7000 Wonders

7000 Wonders

ArticleKey #10: Selective Irreverence

Edward Porper

Edward Porper

3 min read

I am almost embarrassed to admit that I never planned to visit the Doll Museum but rather stumbled upon it on my way back to the train station. The actual reason for coming to Sagano-Arashiyama was to make the acquaintance of the gentleman in the above picture, and his 1,199 co-residents of the Otagi-Nenbutsu temple currently located in that mountainous village, a relatively short train ride from Kyoto.

“Currently” is an important word, because the 1,254 year-old temple had for centuries been plagued by floods and other natural disasters that forced several relocations. It wasn't until after the appointment of a new head priest in the middle of the 20th century that the temple's fortunes began to turn. The priest, Kocho Nishimura, happened to be an accomplished sculptor specializing in Buddha statues - hardly a routine combination, as such, and Nishimura spiced the story up by devising a quasi-professional project. The point of the project was to create a large number of sculptures depicting Buddha's followers - a time-consuming but hardly challenging task for a fine artist. However, there was a twist in the tale: the priest's intention was to get the sculptures made rather than make them himself. So, he offered temple visitors an opportunity to try their hand at sculpting - and taught them how to do it. 

The rest is history. Given a free hand, the newbies let their imagination run wild and came up with hilarious facial expressions and preposterous postures, while likely using their personal acquaintances and/or well-known public figures of the time as models. Each freshly-minted artist produced only one sculpture but the number of those artists ended up being quite impressive - and so, 1,200 conceited merchants, drunken judges, lecherous simpletons and such were thrown together to fill slopes and terraces of the nearby mountain.



Strictly speaking, the territory covered by the exhibition isn't too big, and can be covered in 15-20 minutes. However, those who choose to pay attention to individual figurines, enjoy the differences, and possibly even play the “Find-Your-Long-Lost-Twin-Brother” game, might spend long hours savouring that very unusual aesthetic experience that happens to be culturally significant, as well.

Even though various sites and guide books use the English word “followers” while referring to the statues, the actual translation of the original Japanese word “rakan” is “disciples” - and that puts the mostly comical figurines on the same footing with Christian apostles. The latter might be fishermen, tax collectors and such, but you wouldn't know it based on their artistic representation - such as, for instance, Leonardo da Vinci's “The Last Supper”. Dignified attire and noble looks of Christ's disciples emphasize the high status of their leader, and Christian zealots would likely take exception to anything less than that - and so would adherents of other major religions. As opposed, far from being offended, Japanese people (many of whom are devout Buddhists) seem to relish the tongue-in-cheek attitude and a good laugh associated with it. That seeming irreverence provides a crucial insight into Japanese worldview and spiritual identity