Asuka-dera Temple, Japan’s First Temple

Nara is home to many of Japan’s ancient treasures. The tiny quaint village of Asuka, might not seem like little more than a dot on the map now, but it was once the thriving capital of Japan! There are many archaeological sites and ancient structures throughout the village, but one of the most famous is Asuka-dera Temple [飛鳥寺]. What makes this temple in the middle of nowhere so famous? Oh, it is only the first and oldest full-scale temple in Japan!

The History of Asuka-dera Temple

According to the Nihon Shoki, during the war between the Sogo and Mononobe clans, in 596 C.E. Soga no Umako built Hoko-ji Temple, now known as Asuka-dera, where he prayed for victory over Mononobe no Moriya. The temple’s principle object of worship is a bronze Buddha statue known as the Asuka Great Buddha. This statue dates back to 606 C.E. and is likely the work of renowned Buddhist sculptor Kuratsukuri no Tori [鞍作 止利].

artistic rendition of the original scale of asuka-dera temple
Original size of Asuka-dera Temple. Found in temple’s hondo.

While many people think Shitenno-ji is Japan’s first temple, but construction of Shitenno-ji started in 593 C.E. and wasn’t completed until after 596 C.E. This means that Asuka-dera predates Shitenno-ji, making it the very first full scale temple in Japan.

After the capital relocated from Asuka to Heijo-kyo, Asuka-dera also moved with it renamed as Gango-ji.

main hall of gango-ji temple in Nara on a clear day
Gango-ji Temple, Nara, Japan

The original temple remained in Asuka, and was more or less forgotten. Then, in the Kamakura Period, lightning struck the temple causing a massive fire that burnt down much of the temple. The fire was so bad that it left the bronze Buddha statue exposed to the elements for centuries after! It was only by the end of the Edo Period that people built the current temple for the statue. Because of years of being out in the open, the statue has needed a number of repairs. Even with these repairs, this statue could very well be the oldest Buddha idol in Japan.

Temple Grounds

The temple grounds are pretty small, but it still had a good number of visitors when we went there.

Entrance of Asuka-dera Temple Asuka, Japan.
courtyard of Asuka-dera temple
Temple grounds of Asuka-dera Temple

The Asuka Great Buddha

The hondo enshrines the Asuka Great Buddha, Shaka Nyorai Zazo [釈迦如来坐像]. Normally, you are not allowed to take pictures a temple’s principle object of worship, but its ok here!

bronze Asuka Great Buddha in main hall of Asuka-dera temple surrounded by offerings
Asuka Great Buddha. He is at least 100 years older than the Daibutsu in Todai-ji

The Buddha’s soft gaze and smile, called an “archaic smile”, are tale-tell signs of Buddha statues from the Asuka Period.

Another interesting fact about this statue is that he has never moved from this original spot ever since he arrived to the temple. Unfortunately, only part of the face, left ear and finger remain from the original statue. Since only these parts of the original statue remain, it is unable to qualify as a Japanese National Treasure.

Other Statues

There two other statues next to the Asuka Great Buddha. On the left is a wooden statue of Prince Shotoku praying for the health of his father. The statue is from the Muromachi Period and is a rare find, indeed.

Wooden statue of Prince Shotoku. In his hands he holds a sort of incense pot.

Iruka’s Grave Marker

Once you see the Great Buddha, head outside the temple for another popular spot, the grave marker of Soga no Iruka [蘇我入鹿].

stone japanese grave marker of Soga no Iruka before a rice field.
Grave Marker for Soga no Iruka. Since he was assassinated, he has no proper grave.

Soga no Iruka was killed by Prince Naka no Oe and Nakatomi no Kamatari during the Isshi Conflict in nearby Asuka Itabuki Palace. Legend says his head flew from the palace all the way Asuka-dera.

ruins of the ancient Japanese palace asuka itabuki no miya
Ruins of Asuka Itabuki no Miya Palace

Ironically, in front of the grave is Keyakinoki Square. Supposedly, it was in this square that Prince Naka no Oe and Nakatomi no Kamatari met and played that fateful game of cuju where they conspired to kill Iruka.

Asuka-dera Temple

Address682 Asuka, Takaichi-gun, Nara〒634-0103
Hours of OperationApr-Sep
Admission FeeAdults: 350 yen
Students/Seniors: 250 yen
Children: 200

Asuka-dera Temple is very small today, and if you do not know the historic importance of the temple, it might seem like much. But this temple is crucial to a great number of things connecting to the beginnings of Japan and Buddhism. Asuka-dera Temple should be one of your first stops on your trip to Asuka Village!

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