The Little Stone Men of Kyoto

Otagi Nenbutsu Ji – A little stone man stands nestled in a forest. He is no taller than your knee. The little man has a green hat. His green hat is made of moss and grass. The stone man is happy and smiling. He is happy because he is surrounded by his many friends. There are hundreds of them hidden in the leafy woods of Arashiyama. You can find this small gentleman and his little friends in Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji, Kyoto, Japan.

One of our main reasons for visiting Arashiyama was not for the bamboo forest or the Togetsu-kyo Bridge. We wanted to find the temple with, as insidekyoto.com describes ‘a collection of 1200 unique and whimsical statues’.

The little men are in fact ‘rakan’ who represent Buddha’s disciples. Whilst they may look old due to their hats of moss they were only added to the temple in the 80ies. A priest named Kocho Nishimura took over the running of the temple in the mid 50ies after a devastating typhoon had caused significant damage to the buildings in 1950. Kocho Nishimura also happened to be skilful sculptor. He decided to let vistors to Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji carve their own rakan statue. Under his guidance, between 1981 and 1991, over 1200 individual statues were added to the temple.

No statue is the same due to them all having been created by different amateur artists. We particularly liked the two little men drinking Sake!

The temple is a little walk from Arashiyama station. We were soaked by the time we arrived there. The heavens had opened and poured many buckets of surprisingly cold rain on us. The joys of travelling in Japan during the monsoon season. Little did we know that two days later we would experience the force of typhoon winds swept across from the Pacific Ocean.

Regardless of the rain, the walk from the centre of Arashiyama is quite picturesque. We walked through the famous bamboo groves on our way. The groves were very busy however and after living in China and hiking through Bamboo groves, Arashiyamas bamboo path was slightly underwhelming.

After leaving the tourists behind you in the shade of the giant bamboos you follow a path through a residential area of Arashiyama. We glimpsed a taste of modern Japanese life coexisting in delicate harmony with the traditions of this ancient place. Newer architecture blended harmoniously with older buildings. We also saw locals creating beautiful lanterns out of paper on our journey.

Just before you arrive at the temple you walk along a quiet road. This street is lined with stunning wooden architecture.

The obligatory Torii gate was also standing proudly to welcome visitors. The photo below was taken on our way back to the centre after the sun finally decided to make an appearance.

As we reached Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji we brought our tickets for 300 Yen and entered. We barely saw any other tourists. We were visiting in the height of the summer holidays, yet this temple was almost empty!

Whilst the site is not huge we spent a good while here taking in our surroundings. We also took many photos with and of the little men of course. Alex and I both felt as if we had discovered a secret temple. This was one of our highlights of our visit to Japan.

It has such a peaceful and pleasant atmosphere surrounded by 1000s of smiling stone statues.

Alex also spotted a miniature frog, sitting silently on an emerald green leaf.

There is a bus or you can get a taxi to take you. If you decide to walk it is well worth the small trek from the centre of Arashiyama to reach this magical place.

How to do it yourself

Address: 2-5 Sagatoriimoto Fukatanicho, Ukyo-ku 右京区嵯峨鳥居本深谷町2-5
Opening hours: 8am – 5pm (Gate is closed at 4:45pm)
Admission: 300 yen
Official website: www.otagiji.com

Would you like to visit this secret temple deep in the heart of Japan?

Want to visit Kyoto but worried about the crowds? Click here to find out how to visit a secret temple few tourists visit.

16 Replies to “The Little Stone Men of Kyoto”

  1. Just when I think I’ve seen all the best photos of Japan, I see some more! The little men statues are amazing, and so unique too. I love the one where they’re drinking sake too! I don’t think you can ever see a bad photo of Japan. Just stunning!

  2. I was not in Japan. When I read your article, I want to see everything in my own eyes. Great article, beautiful pictures.

  3. I have never heard of these guys.

  4. I would surely like to see them. They are so cute!

  5. Omg this place looks magical!! Everything is beautiful. I would love to visit Tokyo. Thank you for sharing!

  6. The tiny frog is something that I would definitely appropriate. Can’t wait to visit Japan. Thanks for inspiration and tips

  7. I just saw an episode about this temple on the Japanese channel we get. They didn’t go into much detail about how the men were made so I’m thrilled to learn the backstory. I’d love to see this for myself one day!

  8. LOVE your photos and now totally inspired to go visit and see the little stone men of Kyoto for myself. The lush green and moss add such an amazing contrast and feeling to the stone statues.

  9. I love secret spots! Definitely would visit this temple. That miniature frog reminds me of chocolate frogs in Harry Potter! The two little men drinking Sake is my favourite! They seem like they are having a ball!

  10. 1200 little statues is so hard to fathom, until seeing the picture of you standing in front of maybe 50 at once? They are so cute! I love the little guys drinking Sake too

  11. I absolutely love the idea of letting visitors carve their own rakans for a whole decade. Makes it so much more unique and personal!

    Where in China did you guys live? We are in Shenzhen 🙂

  12. That’s beautiful. They do indeed look very happy in their surroundings, and who can blame them? Your sake drinking pair are fabulous. I love how nature has claimed them over the decades too.

  13. These stone men are so fascinating. Each of them have different expressions. Can I pick the same favorite as yours…the two little men drinking Sake.

  14. They do in fact look much older! My kids would absolutely love this, and it would be an adventure of seeing just how many we could spot. And the ones drinking sake are definitely super cute and just radiate happiness. I’d love to visit for myself!

  15. The temple of Otagi Nenbutsu Ji is indeed a hidden gem. You have unveiled a lovely treasure. The stone men look so cute and intriguing. I was surprised to read that they were installed in the 80’s. I thought they were ancient. Love the expressions on their faces. Great to know that they were all created by amateur sculptors/

  16. I love these little stone men! I had never heard of this before. Kyoto is high on my list, I’m just dying to go next year.

Leave a Reply