This January and February, 17 Buddhist temples – many of them only open to the public with prior reservations – are opening the doors to their main worship halls on the weekends. The residential streets of Naramachi, near Nara Park, are filled with small temples that house some impressive and interesting statuary and art as well as decorated devotional spaces that are rarely seen by the general public or visitors from abroad. Those who venture out to explore the Kitamachi district (North Town, on the north side of Nara Kintetsu train station) are also still few, so this is an ideal opportunity to get to know some rarely-accessible hidden treasures of Nara.
Many of the temples in the historical district of Naramachi were sub-temples of the important Gangoji temple, the oldest temple in Nara City and first in Japan (and now a World Heritage site) and once part of its precincts, vaster in the past than they are today. When one walks these streets, one is walking on top of layers of history: beneath the ground are lost elements of Gangoji’s complex, and with excavations ongoing, the Golden Hall, an auditorium, a belfry, and many other remains have already been unearthed.
Wandering around the little streets of Naramachi helps one to join the dots of history. The area closer to the Kasuga primeval forest was once the residential land of the Shinto priests who served at the grand shrine Kasugataisha while that nearer to the great temples (and major tourist attractions) of Todaiji and Kofukuji was that of the Buddhist priests connected to ancient Gangoji temple. Some of these have since converted sect from that of the esoteric practiced by Gangoji. The intriguing Saikoin temple is one such case, having switched from esoteric Buddhism to the Kegon school, and has a statue of esoteric priest Kūkai on its altar clad, unusually, in a fabric robe. Statues of naked figures wrapped in robes are rare and were only made between the 13th to 15th centuries, and those of Kukai rarer still. Within the esoteric tradition he is believed to be still living in a state of meditation, and the dressed appearance of the statue may have been intended to accentuate the idea of animation, or at least refer to the belief. On either side of this icon hang complex mandala paintings, essential to esoteric doctrine and practice. A 1548 statue of Jizo Bodhisattva stands here too, whose sculptor was associated with Nara’s most famous temple, Todaiji, another rare Kegon Buddhist institution. Temples and statues, people and places are interlinked, and those links become clearer as one explores the sites.
Saikoin temple, Naramachi
The remains of Shotoin, believed to date all the way back to the founding of the same Todaiji in the 8th century are found a short walk away. All that is left of it, having been largely destroyed in a 15th century fire (caused by a revolt for debt cancellation) that razed much of the area around Gangoji temple, is a small devotional hall almost hidden among trees and foliage enshrining Kokuzo Bodhisattva. This is an esoteric Buddhist deity connected to supernormal powers of memory. Before Kokuzo stretches out an altar fully furnished with flower, leaf, rice, and water offerings, and an unusual circle of tiny pagodas which are probably an acknowledgement of the alleged link with an offering of many such mini-pagodas, each containing a tiny sacred text, by Empress Shotoku in the 8th century. The hall is full of treasures and ritual tools, and because this is a well-maintained ruin, the little hall amid the trees has a dream-like ambience that differs from that of other temples with their pristine and regular upkeep – an otherworldly enchantment of its own.
Entrance to Shotoin, Naramachi
Interior of worship hall in Shotoin, Naramachi
Other temples are devoted to Amida Buddha of the Pure Land school that became popular in the medieval period and is well-developed and widespread today. One of these is Shokoji, once a hermitage related to the far more esoteric Gangoji temple (like others in the area). The interior, though, is in immense contrast to the esoteric décor and ritual apparatus of Saikoin and Shotoin, with layer upon layer of gleaming golden structure and detail – as overwhelmingly gorgeous as the Pure Land paradise it references. The main icon, Amida Buddha, dates back to the Heian period (8th-12th century).
Shokoji and its gate guardian, Naramachi
Golden altar and icon of Shokoji temple, Naramachi
The opportunity to view the interior worship halls of these temples gives a sense of the breadth of types of Buddhism practiced in Japan and knots together the originally enormous complexes of Gangoji and Todaiji with the temples once a more integral part of them. And it gives a rare glimpse into the local life of Nara, a revelation of quiet splendours concealed behind normally closed doors.
There are also many hidden gems along the routes that connect one temple to the next – in the form of cafes and restaurants scattered around the streets -among others, cafes Bolik (pictured below), Yo, and Cha-no-yu (pictured below), and somen noodle restaurant Somen Dokoro Suru-suru.
Cha-no-yu cafe, Naramachi
Bolik cafe, Naramachi
A pleasant day could be spent beginning with a visit to Gangoji where it all began, followed by a stroll around the sub-temples interspersed with lunch and coffee, Naramachi-style. Depending on one’s itinerary, other sites around the area such as townhouse Koshi-no-ie, the Harushika sake brewery, or novelist Shiga Naoya’s house are near enough to be included in a day visit.
After viewing, one can receive a “Go-shuin” (literally “honourable red seal”) on request, which is an inked stamp and handwritten certification of having visiting a temple or shrine. Each one unique, these are often sought after by pilgrims and enthusiasts of sacred sites in Japan and they make interesting – and artistic – souvenirs of a visit.
The open days run every Saturday and Sunday from 12:30-16:30, ending on February 29th.
The separate sets of temples open for January and February are as follows:
January: Saikoin, Shotoin, Saifukuji, Shokoji, Hotokuji, Jokokuin, Amidaji, Shofukuji.
February: Kozenji, Shonenji, Gokoin, Korinji, Tanjoji, Nenshoji, Kontaiji, Tokuyuji, Kukaiji.
Official event website (with maps):
With the exception of Amidaji, Gokoin, and Tanjoji which charge an entrance fee of 500 yen, all the temples are free throughout the open-day period.
Assistants provide information and most temples offer guidance in English.