The Shrines and Temples of Japan: Part 2, Horyuji and Nara

Pagoda at Horyuji Temple
Pagoda at Horyuji Temple
If you’ve been following along for a while, or if you at least take a look at the left column of my website, you’ll notice that I have an affinity for UNESCO World Heritage sites. I’m not trying to visit every one of them, for that would be impossible. I passed up four in Japan and one in the Philippines. I use them as sort of a proxy for a guide book. (and I never use guidebooks). If you know nothing about a country and you wanted to know what “the” things to see while you were there, odds are most of them would be on the UNESCO list. Certainly, if they are of historic, cultural, or natural significance.  This rule doesn’t hold all the time. Some really amazing things are not on the UNESCO list. Nan Modal in Micronesia and the rock islands of Palau come to mind. I also got a bit of a mini-education from the head of the World Heritage Committee in Rennell in the Solomon Islands about how the process works for getting on the list. Let’s just say it isn’t an accident that rich countries have more than poor ones or that something as significant as Nan Madol is off the list while the Sydney Opera House (built in 1972) is on the list.

I will leave my UNESCO rant to a later day…

I bring this up as sort of a prelude to why I bothered to visit Horyuji and Nara in the first place. Unlike Kyoto, I had never heard of either of these places before I visited Japan. Most of the other travelers I spoke with in Japan were not planning on visiting either Nara or Horyuji (especially Horyuji). It just wasn’t on the list of “the” places you had to see in Japan. Too bad for them, because what I saw there were some of the coolest things I’ve seen in Japan.

After Kyoto, I went to Osaka for a few days. Honestly, I probably would have been better off staying in Kyoto given the hassle I had of finding a room.  Both Horyuji and Nara are as easy of day trips from Kyoto as from Osaka. It is just a matter of getting on the right JR train. I managed to see both Horyuji and Nara in one day without difficulty. If anyone in the future should stumble across this while doing a Google search, I’d definitely do both if you are going to do either one. It is a very short train ride from Nara to Horyuji.

Horyuji Temple World Heritage Site
Horyuji Temple World Heritage Site


Horyu is a very small town and the temple is by far its biggest attraction. The Horyuji Temple is actually the first site in Japan to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site, which should give you an indication of its importance. (as a general rule, the earlier a site is declared a heritage site, the bigger of a deal it is. The first were listed in 1993). In nothing else, the Temple of Horyuji has a claim to fame for being the site of the oldest wooden buildings in the world.

Built in the seventh century, the pagoda is the only wooden buildings from that time period on Earth still standing. The log used as the center post of the pagoda was cut in the year 594. Many of the wooden buildings you see in Asia are really reconstructions of earlier buildings which were destroyed by fire or war. Hiroshima Castle? Destroyed in WWII. The golden palace in the Forbidden City in Bejing? Rebuilt several times after fire destroyed earlier buildings. Almost everything I saw in Korea has similar a similar story. The temple of Horyuji, through sheer luck, has managed to survive wars and fire for 1,400 years.

If you look closely at the photo of the pagoda, you will notice a wire running down the lenght of structure. Every wooden building you find in Japan will have a wire like this. It sort of takes away from the photo, but it is vital that they are there because they are the grounding wires for the lightening rods. The number one killer of wooden structures over the years has been lightening. Strangely enough, the odds of the building surviving are probably better now than they were hundreds of years ago. No wars between factional warlords, lightening rods, and no open fires for heat. Oh, and firetrucks.

(Actually, it is believed that the temple isn’t the original building either. The first was built in 607 and burned down in 670. The current temple was finished in 711…a very apt number for Japan.)

The temple is still an active, working Buddhist temple and draws a large number of tourists from Japan. Outside of the pagoda and main temple building, the entire temple compound has a museuma and other structures in addition to a garden.

Todaji Temple, World's Largest Wooden Building
Todaji Temple, World's Largest Wooden Building


The biggest surprise was in Nara. Most of the historic things of note are all within one large area centered by a park. Like Miyajima outside of Hiroshima, Nara is full of tame deer roaming around. You can buy stacks of small crackers to feed the deer in the park. Nara was the capital of Japan before Kyoto from 710 to 784.

As I was doing the circuit of the temples in Nara, I wasn’t really impressed by anything, until I noticed a very large gate in the distance. In fact, the size of the gate was sort of deceptive. As I got closer, the gate became huge. It was far larger than any other ornamental gate I’ve seen in Asia. It was the gate to Todaiji Temple. I saw the word Todaiji on the map, but I really knew nothing about it. I thought to myself “This gate must be the big calling card for the temple.” How wrong I was….

Like most of the temples I visited in Japan, they usually chage a small fee. I went to the ticket window, paid my 500 yen and went around the wall go to the main temple building. As buildings go, it isn’t big. You can see bigger in almost any city. It took me a bit to realize that this totally made of wood. This is a freaking huge wooden building. (I later found out that a previous temple stood on the same spot and was destroyed several hundred years ago. The previous temple was actually 1/3 bigger than the current one.)

The Daibutsu in Todaiji Temple
The Daibutsu in Todaiji Temple
So now I’m pretty excited. I like big things. I like old things. I like big, old things. (Imagine how excited I’ll get when I’m at the pyramids..) I’m taking my photos not even thinking about what might be inside a building that large or why you would need to make a building that large to begin with.

I enter the building and there it is. The same thing that is in every Buddhist temple: a statue of the Buddha. This one however is the giant, economy, family sized Buddha. It is called the Daibutsu, or large Buddha in Japanese. It is 15m (49ft) high. The original Buddha was built in 754. Since then, temples have been destroyed and rebuilt. The current bronze Buddha was repaired in parts over the last several hundred years. The current building dates back to 1701. (Amazingly enough, there used to be two pagodas here that were estimated to be 100m tall. They would have been the tallest structures in the world outside of the Great Pyramid.)

Inside the temple are several giant guardian statues. Each one is about 30ft (10m) tall. There is also a hole carved into one of the pillars in the temple. It is said that if you crawl through the hole, it will give you long life. As children are the only ones who can realistically fit through it, it is probably true.

In addition to Todaiji, there were other things on interest in Nara (Nigatsu-do Hall and Kasuga Shrine), but everything was sort of dwarfed (excuse the pun) by Todaiji. The one other thing that was interesting were the students practicing Ogasawara-ryu, or horseback archery.

If you visit Japan, make it a point to visit Nara and Horyuji. The pagoda at Horyuji and the Todaiji Temple were two of the high points of my trip.