In Buddhism, the Five Hundred Arhats are the most loyal of the Buddha’s disciples, who attended the religion’s first council at Rājagṛha (modern Rajgir, India) right after the Buddha’s final nirvana to compile his teachings into scriptures. Several Japanese and Chinese temples are home to statues of the Arhats, which are said to bring good luck to visitors.
One of the three most popular arhat statues can be found at Kitain Temple in Kawagoe, a quaint city about an hour away from Tokyo. Its famed sculpture garden contains a total of 538 statues, including the Great Buddha, Amitayus (the Buddha of Eternal Life), Ksitigarbha, and the Bodhisattvas.
They were sculpted in the late Edo period, from 1782 to 1825, at the suggestion of a local monk named Shijo. They have since stood in the temple garden, collecting layers of moss and lichen.
Interestingly, the sculptures are not all serious and hard-faced. There is an endearing sense of humor to many of the arhats at Kita-in Temple, a touch of human nature, something even relatable to us living two centuries ahead of them.
For example, one arhat can be seen reclining and taking up his neighbor’s space, who appears to be (understandably) annoyed but keeping it cool. Another arhat lies resting his cheeks on his hands, in a manner perhaps resembling that of a teenage girl gossiping at a sleepover. While some meditate solemnly, some are laughing, crying, sneezing, and there is even a monk who is definitely picking his nose.
Each of the arhat statues is uniquely sculpted, making it a fun experience to explore the enclosure and enjoy the multi-faceted essence of Buddhist art.
Know Before You Go
To view the Five Hundred Arhats, you need to buy a ticket (400 yen) at the reception, which is housed in the Guest Hall annex. The ticket also includes entry to the Guest Hall, also known as the birthplace of the shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu, but note that photography is prohibited there. You can, however, take pictures in the sculpture garden of the Five Hundred Arhats. To find it, go back to the entrance of the temple complex and follow the arrow beside the gift shop.
The temple is open every day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., or to 4 p.m. during the December-February season. The reception will close 30 minutes before the temple’s closing hour.