Okadera Temple is also known as the “Dragon Lid Temple.”

If you’ve been following our recent travel reports from Nara, you’ll know that there’s a set of four sites known as the Four Great Temples of Yamato (Yamato being the historical name for the region). We’ve already told you about Hasedera, Muroji, and Abe Monjuin, and today we’re finishing off the pilgrimage to the last of the four, Okadera, located in Nara Prefecture’s Takaichi district.

When visiting temples in Japan, it’s customary to stop at a fountain called the chozuya, or sometimes the temizuya, that’s located right inside the gate to purify your hands with the water there. Usually, the water flows into an otherwise trough, but Okadera has become famous among photographers for its unique practice of periodically filling its chozuya with beautiful flowers, as they had on the day when we stopped by.

Okadera was founded in the year 663, and over the years it’s acquired special cultural significance because of its dragon legend and Buddhist statuary. Starting with the latter, housed in the temple’s main hall is the Nyoirin Kannon Bosatsu, the largest clay Buddha image anywhere in Japan.

The main hall was rebuilt in 1805, and it’s a testament to just how much history there is here that this “new” building is still over 200 years old.

At the front of the hall is the Nyoirin Kannon statue, which, even in a seated posture, is over five meters (16.4 feet) tall.

If you’ve been to many temples in Japan, you’ve probably noticed that the large statues are almost always made of bronze or wood. Those materials are sturdier, and in a country that’s seen as much seismic activity, warfare, and humidity as Japan has, earthenware statues just don’t tend to last as long before cracking or snapping. But Okadera’s Nyoirin Kannon? It’s been part of the temple for over 1,300 years.

As part of Central Japan Railway Company/JR Tokai’s Iza Iza Nara travel package, we were able to get especially close to the statue, and were allowed to photograph it as part of our press tour. There’s an amazing level of detail, and it’s both humbling and inspiring to think that the sculptors who created it still have people admiring their artistry over a millennium later.

The temple’s staff treat the statue very delicately, taking great care even when dusting it. It’s not certain that it could be moved without damaging it, so when the main hall was rebuilt 200 years ago, the statue stayed right where it was, on a stone foundation, and the hall was torn down and then rebuilt around it, a process that’s said to have taken some 30 years.

▼ The base of the statue

▼ Another exquisite statue inside the main hall

As we mentioned earlier, there’s also a dragon legend connected to Okadera, and there’s a hint to this before you’re actually on the temple grounds. Look up as you pass through the main gate, and you’ll spot a placard.

This is customarily where the name of the temple you’re entering would be written. However, instead of 岡寺, the kanji characters for Okadera, the sign has the kanji 龍蓋寺, read Ryugaiji and meaning “Dragon Lid Temple.”

Legend has it that back in the 7th century, Yamato was being terrorized by an evil dragon. Seeking to put a stop to its villainy, a priest named Gaien subdued the dragon and forced it into a pond, placing a large stone atop it to act as a lid and seal the beast in place. Gaien then built a temple on the site, which became known as Ryugaji.

▼ The pond, located on the Okadera grounds, and stone

The drowning of a mythical creature might sounds like a morbid backstory for a temple’s name, but the tale doesn’t end there. According to the legend, Gaien’s actions didn’t kill the dragon. It was merely trapped. Left in the pond to reflect on its behavior, the dragon began to feel remorse for all the mayhem it had been causing, and with its character reformed it became the guardian deity of the area. Even now, with its name having changed to Okadera, the temple is still known for its purification ceremonies.

▼ An artist’s rendition of Gaien giving the dragon its life-altering time-out.

It’s a reminder that sometimes it’s important to give second chances in life, and Okadera, and the rest of the Four Great Temples of Yamato, are a reminder that as charming as Nara Park and its deer are, there are plenty of other things worth seeing in the prefecture too.

Temple information
Okadera / 岡寺
Address: Nara-ken, Takaichi-gun, Asukamura 806

Related: Iza Iza Nara, Official Nara Travel Guide
Photos ©SoraNews24
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