The weathered, wooden halls in Tōshōdai-ji‘s (唐招提寺) shady compound are superb examples of late eighth-century architecture. The temple was founded in 759 by the eminent Chinese monk Ganjin – he of Nara’s Kaidan-in – when he was granted permission to move from the city to somewhere more peaceful.

The first thing you’ll see on entering the south gate is the stately Chinese-style Kon-dō (main Hall), which has recently been restored. Craftsmen who accompanied Ganjin from the mainland are responsible for the three superb dry-lacquer statues displayed here. The Kō-dō (Lecture Hall) behind the Kon-dō also dates from the late eighth century, and is more Japanese in styling. During the Nara period, this hall was a major centre of learning and religious training. On the compound’s east side is the concrete Shin-Hōzō, where, each spring and autumn, Tōshōdai-ji’s treasures go on display. Again, these are mostly statues, of which the most celebrated is a headless Buddha known as the “Venus of the Orient”. Just once a year – on June 6, the anniversary of Ganjin’s death – the doors of the Miei-dō (Founder’s Hall), in the northern section of the compound, are opened to reveal a lacquered image which was carved just before he died in 763 at the grand age of 76. He’s buried next door, in the far northeast corner of the compound, in a simple grave within a clay-walled enclosure.

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