Monday, 26 November 2012

The Curious Statues of Arashiyama

With the autumn leaf season upon us again (October/November), Jules and I decided to head to the nearby town of Arashiyama to enjoy the colour and festivities that usually surround major seasonal changes in Japan. In fact it’s a very popular little town all year round in any case, as the scenic mountains and fast flowing river attracts regular visitors keen to enjoy the combination of scenic beauty, temples, quaint shops and eating establishments. While traditional flat bottomed boats regularly transport tourists from the up stream town of Kameoka  to Arashiyama itself, a fleet of energetic rickshaw drivers run couples to the various attractions in and around the town. Being just a short train ride from Osaka and even closer for the residents of Kyoto, it remains one of the most visited areas in the Kansai region. There was certainly plenty of evidence of that on the day we were there, with thousands descending on the little town for a pleasant family day.

 In the centre of Arashiyama is the world heritage listed Tenryuji Temple that dates back to 1300 AD and is regarded as one of the great examples of Zen architecture in the Kyoto area. It is also surrounded by a magnificent bamboo grove where you can follow a winding path and be dwarfed by beautiful towering lengths of bamboo plants that stretch high into the sky as to almost block it out. This walk alone attracts thousands of visitors to the temple grounds, yet for us it was only a slight diversion from the real reason we were visiting Arashiyama.

On one of her many internet searches into the Kansai region, Jules had read about a lesser known temple with a particularly unique feature that had sparked her curiosity. The Otagi Nenbutsu-ji temple is very small and sits at the northern outskirts of town, at the edge of the nearby mountain range. It is a little further to walk to than most of Arashiyama’s temples, which makes it far less visited and often quieter than the towns larger and better known Buddhist attractions. However, what makes this temple unique is the garden that surrounds it, which is filled with over 1200 stone statues of disciples of Buddha. This might sound all very solemn and serious, but these are possibly the most whimsical statues that you are ever likely to see in a Buddhist temple anywhere. While the original temple dates back to the thirteenth century, the carved figures where added relatively recently, in the 1980’s. Not that you would be aware of that from their immediate appearance. They look much older, weathered from seasonal rains as well as the moss and lichen giving them an increased sense of age and in some cases, an almost unrecognizable quality. Closer inspection however, began to reveal some of the more interesting and endearing features of these figures, which were lovingly carved by local amateurs. There are some wonderful facial expressions that reveal the distinctly individual nature of each piece. Each has its own unique pose; some in peaceful contemplation, some in small joyous groups and some even involved with contemporary pursuits like photography, tennis, boxing and playing guitar. We even spotted one listening to a walkman! We found that the charming nature of these carvings were far less ‘stony-faced’ than western styled religious iconography and they seemed to say much about the warmth and optimistic nature of Buddhist faith.

As you can imagine, we ended up spending quite some time wandering around the various levels of the gardens trying to determine the story behind each little character. Like the other visitors there on the day, Jules’ just couldn’t resist photographing as may of them as possible as they stood nestled in their natural setting as colourful autumn leaves fell all around.

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