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Horyuji Temple: a complex which houses some of the world’s oldest wooden buildings Here, we go on a journey to explore the secrets concealed in this ancient temple


The oldest five-story pagoda in Japan:
a beautiful sight when viewed from below

The Horyuji Temple lies at the heart of the Ikaruga Town in the northwest of Nara Prefecture. It takes just over 10 minutes to travel by train from JR Nara Station to the temple’s closest station, Horyuji Station. The station can also be accessed from Osaka via a single train line, arriving at the station in 30-40 minutes (JR Namba Station ~ Horyuji Station). From the station, the temple can be reached in around 20 minutes on foot. A bus also takes visitors to the front gate of the temple.

Horyuji Temple’s grounds cover an area of approximately 187,000 square meters. The precincts are divided into two areas: the Saiin-garan or Western District, which centers on the temple’s pagoda and the main hall Kondo; and the Toin-garan or Eastern District whose main feature is the main hall Yumedono. The grounds are occupied by a series of elegant wooden buildings dating back to the Asuka Period (592~710) which offer a chance to take a close-up look at the beauty of ancient Japanese architectural styles.

Horyuji’s famous five-story pagoda soars up above visitors’ heads, standing as a symbol of the Western District where Kondo also lies. This distinguished-looking building is an impressive sight when viewed from the front; to visitors who stand at its foot and look up at the building, the underside of the roof is truly lovely, artistically framed by the surrounding trees whose canopies are as tall as the tower itself.

Pagodas like the one at Horyuji were built to enshrine fragments of the Buddha’s remains, and are sometimes called butto or “Buddha tower” in Japan. They are considered the most important buildings within Buddhist temple complexes. Five-story pagodas like the one here represent one of the styles that such towers can take. From bottom to top, the five stories of such pagodas are considered to represent “earth,” “water,” “fire,” “wind” and “air,” these being the five elements believed to make up the universe in Buddhism and ancient Indian philosophy; as such, they encapsulate the Buddhist vision of the universe.

Picture : PIXTA

The seven mysteries of Horyuji, speaking to us across time and space

There are a number of places in Japan which are associated with the phrase nana-fushigi or “seven mysteries,” meaning that a particular site or area has become associated with a number of mysterious phenomena or features that have been much-discussed down through the ages. At Horyuji Temple, the “seven mysteries” include the great stone platform in the shape of a fish which stands in front of Horyuji’s Nandaimon Gate, and the legend that says that all of the frogs which live in the lake in the grounds have only one eye.

Another of these mysteries is “the mystery of the sickles atop the five-story pagoda.” The roof of the five-story pagoda is crowned with a decorative element known as a finial, a kind of vertical shaft surmounted with nine rings running around it. If you look carefully at these rings, you will see that there are four sickles jutting out among them.

It was once said that the sickles “move by themselves”; another legend has it that they were placed there by the 6th century Prince Shotoku in order to lay a vengeful ghost to rest. It is also said that they in fact serve as lightning rods. However, nobody really knows what they are for. No other temple features sickles placed in the finial of a building in this manner, and the question of why they were put here is a tantalizing mystery.

An eye-catching feature of the covered corridor that extends over the Western District is the pillars supporting the roof. These possess a feature known as entasis, in which the column gradually gets narrower at the top and bottom. The entasis seen here is said to be the same as that in the pillars supporting the Parthenon built in Ancient Greece; these columns here are a unique example of the phenomenon in a Japanese building. The painstaking care shown by the miyadaiku carpenters of the time and their superb skills are startling to behold.

A temple full of wonders. The advanced techniques used in even the smallest details make this temple fascinating to visitors

The pagoda of Horyuji Temple is renowned as the oldest wooden building currently standing in the world. Visitors may also be interested to learn about the sozo (statues created from clay and plaster) which occupy the inside of the bottommost level of the pagoda, facing all four points of the compass—north, south, east and west—first created in the Nara Period. The figures represent scenes such as the death of the Buddha and the legend of Maitreya. These statues are eye-catching, with their meticulously detailed faces that are full of human expressiveness.

Horyuji Temple brings the esthetics of the Asuka Period into the present day. This complex houses some of the oldest wooden buildings in the world, is fascinating not only to look at these structures, but to actually touch the wood they are made from, experiencing the natural warmth of the timber and the marvelous technical skills of the former generations of craftsmen who built them.

These simple buildings are understated in their style, yet exude a stately sense of presence that positively draws the visitor in. Nobody should miss the chance to stroll around these grounds, breathing in the sense of romance that comes from these structures with their history stretching back 1,300 years.


Horyuji Temple
Admission fee (common throughout a Saiin-garan, Daihozoden, Toin-garan) Adults 1,500 Yen、Elementary school students 750 Yen

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