Gango-ji Temple is mostly known for its mandala art, but while these are beautiful, be sure not to miss the other attractions on its grounds. As well as these ancient art pieces, there are numerous smaller works that are found scattered around the premises of this UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nara city.
The gardens are mostly known for their hundreds of jizo statues. The rows and rows of these statues can be so visually stunning that visitors often miss the tiny oni (Japanese ogre) statues hidden up trees and in bushes.
According to the monks that tend the grounds, there are six of these malevolent creatures to find in all sorts of places like a twisted version of Where’s Waldo.
While looking for all of these jizo and oni statues, be careful not to miss the side door that leads to the smaller hall.
The figures are part of ancient lore which believes that these statues would protect against the Oni attacks that supposedly used to happen in the area.
While looking for all of these jizo and oni statues, be careful not to miss the side door that leads to the smaller hall. The miniature pagoda that commands your attention on entry into this building was likely used as a model for some of the larger ones in the area. The pagoda is surrounded by wooden statues of various Buddhist deities including a fantastic 1,000-year statue of the deity responsible for the afterlife, Amida Nyorai.
While the fantastic statues of various holy people are fascinating to look at, there is also a smaller area at the far end of the area up the stairs. Walking up the stairs and into the backroom reveals a series of wooden artifacts, many from the original temple, alongside ancient sacred scrolls.
Appropriately for a temple with so many easily missed attractions, even its most famous sight, its main hall, has a number of easily overlooked sights such as the divine generals mixed into the hundreds of protective jizo statues. While it would be almost impossible to miss the four mandalas, masterpieces of Buddhist religious scroll painting, near these statues, they command the attention so much that the nearby scroll with a Sanskrit letter next to the artworks may be missed. This single letter is supposed to be savored with meditation, so take your time here, too.
As a result, Gango-ji is a temple that warrants multiple revisits as there are so many things to uncover on its grounds. Whenever visitors think that I’ve found everything, something new is waiting to be uncovered, leading to a deeper appreciation of the grounds and the fascinating history of the Naramachi area, no matter how many times you have experienced it.