Otagi Nenbutsuji

Who Made the Statues at
Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple, Arashiyama, Kyoto
(see above photos)

Nishimura Kōchō (1915-1989) 西村公朝 was a famous modern carver of Buddha statues and restored many old statues at various temples. He wrote many books about Buddhist statuary and appeared often on Japanese national TV programs to talk on the subject of appreciating Buddhist statues. Born on June 4 (1915) in Osaka, he later studied art at the Tokyo University of Arts. For a time, during WW2, he was in China. Once he returned to Japan, he began his lifework of restoring the many statues of Kannon and other deities located at the famous Kyoto temple named Sanjusan Gendo 三十三間堂. When he was 37, he became a fully ordained priest of the Tendai sect but continued to pursue his restoration work and his own carvings. In 1955 he was appointed head priest at Otagi Nenbutsu Ji Temple 愛宕念仏寺 in Kyoto, a rather worn-down place when he took over. During his tenure at the temple, he invite lay people and showed them how to carve simple stone statues. These statues (the so-called “1200 Arhats”) now adorn the temple grounds. A temple visit is highly recommended for anyone visiting Kyoto. Nishimura taught at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and the Hieizan University of the Tendai Sect. In 1986, he received the honorable title Tendai Daibusshi Hōin 天台大仏師法印 (lit. Great Sculptor of Buddha Statues), the highest rank given to statuary artists but one not bestowed for many years prior to Nishimura. He died on December 2, 2003, at the age of 89 years.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple in Arashiyama, Kyoto
Below text (& above photos) courtesy Ed Jacob
See Ed’s original page at: Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple

Arashiyama is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful neighbourhoods, and hundreds of thousands of tourists visit there every year, but unfortunately, almost no one ever makes it to the area’s most interesting temple. It’s called Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, and it has some of the funniest, most fascinating and beautiful Buddhist sculptures in the entire country.

Originally founded by Emperor Shotoku in the middle of the eighth century, this temple has had some seriously bad luck. It was first built in the Higashidera area of Kyoto, but was destroyed by a flood of the Kamo River, and was rebuilt as a branch of Enryaku-ji, the famous Tendai sect temple on Mt. Hiei. Its main hall was burned to the during a civil war in the thirteenth century, and after moving to its present location in 1922, it suffered severe damage in a typhoon.

From the road, Otagi Nenbustu-ji looks like a very ordinary temple, but after passing through the gate, with its two typically terrifying Nio statues (the fierce looking guardians one often finds at the entrance to temples), you will notice two more Nio, and these definitely tend toward the cute, rather than the ferocious end of the spectrum.

These kawaii guardians are just the beginning though, and there are more than 1200 statues on the temple’s grounds. Walking up the path to the main hall, there are dozen or so strange little faces peering down at you, most of them half-hidden in the tall grass. Although they will give you some hint of the strangeness you are about to encounter, most visitors are still shocked when they see the hundreds of bizarre figures carved in grey stone by the main hall of the temple.

These statues are called rakan, and they represent the 500 disciples of Buddha. Although many Buddhist sculptures are carved to represent exquisite beauty or terrifying ferociousness, rakan almost always seem to be carved in the spirit of humour and good fun. There are also Rakan-ji temples in Otaru (Hokkaido) and Oita (Kyushu) with carvings every bit as bizarre as those at Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, but the statues here are special because most of them were made by amateur carvers.

In 1981, when the 1950 typhoon damage was finally repaired, worshippers at the temple decided to donate rakan sculptures to the temple in honour of its refurbishing. A famous sculptor, Kocho Nishimura taught hundreds of sculptors, amateur and professional alike how to carve statues from stone, and the result is a delightful mix of serene and scary, somber and silly.

Spend a few hours there and see if you can find the surfing Buddha, the two tipplers, the saxophone player, the photographer and the disciple doing a handstand. Since the installation of the Rakan, a custom has evolved among visitors to the temple of trying to find a statue that resembles your own face. It can be fun, but you may be in for a shock if you go with someone else and are suddenly told that the buck-toothed, bowl cut-sporting statue with a nose the size of a potato looks a lot like you.

The temple must be one of the mossiest, most eroded places in Kansai, and walking its grounds, one has the distinct impression that man is fighting a losing battle with nature here. All in all it’s a very mysterious place, always a little dark and always the moss on the statues and the way they are being eroded just adds to the atmosphere.