the collection. It’s fun to try to pick your favourite, and we bet you’ll take an obscene amount of photos, just as we did. 

Like father, like son

Also helping with the restoration project in the 1980s was Nishimura’s son, Kouei, who had followed in his father’s footsteps to become a priest at Otagi Nenbutsuji. Decades later, Kouei is now the head priest and continues his father’s legacy of expressing the principles of Buddhism artistically. Kouei’s method of religious expression, however, is music. Incredibly, he has released over 40 albums of soothing synthetic soundscapes based on Buddhist imagery. Think nature sounds, space travel, and meditation. If you’re curious, you can find him on YouTube here or pick up one of his CDs at the temple ticket booth.

Aside from the statues, the small temple grounds are lovely to explore with lush plant-life and beautiful structures. 

Cherry blossoms at Otagi Nenbutsuji

Exploring the wider area 

When you’re ready to stroll through Saga-Torīmoto preserved village, some Kouei Nishimura in your headphones serves as the perfect accompaniment. Follow the winding road down past charming homes, restaurants, shops and bask in the traditional aesthetic of thatched roofs, rain chains, and perfectly landscaped yards. 

Saga-Torīmoto preserved village, Arashiyama, Kyoto
Scenes from Saga-Torīmoto preserved village
Saga-Torīmoto preserved village, Arashiyama, Kyoto

After just a few minutes, you’ll come across Adashino Nenbutsuji. This hillside temple has another large collection of stone statues, not to mention sweeping views of Kyoto and its own small bamboo grove. This one, however, is much quieter than the well-known bamboo forest near the station, and we bet you’ll enjoy it more. Admission is ¥500 for adults.

Adashino Nenbutsuji, Arashiyama, Kyoto
Exploring Adashino Nenbutsuji
Bamboo at Adashino Nenbutsuji, Arashiyama, Kyoto

If you’re feeling a little peckish and want to enjoy a meal before rejoining the crowds of the main street, there are a few places to eat on this stretch of your journey. We enjoyed the soba as well as the ambience at Azasino

Azashino Soba exterior
Azashino interior

Other quiet pockets of Kyoto

A few other quiet spots to check out in Arashiyama include Nison-in and Daihikaku Senkoji. If you’re interested in experiencing more Buddhist culture, book ahead for a Bib Gourmand vegan meal at Shigetsu prepared by the monks at Tenryū-ji.  

In wider Kyoto, we would encourage you to look for an adventure off the beaten track. There are plenty of spots, trust us. As a starting point, have a look at our articles on the famous tea-producing region of Uji or the UNESCO listed seaside village of Ine.  

Many curious adventures await if you just explore a little further.

Entrance to Otagi Nenbutsuji

How to get to Otagi Nenbutsuji

From JR Saga-Arashiyama Station, a taxi takes five minutes and costs approximately ¥1,000. The bus takes around 25 minutes and costs around ¥230 per person. Make your way to the Nonomiya bus stop and take bus #62, 72, 92, or 94 bound for Kiyotaki, getting off at “Otagi Dera Mae” bus stop.  

Name: Otagi Nenbutsuji (愛宕念仏寺)
Address: 2-5 Sagatoriimoto Fukatanicho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8439
Open: 08:00am–4:30pm daily
Admission: ¥400. Free if under 15 years old. 

Post by Japan Journeys.