Ah, hanami season. The cherry blossoms are in bloom, and so are the tourists. It’s Kyoto after all. I love living here, it has so many wonderful places to visit, but…during certain times of the year, namely March and April, and all of November, this can be a difficult place to get around due to the sheer number of people in the more famous and/or picturesque locations. So when the blossoms are in bloom, or the leaves turn gold and red, I seek out the smaller, less-visited places.
One of those places is Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple, in the northern areas of Arashiyama. It’s not that far from the bamboo grove, but most people skip it, despite the nice walk down some beautiful streets, with their traditional Meiji-era machiya homes and shops (and no power lines). This temple is famous for the 8000 Buddhist statues that line the grounds here, in memory of those who have no one to look after their graves (similar to the large mound at Okunoin, in Koyasan).
This cemetery is old. Around 1300 years ago this area was used as a cemetery, where the dead were buried. However, corpses were also abandoned here, without a proper burial. Eventually in 811 Kobo Daishi (774-835) instructed that all the bones be collected and buried, and had a temple erected here. Centuries later, the monk Honen (1133-1212) had a dojo built so prayers (Nenbutsu) could be said to ease the souls of the dead. People continued to bury their dead here, marking the graves with small statues and stele, and it became a vast burial ground. In late August (the 23rd and 24th) thousands of candles are lit and prayers are said for the dead. It’s something I’ve always wanted to see, but I always seem to be out of the country at that time of year (and will be so again this year). Eventually I’ll make it out there to see it.
If you are out in this area, it’s worth walking an extra five minutes north to my favourite place in all of Kyoto: Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple. Now, this temple has had an unfortunate history (fires, typhoons, etc) and it was eventually rebuilt in this area in the early 20th century.
Later, in the early 1980s, the head priest there taught local people how to carve rakan (enlightened disciples of Buddha) statues and encouraged them to personalise them, which many did. While there are not as many statues as Adashino (only 1200 here), they are much more interesting to see.
This is a small place, but you can spend quite a long time looking at each of the small statues for all their quirks: the tennis player, the one with a Sony walkman, the photographer, the drinking buddies, etc. It’s in a quiet shady location, far from the hubbub of Arashiyama, and you’ll have a fun time looking at al the mossy little statues.
Monuments: For Adashino, it’s not really about any individual monument, but the sheer number of them here (over 8000). For Otagi, it’s all about the quirky personalities.
Grounds: Both sites are on hillsides, which means slopes and stairs. It’s not a problem for most people, but may be if you have mobility issues.
Visitors: Adashino had a few small groups visiting when I was there, Otagi had even less (although that was the busiest I had ever seen it). I think the only time it gets crowded here are during special events.
Notes: Bring your camera, especially for Otagi Nenbutsuji. Light can be patchy due to the tall trees in the area.
Site: Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple and Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple
Established: Adashino (811), Otagi (
Location: 17 Adashino-cho, Sagatoriimoto, Ukyo-ku (右京区嵯峨鳥居本化野町17). It’s about a 40-minute walk from Arashiyama station, but it’s easy to find and the route is along some very picturesque streets. Alternatively you can take bus 72 or 74 from Kyoto station and get off at Toriimoto stop, about a 5-minute walk away.
Hours: 09:30-16:30 March to December, until 15:30 January and February. Fee is 500 yen. Otagi Nenbutsuji is open until 17:00 and the entrance fee is 300 yen.