JRR Tolkien told us in The Hobbit that, “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him”. It seems like this may well have been a lesson he learnt from the villagers in ancient Nara that were tormented by a destructive dragon. Nowadays there is no need to worry thanks to a priest who safely detained the devilish foe to a pond at the Okadera Temple.
Okadera is a mountain temple that’s nuzzled into a valley and surrounded by an ancient forest in the historically rich area of Asuka in Nara Prefecture. Okadera was built over 1300 years ago in 663 and is said to be the first temple in Japan dedicated to yakuyoke (the prevention of misfortune).
The afore mentioned dragon was responsible for causing heavy rains which lead to the destruction of rice crops and homes for the people of Asuka. The legend of Okadera tells us that the locals were desperate for help when a priest by the name of Gien came to the rescue by praying with all of his might to Kannon for help. His faith and determination caused the dragon to suddenly become quite meek, mild and powerless in front of him. He was then able to cajole the dragon into a hole in the middle of a pond. Moving quickly he placed a large rock over the top of the hole, imprisoning the dragon there until this very day. It is for this reason that Okadera is sometimes referred to by its formal name – Ryugaiji – which means “dragon lid temple”.
As with most Japanese temples there is a wide variety of good luck charms and amulets available to purchase at Okadera. Right next to the dragon lid pond, lucky dragon ball charms known as “ryutama” can be bought for ¥600. They are little round wooden balls with Okadera written in kanji (岡寺) on the front. They are hollow and contain a little miniature paper scroll inside. When I visited Okadera a lovely old lady working in the noykyosho office cheerfully showed me how to take the scroll out before instructing me to write down my prayer request and then lock it back in place by pulling tightly on the red drawstring. You can then choose to tie it to a tree in the temple gounds or take it home with you.
After you buy your dragon ball you can gaze upon the massive 5 meter high Kannon inside the hondo. The Kannon is made from clay that came from India, China and Japan and forms two mudra. The right hand removes all fears from sentient beings which instills fearlessness and prayers are answered with the left hand.
After checking out the Kannon and dragon pond I highly recommend exploring the rest of the temple grounds. Follow the steps past the dragon pond and after a very short walk you’ll come to a cave that is said to be the source of Okadera’s spiritual energy. Maitreya, the Bhudda of the Future, is enshrined inside and if you are brave enough you can enter and say a prayer. From here follow the path that will take you on a quick and easy hike above the temple complex and offer some excellent photo opportunities. At the end of the path you’ll find a 3 story pagoda before looping back down to the main complex.
Okadera is a little difficult to access but is well worth it. There is no transport from Okadera Station on the Kintesu Yoshino Line but I found the 3.5km walk from the station fairly easy and passed lots of other temples and interesting sites on the way. To use public transport its best to take a bus from Kintetsu Kashihara-jingumae Station to the Okadera-mae bus stop. Alternatively you can rent a bike from Asuka Station and ride there.