One of Japan’s oldest temples and the world’s oldest wooden structures are in Nara at Hōryūji Temple (法隆寺). The 187,000-square-meter complex grounds divide into two precincts, the Eastern Precinct (Toin Garan) and the Western Precinct (Saiin Garan). Hōryūji means “Temple of the Flourish Law,” referring to the practice of Buddhism.
Every building has many sights and wonders to behold. So, plan to spend the whole day exploring the mystery, beauty, and spirituality inherent within the grounds.
About Hōryūji Temple
Founded by Prince Shōtoku in 607 AD, during the Asuka Period (593 AD to 710 AD), Hōryūji is a monumental undertaking. This is a timestamp for how Japan looked over 1,300 years ago.
The idea to build didn’t start with Shōtoku, but rather with Emperor Yōmei, who vowed to build a Buddha statue and temple as a prayer for his recovery from illness.
Unfortunately, he did not live to fulfill this promise. Empress Suiko and Prince Shōtoku built the statue and temple complex to honor Emperor Yōmei’s memory.
The complex has over 2,300 artifacts, structures, and other articles with 190 of these designated as either Important Cultural Properties or National Treasures.
The temple complex itself has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993.
In the center of the Eastern Precinct is the “Hall of Visions,” called Yumedono, and it sits in dedication to Prince Shōtoku.
It’s octagonal in shape and houses a life-sized statue of the prince along with statues of various famous monks and Buddhas.
Behind the Eastern, Precinct is Chūgūji Temple (中宮寺). This temple stands in dedication to Prince Shotoku’s mother, Empress Anahobe no Hashihito, who died in 621 AD.
During the Heian Period (794 AD to 1185 AD), the temple fell into decline after moving the capital from Nara to Kyoto.
Hōryūji Temple became the temporary home for Chūgūji’s treasures including the Tenjukoku Mandala Shucho, which is the oldest known piece of embroidery in Japan.
What stands there today is a replica, the original is at the Nara National Museum.
The current location of Chūgūji is actually 1,646 feet (500 meters) east of where it originally stood.
This place has always had a close association with the imperial family, taking in princesses and aristocratic women for training. In fact, many imperial princesses were the temple’s abbesses.
The celebrated main object of worship of the Eastern Precinct is the Goddess Kannon, resting in the center.
She is the goddess of mercy who sits pondering how to alleviate the world’s suffering. Her right leg is on her left with a gentle smile projecting toward the viewer.
At one time it had white pigment, called gofun, painted all over it. But, after centuries of incense, candles, and lanterns, the color turned ebony.
A five-minute walk from the Eastern Precinct is an enclosure of roofed corridors that is the Western Precinct.
It houses the Chumon, the world’s oldest surviving wooden gate, the Kondō, or main hall, and a five-story pagoda, called Gojū-no-Tō.
Guarding the Chumon are two of Japan’s most ancient statues, the Kongo Rikishi. In the Daikodo, lecture hall, visitors can see how Japanese Buddha statues evolved.
They used to have Indian/Hindu features, but this was diminished by the Heian Period (794 AD to 1185 AD).
The Kondō, or Main Hall, enshrines some of Hōryūji’s most treasured items. Along with the large pagoda, it makes up the Western Precinct’s centerpiece.
In the Main Hall, there are three ceiling canopies with phoenixes and heavenly beings holding musical instruments.
Seated under the canopy is Shakyamuni, or Shaka Nyorai, the historical Buddha, which looks like Prince Shōtoku.
Alongside the Shaka Nyorai are Kichijoten (goddess of luck and fortune based on the Hindu goddess Lakshmi) and Bishamonten (god of the north, war, and protector of Japan).
Yakushi ; Amida Nyorai Buddhas
Two smaller statues flank the Buddha. One is Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing and medicine for Emperor Yōmei, and Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of the Pure Land.
Amida Nyorai also has two attendant statues to honor Prince Shōtoku’s mother.
You can read the historical writings about the temple on the eastern side of the Main Hall.
The whole history is on the backside of the halo resting on the Yakushi Nyorai Buddha (Bhaisajyaguru), or “arrival as healer” statue. You can also read the official property holdings recorded as far back as 747 AD.
The oldest pagoda of its kind is the Gojū-no-Tō. It has five stories and is one of the oldest surviving wooden towers in the world. Erected during the Asuka Period, it enshrines several sacred Buddhist relics.
For instance, a portion of Shakyamuni’s remains rest about 10 feet (three meters) below the pagoda’s base. Around the base is four tableaux showing scenes from the Buddha’s life.
On the north side of the pagoda’s base, the Buddha’s disciples mournfully surround him as he travels into Nirvana.
The pagoda itself is about 106½ feet (32.5 meters) tall from the base. The central pillar comprises a cypress tree from 594 AD.
The pillar goes through all five tiers of the tower, utilizing flexible wooden joints, which help absorb seismic energy from earthquakes.
The Mystery within the Pagoda
This is home to one of the “seven mysteries” of Hōryūji Temple. These are the scythes affixed to the topmost roof.
At one time, people considered lighting a celestial monster and placed swords along with other sharp implements to prevent fire.
However, during the Kamakura Period (1185 AD to 1333 AD) lighting struck the pagoda, although the building didn’t sustain damage.
People later hung talismans on each level of the pagoda for protection against lightning. Today, there are lightning rods for this purpose.