For many people Nara is synonymous with Tōdai-ji (東大寺). This great temple was founded in 745 by Emperor Shōmu, ostensibly to ward off the terrible epidemics that regularly swept the nation, but also as a means of cementing imperial power. In doing so he nearly bankrupted his young nation, but the political message came across loud and clear; soon an extensive network of sub-temples spread throughout the provinces, where they played an important role in local administration. It took more than fifteen years to complete Tōdai-ji, which isn’t surprising when you learn that the main hall is still the world’s largest wooden building. Even so, the present structure (last rebuilt in 1709) is only two-thirds the size of the original. Avoid visiting Tōdai-ji at weekends, especially during the spring and autumn, the two peak times for visiting Nara, when the temple is overrun with thousands of tourists and school groups.
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The main entrance to Tōdai-ji lies through the suitably impressive Nandai-mon (南大門), or Great Southern Gate. Rebuilt in the thirteenth century, it shelters two wonderfully expressive guardian gods (Niō), each over 7m tall. Beyond, you begin to see the horned, sweeping roof of the Daibutsu-den, the Great Buddha Hall (大仏殿), which houses Japan’s largest bronze statue. A 15m-tall blackened figure on a lotus throne, the great Buddha (Daibutsu) seems to strain at the very walls of the building. It depicts Rushana (later known as Dainichi Nyorai), the Cosmic Buddha who presides over all levels of the Buddhist universe, and was a phenomenal achievement for the time. Not surprisingly, several attempts at casting the Buddha failed, but finally in 752 the gilded statue was officially dedicated by symbolically “opening” its eyes. To achieve this, an Indian priest stood on a special platform and “painted” the eyes with a huge brush, from which coloured strings trailed down to the assembled dignitaries, enabling them to participate in the ceremony. Not only were there hundreds of local monks present, but also ambassadors from China, India and further afield, bearing an amazing array of gifts, many of which have been preserved in the Shōsō-in treasury – as has the original paintbrush.
The Buddha has had a rough time of it since then. As early as the ninth century an earthquake toppled his head, then it and his right hand melted in a fire in 1180 and again in 1567. As a result, only tiny fragments of the original statue remain intact, the rest being made up of patchwork parts put together over the centuries. Nonetheless, the remodelled giant is definitely large, and it’s hard not to be impressed by the technological triumph involved in re-creating it. As you walk round the hall, don’t be surprised to see people trying to squeeze through a hole in one of the rear supporting pillars – success apparently reserves you a corner of paradise.
Walk west from the Daibutsu-den compound and you’ll find the more modest Kaidan-in (戒壇院), which was established in 754 as Japan’s first, and foremost, ordination hall. It was founded by a Chinese high priest, Ganjin, who Emperor Shōmu hoped would instil some discipline into the rapidly expanding Buddhist priesthood. He had to be patient, however; poor Ganjin’s ship took six attempts to arrive here, by which time the priest was 67 years old and completely blind. His ordination hall was rebuilt in the Edo period, but the statues inside include eighth-century representations of the Four Heavenly Kings (Shi-Tennō), crafted in clay.