Japan Temples: Okadera Temple
Okadera Temple 岡寺
Asuka, to the south of Nara, gives its name to the ancient period in Japanese history, 538 to 710, when political power was first centralized and Buddhism was officially introduced and the first Buddhist temples constructed. Okadera Temple, on the slopes of hills to the east of Asuka was established in 663, so it is not among the very first temples built, but pre-dates the move of the capital north to what is now Nara.
Okadera is temple number seven of the 33 temple Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, the oldest pilgrimage route in Japan.
History of Okadera Temple
All Buddhist temples in Japan actually have three names. In the case of Okadera, Okadera is its "common" name, Tokozan (東光山) is its "mountain" name, and Ryugaiji (龍蓋寺) is its formal name.
Ryugaiji means "Dragon Lid Temple", and this name comes from the legend of the temple's founding in 663. A priest by the name of Gien Sojo heard that the local people were having problems with a great dragon that lived on the mountain.
In Japan dragons are associated with water, and this particular dragon was causing too much rainfall so that the crops and people's homes were damaged. Gien prayed fervently to Kannon and was able to subdue the dragon and put him into a pond. A large stone, the "lid" of Dragon Lid, was placed in the pond to restrain the dragon.
The pond and the stone are still in the grounds of the temple, and it is said that in times of drought the stone is rocked to awaken the dragon and cause rain to fall. Due in part no doubt because of this legend, Okadera has gained a reputation as a place to pray for protection from disaster, and so is particularly popular with people during their "yakuyoke", years when one is particularly vulnerable.
Among the many amulets and charms and such that one can purchase here are Dragon Balls. It is believed that in the tail of a dragon is a ball that lets them grant wishes. The balls here at Okadera are wooden and inside them you place your wish written on a small piece of paper. The balls are then hung in front of the main hall of the temple.
The Kannon that Gien prayed to for power over the dragon was the Nyoirin Kannon, the Wish-Fulfilling Kannon, and that is the main deity of Okadera.
The statue is quite unusual, and unlike many statues, not hidden. It is almost five meters tall and is made of unfired clay rather than bronze or wood. It is said that Kobo Daishi (Kukai) fashioned the image out of clay brought from India, China, and Japan, and its unusual form is attributed to a tiny image Kobo Daishi made on his sea journey to China when Nyoirin Kannon saved his ship and its passengers from a storm.
However, evidence suggest that the statue pre-dates Kobo Daishi a little. Originally it would have been painted, and traces of paint can still be seen on the head, but over the centuries it has suffered so much damage that only the hand and the head are from the original statue.
It is believed to be both the oldest and the biggest clay statue in Japan and is categorized as one of the Three Great Buddhas of Nara. Architecturally two structures of interest are the Niomon which you pass through after paying your entry fee. Rebuilt in 1612, it has some nice carvings on it and the Nio statues inside are probably somewhat older. There is also a nice three-storey pagoda. In the late spring more than 3,000 rhododendron bushes are in bloom, and in the fall it is one of the few places in Asuka to view the fall colors.
806 Oka, Asuka-mura, Takaichi-gun, Nara 634-0111
Tel: 0744 54 2007
Open every day from 8am until 5pm (4:30 from December to February.
Entry fee 400 yen
Okadera and Asuka JR stations are both 3.2 kilometers from Okadera Temple but the most frequent buses run from Kintetsu Kashiharajingumae station.
Access - how to get to Okadera
There are bicycle rental outlets at Kashiharajingu-mae, Okadera and Asuka stations all on the Kintetsu Line from Yamato-Saidaiji Station and Kintetsu Nara Station. These stations can also be reached from Abenobashi Station in Osaka.
Okadera is a 25-minute cycle from Kashiharajingu-mae or a 25-minute cycle from Asuka Station. The hourly Kame Loop bus from Kashiharajingu-mae stops at the bus stop at the bottom of the hill.