The Mandala, Gardens, and Rituals of Taima-dera Temple

Taima-dera (Taima Temple), located in the City of Katsuragi, is an ancient temple complex featuring marvelous works of Buddhist art, traditional architecture, and a serene garden that can be explored on foot by visitors. Along with these amazing aspects, it is also a location that can be considered “off the beaten track,” due in part to its somewhat remote location, making it a great place to visit for those seeking to escape the crowds in the nearby tourist hubs of Osaka and Nara City. And this year the temple’s impressive cultural heritage is to be honoured when its annual ritual, the “Nerikuyo” will be designated a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property. The Nerikuyo is a highlight in the ritual calendar of the temple, and makes for an unusual and valuable opportunity for a visitor, in addition to the riches already offered by Taima-dera’s art, architecture, and gardens. Taima-dera’s off-the-beaten-track location means it is a normally tranquil destination and almost a hidden secret for those who make the trip (despite not being far from the major hubs), but its many treasures are really unmissable for those who love ancient tradition, art, Buddhism, and theatrical rituals. This year the Nerikuyo takes place on April 14th this year – please see our feature here for more details.


Taima Temple’s origins are rooted in the introduction of Buddhism as a belief system into Japan, with ties to the Buddhist leader Prince Shotoku and the mountain ascetic En no Gyoja, both highly respected and influential religious figures of Japan’s ancient past. That being said, perhaps the most famous story associated with this temple is that of Princess Chujo, a folk hero of the 8th century who is thought to have been exceedingly pious and witnessed the creation of the Taima Mandala, a designated National Treasure that has been replicated multiple times throughout Japanese history.


The current front entrance gate to Taima Temple.


Nestled in space between the forest and civilization on the northern end of the Kongo Mountain Range, the scenery surrounding Taima Temple is beautiful enough on its own merit. Mt. Nijo ( meaning “twin peak mountain”) stands just to northwest of the complex, from which the marching ridgeline of the range continues southward where it eventually reaches peak elevation at Mt. Kongo above Nara’s Gojo City. These mountains were crucial for the development of mountain asceticism in Japan since ancient times and it is said that Taima Temple was the where En no Gyoja (634 – 706 CE) established his first training ground not long after the temple was founded in 612 CE.





Prince Maroko, brother to the leader Prince Shotoku, is believed to have established the temple after the Soga-Mononobe Conflict, the result of which cemented Buddhism’s place in Japan as the ruling religious tradition of the time. The temple’s origins in this formational time of Japanese society and culture makes it one of the oldest and most intriguing temples in the country, alongside other ancient temples of Nara Prefecture, including Asuka Temple and Horyu Temple.



Housed within the temple complex are a number of ancient works of art and architectural marvels that have somehow remarkably survived through fires and the general wear and tear of time. Arguably the most prominent of these treasures is the Taima Mandala (763 CE), a huge image depicting the Pure Land of Amida Buddha constructed out of lotus threads that can still be seen to this day in the main hall (though the image itself has considerabley faded for understandable reasons). The ancient age of this work of textile art is astounding, as it is the oldest mandala image of its kind in the country and something truly unique and worth the visit to the temple on its own. According to the temple description, this mandala served as an important visual representation of Buddhism in a time when many people were not literate enough to understand written information about the faith.



The Taima Mandala is also associated with Princess Chujo, a royal figure from the powerful Fujiwara Clan of the Nara / Heian periods who was said to have been adopted to by the nuns of Taima Temple. She is considered a living Buddha of her time and also a sort of patron saint / inventor of embroidery in Japan. It is said that she was witness to the creation of the Taima Mandala by the direct hand of two Buddhist deities (Kannon and Amida) who created it while disguised as nuns of the temple.


Statue of Princess Chujo at Taimadera Temple.



Besides the mandala, the temple has many other treasures; too many in fact to describe in this blog, but include one of the oldest temple bells, the oldest stone lantern in the country, two Late Nara/Heian period three-story pagodas, and the oldest clay statue of the deity Miroku (also the oldest surviving clay Buddhist statue in the country), just to name just some of the amazing artwork that can be seen on display here.


This stone lantern is stated to be the oldest in the country, dating back to sometime before the Heian period (pre-9th century).



There are also the beautiful gardens which are built around the back (west) side of the temple which can be explored for a small entrance fee. Walking through the different immaculately arranged plants, hedges and other natural features of this garden seems to put one’s mind at ease. In fact, this garden, like the Taima Mandala, is also meant to be a representation of the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, so the creators must of wanted to give the place a serene feeling, and I would say they very much succeeded.  One section of the gardens features a tranquil pond with koi fish swimming lazily about in an artificial environment that contrasts fascinatingly with the wild forest that stands on the garden’s western edge.




These days, written information (in the form of leaflets) in a variety of languages is available at Taima-dera and spoken guidance in English is also available here. The staff is very accommodating and friendly, which goes a long way towards making everyone feel welcome. Much of what you see speaks for itself here as well, and regardless of information availability, with the assistance of modern smartphone translation technology, I would certainly recommend a visit to Taima Temple to anybody interested in Buddhism, history, ritual, nature and beautiful design in general.


An ancient bell at Taima Temple, thought to date back to the 7th century.


What is nearby?

From Taima Temple there is not a lot of major tourist attractions, but the train line from Taimadera Station will take you to the cities of Kashihara or Osaka without requiring any transfers. However, if you are interested in doing some hiking, there are a couple of trailheads for Mt. Nijo that start not far from the temple grounds and from Mt. Nijo you can also access the Diamond Trail, which follows the ridgeline of the Kongo Range far into the south.

In terms of food and shops, there are a number of interesting local places that line the street leading directly to the temple from Taimadera Station.



Taimadera Station, of the Kintetsu Minami-Osaka train line is the easiest point of access for the Taima Temple. From there, it is about a 15-20 minute walk on foot to get to the entrance. One can get there easily by taking a train directly from Osaka-Abenobashi Station in Osaka City or Kashiharajingu-Mae Station in Kashihara City. The trickiest part of accessing the station is just to remember that you cannot get to the station on an Express or Limited-Express train, as they do not stop at Taimadera Station; if you take one of these trains, you will have to endure helplessly watching as your destination flies by outside the window, an experience many an experienced traveler has sadly had trying to navigate the rail transportation system here. Instead, you will need to take transfer to a Local train at some point along the line to get to Taimadera Station.


There is currently no charge to walk around inside the general temple complex, but if you wish to see any of the artwork or walk in the gardens, you will need to pay the required entrance fees for each area respectively.


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