The Daibutsu of Todai-ji, A Japanese Treasure

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When you visit Nara, you can’t leave without visiting Todai-ji, home to the Daibutsu, the largest copper Buddha statue in the world. Together with Horyu-ji, Todai-ji is one of the most popular temples in Nara and many people from all over the world visit Todai-ji to get a glance at the famous Daibutsu.

History of Todai-ji

The originally named Kinsho-ji, dates back to 6th century, when it Emperor Shomu built the temple to mourn the death of his son, Prince Motoi. Later, the name changed to Todai-ji because the temple is located east of the capital.

Ever since his coronation, Emperor Shomu’s reign was fraught with difficulties. From the death of his child, to natural disasters and the deaths of his trusted advisors; Shomu no longer felt safe. During his conflict with Fujiwara no Hirotsugu he moved the capital multiple times, building new palaces and large temples along the way. All this building took a toll of the country’s financial resources.

Building the Daibutsu

When Shomu eventually decided to build a huge Buddha statue to protect the country, there was little capital left. Still, Shomu insisted on building this statue. In order to accomplish this feat, he enlisted the help of a famous monk by the name of Gyoki. In exchange for his help acquiring money to build the statue, Shomu would allow Gyoki to teach Buddhism freely to the masses. Finally, a large gold and bronze statue of Buddha was erected in Todai-ji and is today known as the famed Daibutsu in 747.

statue of gyoki on top of a water fountain next to the kintetsu nara station
Statue of Gyoki next to the Kintetsu Nara Station, facing the direction of the Daibutsu.

After the completion of the Daibutsu, the temple added pagodas and additional buildings, making Todai-ji one of the biggest temple in Nara. When the capital relocated from Nara to Kyoto in 784, many temple of the temples around Todai-ji began to disappear. Slowly, Todai-ji, acquired these lands and managed to retain their tremendous power for centuries.

Turbulence at Todai-ji

However, having all this power and influence wasn’t always all such  a good thing. At the end of the Heian Period, the prominent the Taira clan attacked Todai-ji, burning off a large part of the temple. The temple was once again burnt down during the war with Miyoshi clan in the Sengoku Period. During this war, the Daibutsu not only lost its head, but also the Daibutsu-den, the building enshrining it. While the head was rebuilt shortly after the war, it took a few hundred years for the Daibutsu-den to be rebuilt. Many of the other buildings on the temple grounds, including its main pagoda, were never rebuilt due to a lack of money.

Temple Grounds

There are many gates as Todai-ji is quite a huge temple, but if you walk from Nara station, the first thing you will see at Todai-ji will be the Nandaimon Gate.

Nadaimon gate of todaiji temple in Nara
Nadaimon Gate: 25m tall. One of the biggest gates in Japan.

Though many people just walk through the gate without paying it much attention, this is in fact a Japanese National Treasure, so you should give it some time.

Long ago, Japanese temples predominately used Wayo Style architecture, which was not good for large scale buildings. On the other hand, Daibutsu-yo style, introduced by Chogen, made it possible to build large stable structures. Unfortunately, the original version of Daibutsu-yo style is only found in a handful of structures, like the Nandaimon Gate.

characteristic Daibutsu-yo style architecture support beams of Todaiji's Nandaimon gate
telltale characteristics Daibutsu-yo architecture of Nandaimon Gate

Daibutsu-den

After the Nandaimon Gate is the Chumon Gate, and just around the corner from that is the Daibutsu-den, where big Buddha statue, Daibutsu is enshrined. 

Daibutsu-den of todaiji temple
Daibutsu-den of Todai-ji Temple

Inside the Daibutsu-den is where you will find the Daibutsu. Since it is the main area in Todai-ji and many people make a bee-line straight towards it. It is so unfortunate that the main pagoda, which big temples always have, no longer stands today…

On your way to the Daibutsu-den, there is a one thing you should pay attention to the octagon shaped toro right in front of it.

This lantern is as old as the Daibutsu itself (752). Even though Daibutsu and the Daibutsu-den burnt down several times over the course of the history, this lantern survived all those fires. For its historic cultural importance, it is highly valued and thus another national treasure.

The Daibutsu

The daibutsu of todai-ji temple in nara
Daibutsu

As you get closer to the Daibutsu, you will realize just how large it really is. The current statue dates back to 1692 and is surprisingly a bit smaller than the original statue built in 752.  The Daibutsu, officially known as Rushana-butsu, is the main Buddha of the Kegon sect of Buddhism.

It feels much bigger than you see in the books. It is 15 meter high and weighs 250 tons and it was as big when it was first made.

Much of the lotus shaped platform is still in its original condition, so pay attention to the many sculptures around its boarder.

Other Places on Interest

When it comes to Todai-ji, everybody is transfixed by the giant Buddha statue, the Daibutsu. However, there are many other interesting things on the wide expanse of at Todai-ji. There are a number of iconic buildings and Japanese National Treasures that you shouldn’t miss out on when you are there!

Nigatsu-do [二月堂]

Because it is on top of a hill, Nigatsu-do has a great vantage point of Nara City. The temple is even open at night, so it’s a peaceful place to watch the city at night.

Nigatsu-do
View from Nigatsu-do

The Nigatsu-do is on the east side of Todai-ji. Nigatsudo is famous the Shuni-e festival it hosts every February, which started in 752. During the festival they have a ritual called omizutori where monks light giant torches along the balcony of the temple. These embers supposedly have healing properties, and can cure any illnesses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this ritual caused a massive fire in the early Edo Period and reduced Nigatsu-do to ash. The temple was soon restored and is a Japanese National Treasure.

Shoso-in [正倉院]

Emperess Komyo made the Shoso-in to store the collection of the riches amassed by of her husband, Emperor Shomu. The collection contains roughly 9,000 artifacts, some of which Shomu obtained from countries like China, India, and even the Middle East. Another of the things that is truly amazing about the Shoso-in is that is has survived many fires over the centuries and is actually very well preserved.

Shoso-in

The architecture of Shoso-in is azekura-zukuri, a style commonly used for store houses and granaries in the Nara Period. This style is characterized by triangular shaped logs joined together on an elevated foundation. These buildings are very efficient in keeping out moisture and vermin.

characteristic triangle shaped joined logs of the shoso-in at todai-ji temple

Also, so don’t miss Tegaimon gate. which is just within a stone’s throw away from Shoso-in. The Tegai-mon Gate is a bit far away from the main temple area, located to the west of Todai-ji. Though few people walk by this gate, it is one of the oldest building in Todai-ji – dating back to the Nara period. It is another one of the few buildings that did not burn down in one of Todai-ji’s many fires.

Tegai-mon gate. It looks quite different from the other gates in Todai-ji.

Information: Todai-ji

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Getting To

Todai-ji is only 15 minutes away from Kintetsu Nara Station and 25 minutes from JR Nara Station. However, since there are many deer on the road, it will probably take you longer to get there if you take time to feed them.

There are also several buses that goes back and forth between Nara City and the area near Horyu-ji. If you’d like to spend your whole day exploring ancient Nara, then you might want to consider buying the one day bus pass.

 

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