Adashino Nenbutsu-ji 化野念仏寺

We walked under a cloudburst of the brightest autumn hues we had witnessed this far into the trip. We were at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji, and after a morning milling around thousands of other tourists at Tenryu-ji and Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove, we had ventured to the furthest periphery of Kyoto, where it meets the mountains and countryside beyond.

The temple sits along Saga-Toriimoto, a preserved street in the Sagano district of Arashiyama that is the visual definition of a vision of ‘yesteryear’. The whole Sagano (Saga) area is, in truth, with an abundance of temples and stone paved roads lined with wooden Machiya townhouses and thatched roofed Minka (farmhouses) harking back to the Meiji era. The occasional vending machine and kei car can somewhat shatter the illusion, but then a rickshaw puller will pass by with a carriage of kimono-clad women, and you’re transported straight back.

The Arashiyama and Sagano areas have been catering to tourists since the 9th century. When Kyoto was designated the imperial capital of Japan, the nobility of the time would visit to take in the natural beauty and colours of spring and autumn. But, it wasn’t always so scenic. Until the 9th century, much the area comprising Sagano was an unceremonious graveyard, a dumping ground for the corpses of those unfortunate enough to have passed, many unburied. It wasn’t until around the 800s that the bones of those long forgotten were laid to rest under the earth, thanks to the revered Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi (Kukai), and the founding of the temple that would become Adashino Nenbutsu-ji, making it, in essence, a cemetery.

It had cost 500 yen to enter the temple grounds: a standard fee. The information leaflet contained no English text, which I was relieved to see. If you can find an attraction in tourist-haven Kyoto that doesn’t cater to tourists speaking the ‘global language’, you’re sure to have found somewhere off the beaten path. The bamboo grove, however, was closed to the public, owing to a typhoon in the months prior, but they gave us a free postcard by way of compensation, to help us imagine the scene*. That’s not to say there weren’t tourists – this is Kyoto in at the peak of autumn, after all.

We took a rest on a log bench under the brocade of autumn colour. There wasn’t a green tree in sight, and the ground had been carpeted by the fallen koyo. We sat, glad to be able to hear a breeze in the trees and the gentle crinkle of leaves underfoot. Bordering the gravel path are shallow mossy verges with stone tablets sticking out of them like gravestones. Eroded figures protrude from the rock like ghosts with hints of human form, a precursor to the temple’s main attraction and purpose.

In the central courtyard of the temple, surrounding a tall stone pagoda, sits eight thousand small stone statues. They sit weathered and nameless, relics to remember the abandoned souls of those who’s light of life had been extinguished. Centuries later, every August, Sentō Kuyo, a two day festival (23rd-24th) returns light to them in the form of a thousand burning candles, the flames flickering to a chorus of buddhist sutras. I decided I must return one day to experience this.

I imagined it would be an eerie experience to stand among these small stony idols, their features weathered down to faceless mounds, but the tourists, both foreign and Japanese, wending their way through the statues and ignoring the ‘no photography beyond this point’ signs, seemed to take away any air of mystery the little figures held. We watched, slightly bemused, as a couple took selfies with, what are essentially, people’s graves.

(I implore any traveller reading this: don’t be that guy/girl.)

*Visited November 2018

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