The Daibutsu of Todai-ji, A Japanese Treasure

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.

Todai-ji is very rich in history, so we are going to cover the temple in two parts:

Part one will cover the Daibutsu and the main temple grounds.

Part two will cover additional buildings and national treasures you shouldn’t miss when you visit Todai-ji.

With that said let’s start with —


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.

You can read more about Emperor Shomu in the link here:

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.

gold replica of the spire of Todai-ji Temple's pagoda that sits on the site of the original pagoda
Replica of the spire of Todai-ji Temple’s pagoda that sits on the site of the original pagoda

Getting to Todai-ji

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.


Temple Grounds

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.

After the attack by the Taira clan, a monk by the name of Chogen used a number of innovative architectural skills he learned while abroad in China.

Unlike the many other structures in Todai-ji, this gate is one of the few  that survived war with the Miyoshi clan. This means the gate is one of the few things Chogen built that still survives today, nearly thousand year later.

Guarding the entryway to Todai-ji Temple are two Nio statues. Nio statues are common at temples throughout Japan, as they ward off evil spirits, but these in particular are an impressive 8m tall and were made by Unkei and Kaikei, a prominent sculptors during the Kamakura Period.

Nio statue at Todai-ji Temple
They are so detailed!
You can even see their blood vessels!
komaninu of Todai-ji temple in nara
Komainu, circa 1196

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

After the Nandaimon Gate is the Chumon Gate, and just around the corner from that is the Daibutsu-den

chumon gate of todai-ji temple


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…

Todai-ji temple daibutsu-den

On your day 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.close up of a bosatsu playing the flute on the lantern in front of todaiji temple


The Daibutsu

The daibutsu of todai-ji temple in nara

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. Additionally, the Daibutsu-den is also uses Daibutsu-yo style architecture.

Daibutsu-yo style architecture used in the ceiling of the Daibutsu-den
Daibutsu-yo style ceiling

The Daibutsu, officially known as Rushana-butsu, is the main Buddha of the Kegon sect of Buddhism.

The Daibutsu itself has burnt down several times and only a part of his thigh and its sleeve are from the original statue.

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.

the face of the daibutsu of todai-ji temple
Head made in the Edo Period.
Much of the lotus shaped platform is still in its original condition, so pay attention to the many sculptures around its boarder.

Bosatsu and Other Statues

On the left is Kokuzo Bosatsu.

Kokuzo Bosatsu next to the Daibutsu at Todai-ji temple in Nara
Made in the Edo Period.

On the left is Nyoirin Kannon

Nyorin Kannon next to the Daibutsu in Todai-ji Temple
Also from the Edo Period

There are statues of the Shitenno too!

For some reason, the heads of the statues of Jikoku-ten and Tabun-ten are here.

Before you leave, consider having this spot of fun. The hole in the pole is roughly the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril! It is said that if can go through the hole, you can rid yourself of bad karma.

Try your luck!

Coming next time,
Part 2 of our journey in Todai-ji Temple!

The adventure continues…


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