In the hilly north-western corner of Arashiyama lies one of the most unique temples we saw in Kyoto, the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji. Where the attraction in other temples is either the architecture or the formal gardens, in Otagi Nenbutsu-ji what visitors come to see is the wonderfully whimsical art: namely, the Rakan statues covering the grounds, about 1,200 of them.
Rakan is the Japanese reading of Sanskrit ‘arhat,’ Buddhist disciples who have attained enlightenment. As a celebration of the diversity of the Buddha’s followers, each Rakan is unique, representing people from all walks of life: there is a mother-and-child set, two old drunks toasting each other, laughing monks, meditating monks, grumpy grandfathers with almost goblin-like features, even an unmistakable tengu face (tengu = crow-faced mountain spirits from Japanese mythology).
Kyoto urban legendry even claims that if you explore Otagi Nenbutsu-ji long enough, you’ll find a Rakan statue that looks just like you! The statues are entirely covered with moss, lending them a beautiful patina of age — even though they’re actually quite recent, most were made only in the 1980s by Kocho Nishimura and his students.
The temple can be reached from Kyoto Station by taking Bus #28 to Otagi-deramae bus stop, which is almost in front of the temple. This temple lies well off Arashiyama’s tourist track as it’s quite a distance uphill from the nearest temple (Adashino Nenbutsuji), so you’ll often find very few people here. Adashino Nenbutsuji makes a great contrast to Otagi Nenbutsuji, so we recommend visiting both. Where Otagi is all about whimsy, Adashino is somber, containing as it does a vast graveyard dedicated to those who died without kin.
Since it’s pretty high up, we recommend making this temple the start of your tour, then walk downhill and south along the Saga Toriimoto to Adashino Nenbutsuji and from there to Gio-ji, Nison-in, and further south to the Nonomiya Jinja and the Sagano bamboo path.
If you do this so that you hit the bamboo grove in the late afternoon and wait a bit, you can even have the grove mostly to yourself as the armies of bus tourists fade away.