Is this temple the inspiration behind the Dragon Ball series ?
The monks at Oka-dera Temple are a jovial lot and will quite happily tell you that this is "The Dragon Ball Temple, where wishes are granted.” Of course, talk soon turns to the ever popular anime series "Dragonball" and while comparisons are granted, the actual story of the temple itself is just as entertaining.
The Temple and its Legends
According to temple legend, a Buddhist monk named Gien confronted a dragon that was marauding in what is now Asuka Village. Gien defeated the dragon and imprisoned it under the floor of a small pond. He placed a large rock, a “ryugai” or dragon lid, in the pond to prevent the dragon from escaping.
Thusly Ryugai-ji Temple, Oka-dera’s formal name, was founded in 663 and is now 7th temple on the Kansai Kannon Pilgrimage.
Supposedly, the dragon’s heart was “reformed” by its fight with Gien and it became one of the temple’s deities. Japanese dragons have a ball near the end of their tail that contains magic. It is said that by the power of this dragon ball wishes can be granted.
Dragon balls, Okadera’s most powerful variety of amulet, can be purchased (￥600ea.) but they are not of the 1 through 7 star variety. Known as “ryutama” (dragon balls) or negaitama (wishball), Oka-dera’s dragon balls are made of wood, inscribed with Okadera’s kanji characters, and contain a small paper scroll.
Write your wish on the scroll and hang your dragon ball on one of the designated trees in the temple’s garden.
Besides dragon ponds and dragon balls, Oka-dera Temple is also home to a 3-story pagoda, several beautiful and historic buildings, a garden of maple and deciduous trees that become riotously colorful in the fall and Japan's oldest ceramic statue of the Buddha.
1,200 years ago, the founder of Koyosan, the legendary monk Kūkai came to Oka-dera to study and while here fashioned a giant clay statue of the Nyorin Kannon Bosatsu, the Wish Granting Buddha.
The statue is counted among the Three Great Buddha Statues of Japan (the others being the Daibutsu at Todai-ji Temple in Nara and the Gifu Daibutsu at Shoho-ji Temple) and has been designated an Important Cultural Property.
The Goma Taki Fire Ceremony
Oka-dera is also known as the first temple in Japan to ever perform Goma Taki, a ritualistic fire ceremony conducted to drive away yaku, or bad luck. Goma Taki involves the burning of thin wooden plates with prayers or wishes of worshipers written upon them. The plates are stacked to form a square and are set ablaze as the monks chant and recite prayers.
The ritual is performed daily to revitalize the mind and purify the spirit and is considered an important practice of the Shingon sect. The ritual often draws people who are said to be in a yakudoshi, a year which is considered to be one of bad luck, according to Buddhist teaching.
Even watching from afar, the whole ceremony is fascinating and quite mesmerizing. Even if you haven't put forward your own wooden plate to be burnt, the ritualist movements and chanting of the monk, the smell of the smoke, the crackling sound of the burning wood and the high pitched "tings" of the utensils being used all combine to leave you with a feeling of equal parts exhaustion and rejuvenation.
If you get the chance, it's really worth seeing.
Getting There Okadera Station on the Kintetsu Yoshino Line shares the temple’s name but it’s about 3.5km away from Okadera Temple. The quickest way there from the Nara Visitor Center and Inn is to take the Kintetsu Line from Kintetsu Nara Station, change to a Kashihara Jingumae bound train at Yamato Saidaiji Station, change trains again at Kashihara Jingumae Station and go to Asuka Station. Rent a bicycle from Asuka Rent-a-Cycle (look for a green sign with white kanji characters outside the station, the rent-a-cycle is about 50 meters to the right) and enjoy the ride through the rice paddies to Okadera.
Alternatively, you can take a bus from Kintetsu Kashiharajingu-mae Station. Take the bus bound for Okadera-mae and get off at the Okadera-mae stop. From there, it's just a short walk to the main entrance. The area around the temple is very picturesque, with lots of old residential buildings and the occasional stylish cafe.
Author: NARA Visitor Center & Inn