Kyoto has more than a thousand temples, but Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, in the hills west of the city, stands out for its 1,200 individually carved stone figures. Part of the esoteric Tendai tradition, the original temple was washed away in a flood shortly after its founding in 766 CE and has since been rebuilt several times, most recently in 1922—and as ancient as its moss-covered figures look, they were actually carved between 1981 and 1991 under the direction of head priest and sculpting instructor Kocho Nishimura.

A professor at Tokyo University of the Arts, Nishimura invited amateur artists to study stone-carving techniques with him in an effort to revive the temple, which had fallen into disrepair. Referred to as rakan, meaning arhats (the enlightened followers of the Buddha), these stone carvings are nearly life-size. Nishimura encouraged his students to create figures that meant something to them. One sculptor carved a figure to resemble his mother. “She always struggled,” he told a film crew documenting the temple’s revival in the 1980s. “So I carve my memories of her into the stone.” Another carved a figure as a memorial to himself: “This is all that will be left of me someday.” Other figures are more lighthearted: They hold tennis rackets and cassette players, drink sake, or peek out from behind masks. Some laugh, some appear solemn. One has an open mouth that has become a place to offer coins and make wishes.

Nishimura died in 2003, but his son and grandson—both artist-priests as he was—carry on the tradition. Neglected no longer, Otagi Nenbutsu-ji is now a notable stop on Kyoto’s well-trodden tourist circuit.

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