Treasures of Nara

Though I have lived in Japan for 40 years, I had never been to Nara, the ancient capital (710-784) of Japan. It would be difficult to describe to you all the treasures and antiquities I’ve seen in the last two days. But I’ll try to give the highlights here.

We stayed at a very reasonable hotel called Wellness Asuka which was in walking distance of Todaiji, or the Eastern Great TempleThe Daibutsuden, or Hall of the Great Buddha, contains the largest wooden statue of Buddha in the world and together, these are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The great Buddha was completed in 751 with over 2,600,000 people helping in the construction.

Nara no Daibutsu (Great Buddha in Nara) 50ft tall

During the Nara period, Todaiji was the center of Buddhism in Japan. At this time, monks were ordained here by the Vinaya called Ganjin. Ganjin came to Japan after a 12- year harrowing voyage from China. Among the monks he ordained was the famous Kukai. The Main Hall (Daibutsuden) that houses the Great Buddha statue was rebuilt after being destroyed by fire. The present structure was built in 1709.

The Great Buddha is the original one. It is amazing to imagine how they built the Buddha with a wooden frame, sculpting clay onto the wood, carving the finer features. Then they covered the structure with another casting of a firmer clay which was removed and used as a mold for pouring the bronze over the statue. It stands 15 meters (49.1 feet) in height. You can see we are dwarfed by the giant Buddha.

Walking on some distance we  reached another ancient treasure, the Kasuga Taisha Shrine ( a Shinto shrine). The approach is lined with stone lanterns covered in moss. I recommend good walking shoes as it was farther than I expected, but certainly worth the effort.

Kasuga Taisha Shrine

We met a young man from Thailand who spoke English and said he has visited the shrine twice as he thinks it is very significant. This encouraged me to keep walking up the incline.

Stone Lanterns along the path to
Kasuga Taisha

This shrine was originally built in 768 as the shrine of the powerful Fujiwara family. A World Heritage Site, it is surrounded by Deer Park and many deer are roaming freely about.

Leaving the Nara park area the next morning, we drove abour 30 minutes to the famous Horyuji Temple in Ikaruga City, Nara Prefecture. Horyuji is a shortened form of the name which translates as “Learning Temple of the Flourishing Law”.

Entrance to Horyuji Temple

Horyuji was used as a Buddhist seminary and monastery . Legend tells us that the emperor Yomei ordered its construction in gratitude for recovering from an illness. Crown Prince Shotoku fulfilled his fahter’s deathbed wish by building this temple in 706. The grounds of Horyuji contain the oldest wooden structures in the world.

Goju-no-To ( Five-Storied Pagoda)

As we enter the gate of the Western Precinct, we are facing two incredible structures; the Five-storied Pagoda ( Goju-no-To ) and the Main Hall or Kondo. The Kondo contains several works of art including the Shaka Triad of the Asuka period (538-710 ).

Main Hall (Kondo) at Horyuji Temple, Nara

Four gigantic clay guardian deities , the oldest known clay guardians in the world,  stand on either side of  each doorway.

Clay Guardian in Main Hall

This Main Hall was built in 739 to assuage the spirit of Prince Shotoku. Behind this we see the Great Lecture Hall and to the right, stretches the Shoryoin or depository of Prince Shotoku’s soul. A short walk takes us to the  Gallery of Temple Treasuries which contains some of the  most valuable and important antiquities.

Kudara Kannon (Horyuji Temple)

Here we find the Kudara Kannon statue, standing tall and gracefully above us. The origin is unknown but such a tall and slender figure is seldom seen in Japanese Buddhist figures. The name Kudara suggests it is from the Three Kingdom period of Korea. Carved of gilded camphor wood, it stands in its own especially constructed hall.

Our final stop in the Horyuji Temple compound was the Hall of Visions, or Yumedono, constructed in 739 as a monument in memory of the Prince Shotoku. Inside this shrine, kept hidden from view over the centuries, is the Kuse Kannon, a life-size statue of Prince Shotoku. It is said to be in perfect condition, even the gilding. The octagonal Hall of Visions also contains various other Buddhist images from the Asuka or Kamakura periods.

Yumedono (Hall of Visions), Horyuji

If you visit Japan, be sure you go to Nara. It has a totally different feeling from the popular tourist stop of Kyoto. I was lucky to go on a weekday when the area was no so crowded. Horyuji opens at 8:00 AM and there are few visitors at that early hour. It is definitely worth the admission fee of 1000 yen and you should allow 2 hours minimum to see it.

The Great Buddha in Todaiji Temple, Kasuga shrine and another famous and beautiful temple, Kofukuji are all located in Nara Park, in central Nara. Even if you know little of Japanese history or Buddhist art, you’ll get an education in one day. Pamphlets in English and several other languages are available on request at each temple.

Even though it took me a long time to get around to it, I’m so glad I was able to see all of these amazing structures and images. It is hard to believe that a wooden building can last for over 1300 years!


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. beckynielsen
    Sep 23, 2012 @ 17:00:18

    Thank you for this little trip, Leah! I really enjoyed seeing these sights, the beautiful and terrifying scupltures, the gorgeous path of lanterns, and reading a little about the buildings from that period of history. Remarkable that the wood has lasted all this time.


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