Finding peace at Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, Japan
On our second morning in Kyoto, we decided to take a train to Arashiyama to see the famous bamboo forest. I had heard that it was likely to be touristy but still needed to see it for myself.
All the photos I had ever seen made it seem like such a serene place, and I wanted to experience that first hand. I wanted to be enveloped with the healing power of green, to breathe it in and bathe in it, and to find moments of inner peace and stoicism.
Turns out, I was so wrong.
We left our hostel and walked down the quiet neighborhood streets of Kyoto for about 15 minutes to the train station. We boarded our train toward the Arashiyama district, southwest of Kyoto’s city center, nestled against Arashiyama Mountain.
The train whizzed past neighborhood after neighborhood. To my untrained eye, every stop looked the same. We off-boarded and discovered we’d have no problem navigating as 90% of the crowd headed in a single direction. We had high confidence if we followed, we’d eventually find the bamboo forest.
A brief break in the crowd
15 minutes later, we had arrived, and I immediately knew we had gotten there too late. Crowds were forming at the entrance of a wide paved path marked by hedges of golden brown straw; the dense stalks of bamboo parting like the Red Sea. Tourists took their time, bottlenecking in spots to take selfies. We ambled slowly behind the group in front of us, but ultimately grew impatient and weaved our way past the herd. Everywhere, phones and cameras were pointed up at the trees. I looked around and realized everyone was taking the same photos, one right after another.
As I strolled along, I could not find one redeeming quality of this place. There was no peace here. There was no pausing for moments of self-reflection or enlightenment. You simply had to move along or risk being the a-hole who clogged up the path.
I felt heavy with disappointment as we neared the end of the incredibly short trek. The forest is actually quite small and disappointingly muted compared to the photoshopped and oversaturated photos of the internet.
After we made it through the gauntlet, the path came to a juncture. We had a decision to make; Go left with the crowd, and explore more gardens or go right and head toward Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji, a lesser-known temple about 1.5 miles away. I felt the flutters of anxiety over another overcrowded temple, but it did not outweigh my hopes of walking amongst hundreds of mossy statues. My decision was made, and we ventured right.
We crossed over another set of train tracks and quickly found ourselves alone for the first time all morning in a quiet neighboorhood. We ambled along a narrow lane in the morning sun, admiring the craftsmanship and design of the Japanese style houses. Short mossy-stoned walls lined our path, bamboo fences marked the entrances to homes with traditional Japanese Kawara tiled roofs. I admired each bamboo reed fence and every wooden entryway and wondered how long they had been there.
A store front in the middle of this Arashiyama district neighborhood
Soon enough, local shops and restaurants appeared on corners or in the middle of long blocks. They nearly blended in with the neighboring houses, save for the larger front windows and open doors.
Tanuki statues at the entrance of a pottery store
We rounded a corner and happened upon a pottery shop. As we approached, I nearly squealed with excitement at the sight of several 4-foot tall tanuki statues standing out front, grinning with bulging eyes and toothy grins.
I spent the next 15 minutes examining every shelf cluttered with tanuki, owls, and frog figurines to find something that spoke to me. I desperately wanted an 8-inch tanuki, but I didn’t have the energy to carry it and make sure it didn’t break for the duration of our trip, so I decided to look for a something small. I picked up a small one, no larger than the palm of my hand and heard a light jingle. Turning it upside, down, I discovered that it was made into a ceramic bell. Instantly I knew this was the one. I brought it up to the register, purchased it, and placed it safely in my camera bag before moving onward.
As the sun rose higher in the sky and our stomachs began to grumble. We found the only open restaurant and stepped inside. It looked like it had once been a front room of a house and it had been transformed into a breakfast and lunch spot. We looked around and found it was empty. Suddenly, I was reminded of the awkward night in Akita, when we ate sushi in a random deserted mall restaurant at 7 pm at night. But our stomachs were too hungry to push onward without sustenance.
An elderly woman appeared a moment later and directed us to sit at a nearby table. I sat and heard the familiar squeal of a worn leather lounge chair. The tables had crisp white linens with matching white napkins. Behind me, the sunlight streamed in through a wall of windows, warming my back and banishing the shadows of an otherwise dark interior.
It took 30 seconds for me to realize the menu had nothing I wanted, but we had no desire to get up and leave without ordering, so I decided to have ice cream for breakfast. Jeremy ordered an egg salad sandwich. We devoured our food quickly and paid our bill. I was eager to continue on our quest toward Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji.
Once we finally made it to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, we realized to our delight that it was virtually empty. My hope that this gem was too far off the beaten track for most to bother was validated.
Peaceful silence welcomed me at the entrance. I paused to acknowledge it’s presence and slowly stepped into it, beyond the threshold, shedding all the tension in my body, and quieting my mind.
Nearby, a low gong reverberated through the air. The trees almost hummed, looking as though they had absorbed that mystical sound their entire life. We climbed a few steps along a hill and spotted the first statues sinking into the hillside at a slant. We came to a fork and chose the path to the right, which sloped down to reveal a small waterfall.
As we descended, we saw row after row of whimsical statues covered in moss. I walked past each narrow row silently, taking my time, trying to memorize each unique, quirky expression. Some were laughing, some were frowning, and some had their eyes closed in contentment.
The pamphlet at the entrance told a long history of misfortune befalling Otagi Nenbutsu-ji. It had been initially constructed in the 770s in a different location but was washed away by a flood. After being rebuilt a few more times over the centuries, it was finally renovated to its current state back in the 1950s by a new head priest named Kocho Nishimura.
As we read more about Otagi, we backtracked to the fork and headed to the left path and came across a giant gong. We rang it timidly, feeling the reverberations in our chest before moving on. Farther down the way, the main shrine came into view. We sat in silence on a wooden platform listening to a small trickle of water from a fountain and studying all the faces of even more statues. I could have sat there for hours, drawing each figure.
We noticed the presence of more people and decided it was time to go. We had our moment of peace, and it was time to share and let others experience the silence. We exited the temple and turned around and bowed, silently thanking the temple for the spiritual healing.
As we left, more and more tourists approached in taxis and buses. We looked at each other, feeling intense pride that we had made the pilgrimage to this peaceful spot on foot.
We walked back the way we came through the quiet neighborhood, feeling a bit lighter. We felt rewarded for our effort and grateful we had not given up on our quest to find a moment of inner peace in Kyoto.
By the time we got back downtown, we were ready to find some late lunch and rest our aching feet. We recounted our morning adventures over a bowl of steaming ramen near our hostel. Though we were tired, we knew we had little time left to enjoy Kyoto. The next morning we would be boarding a train for a day trip to Hikone and then moving on to Osaka. We resolved to take a quick rest in our hostel, then headed back out into the night to explore the narrow streets of Pontocho Alley.