As you walk round the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hōryū-ji (法隆寺), completed in 607 AD, it’s worth bearing in mind that Buddhism had only really got going in Japan some fifty years earlier. The confident scale of Hōryū-ji and its superb array of Buddhist statues amply illustrate how quickly this imported faith took hold. One of its strongest proponents was Prince Shōtoku (574–622), the then-regent, who founded Hōryū-ji in accordance with the dying wish of his father, Emperor Yōmei. Though the complex burnt down in 670, it was soon rebuilt, making this Japan’s oldest-surviving Buddhist temple.
The main approach to Hōryū-ji is from the south, which takes you past the helpful information centre (). Walk north from here along a wide, tree-lined avenue to Nandai-mon (Great South Gate), which marks the outer enclosure. Inside lies a second, walled compound known as the Sai-in Garan, or Western Precinct. Within the Sai-in Garan’s cloister-gallery, the Five-Storey Pagoda will inevitably catch your eye first. This is Japan’s oldest five-tier pagoda, and inside you can see the early eighth-century clay images of Buddha entering nirvana. However, it’s actually the right-hand building, the Kon-dō (Golden Hall), which is Hōryū-ji’s star attraction. This is the world’s oldest wooden structure, dating from the late seventh century, and although it’s not very large, the building’s multi-layered roofs and sweeping eaves are extremely striking.
Entering the Kon-dō’s east door, you’re greeted by a bronze image of Shaka Nyorai (Historical Buddha) flanked by two Bodhisattvas still bearing a few touches of original gold leaf that they were once covered in; this Shaka triad was cast in 623 AD in memory of Prince Shōtoku, who died the previous year. To its right stands Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Healing, to which Hōryū-ji was dedicated, and to the left a twelfth-century Amida Buddha commemorating the Prince’s mother.
Exiting the Sai-in compound, walk east past two long, narrow halls, to the Daihōzō-den (Gallery of Temple Treasures), which houses Hōryū-ji’s priceless temple treasures in two halls. Look out for the bronze Yume-chigae Kannon. This “Dream-Changing” Kannon is credited with turning bad dreams into good, and has a soft, secretive smile. Connecting the two museum halls is the Kudara Kannon Dōi, which houses the wooden Kudara Kannon statue, thought to date from the seventh century. Nothing is known about this unusually tall, willowy figure, but it has long been recognized as one of the finest Buddhist works of art in Japan.
The Hidden Buddha of Horyu-ji
The Hidden Buddha of Horyu-ji
Tō-in Garan is the eastern precinct of Hōryū-ji, which was added in 739. At its centrepiece is the octagonal Yume-dono (Hall of Dreams), with its magnificent statue, the Kuze Kannon. Until the late nineteenth century, this gilded wooden figure, said to be the same height as Prince Shōtoku (perhaps even modelled on him in the early seventh century), was a hibutsu, a hidden image, which no one had seen for centuries. Somewhat surprisingly, it was an American art historian, Ernest Fenellosa, who in the 1880s was given permission by the Meiji government, against the wishes of the temple, to unwrap the Kannon from the bundle of white cloth in which it had been kept. He revealed a dazzling statue in an almost perfect state of repair, carrying a sacred jewel and wearing an elaborate crown, with the famous enigmatic smile of the Kon-dō’s Shaka Nyorai on its youthful lips. Unfortunately, the Kannon is still kept hidden for most of the year, except for brief spells in spring and autumn (April 11–May 15 & Oct 22–Nov 22).