Uncovering the Appeal of Japan’s First World Cultural Heritage Site, Horyuji!
The world's oldest wooden structure, Horyuji, was the first cultural property in Japan to be registered as a World Heritage. Here are some of the must-see sites of Horyuji.
1. Nandaimon Gate
This is the gate that is the entrance to Horyuji. The original gate burned down in 1435, and the current one was reconstructed in 1438. The front is approximately 3-gen (approx. 5.46m) wide, and the side is 2-ken (approx. 3.64m). Eight pillars support a beautifully curved tiled roof. It is built in a decorative style with care taken even to the details on the ceiling and was designated a national treasure as a superior example of historic structures from the Muromachi period (1336 - 1573).
2. Chumon Inner Gate and Cloister
The Chumon is the entrance to the Saiin Garan (Western Precinct), which is the oldest existing wooden structure in the world. It is a structure with the unique characteristics of Asuka architecture such as the deep, overhanging eaves, the kumimono brackets and koran (handrails in cloisters) beneath it, and the entasis (a slight convex curve in the shaft of a column seen in ancient architecture) columns supporting them. Although the chukan (distance between the two pillars, not related to the overall measurements) of gates at Japanese temples is usually an odd number (such as 3-gen or 5-ken, and the side is usually 2-ken), here the chukan is 4-ken, and there is a pillar in the middle. The kairo cloister that extends left and right from the Chumon to surround the Garan is a tanro (1-bay wide) and has renjimado windows (windows with vertical or horizontal stacks of long wood with quadrel or rhombic cross-section embedded) all around it. The thick pillars that support the kairo cloister are entasis pillars with the section that is about a third from the bottom wider than the rest, giving the overall building a sense of stability.
3. Goju-no-To Five-Story Pagoda
This pagoda, which is representative of Horyuji, is designated a national treasure as Japan's oldest five-story pagoda built in the 7th century. It was built using a construction method called "tsumiage kozo," in which five independent tiers are stacked up from the bottom so that in the case of an earthquake, each tier shakes separately, absorbing the vibration. It's amazing that a structure has survived without collapsing for 1,300 years in such an earthquake-ridden country as Japan. The roofs of the pagoda become smaller the higher up it goes, creating a beautiful silhouette in the form of an isosceles triangle. One side of the top roof is approximately half the length of the bottom roof. There are plenty of other things to see such as the manji-kuzushi (a design that looks as if the Buddhist swastika has been deconstructed) koran rails, and the jaki statue supporting the bottom roof. The pagoda is made with great care not just in its construction, but also in the detailed decorative elements. Be sure to enjoy it from various angles.
4. Kondo Main Hall
This is the most important building in Horyuji, and is the center of Saiin Garan. Like the Goju-no-To, it is the oldest wooden structure in the world and is designated a national treasure. The Kondo is a shape that is nearly square so that it can be viewed in the same way from anywhere in the cloister. It looks like a two-story structure from the outside, but the second-story portion is just the timber work and there are no rooms inside. It is thought to have been built thus for balance with the pagoda. The pillar with a dragon sculpture supporting the second-floor roof was added at the beginning of the 18th century to support the weight of the roof. The hall holds Horyuji's most important statues, the Shaka Triad, the seated Yakushi Nyorai, and the Amida Nyorai Triad.
5. Yumedono Hall of Visions
This is the main building of Toin Garan, and was built in 739 AD. It is an octagonal circular hall that was built to assuage the spirit of Shotoku Taishi (an aristocrat and politician of the Asuka period (592 AD - 710 AD)), who had deep connections with Horyuji. In the zushi (a Buddhist altar fitted with double doors where Buddhist statues are kept) in the center of the hall, there is a Guze Kannon statue that is said to be the same size as Shotoku Taishi. It is preserved well as it was sealed as a secret Buddhist statue until the American Asian Art historian, Ernest Fenollosa, and Tenshin Okakura visited Horyuji to catalog cultural properties. As a result, characteristics of Asuka period sculptures, such as the long face, almond-shaped eyes, and archaic smile (an expression with a smile on the lips), are clearly visible. It is exhibited to the public twice a year, in the spring and fall. The beautiful aspect of the Guze Kannon smiling upon us from 1,300 years ago is a definitely must-see!
6. Daihozoin Gallery of Temple Treasures
Completed in 1998, this is the newest building in Horyuji. It was built to store and exhibit treasures, such as statues of Buddha, zushi, and crafts held by Horyuji. The Daihozoin consists of an Eastern and Western treasure hall, and the Kudara Kannon Hall to the north, which houses the Kudara Kannon statue, sometimes referred to as "Venus of the East." In addition, there are many national treasures and important cultural properties to see in the Eastern and Western treasure halls, such as the Tamamushi no Zushi Shrine, renowned as a tour de force of the Asuka period, and the Yumetagai Kannon. You are likely to forget the passage of time as you immerse yourself in the outstanding craftsmanship and sense of beauty of the artisans of the time.
The world's oldest wooden structure, Horyuji, is a treasure trove filled with national treasures and important cultural properties. Take your time to peruse it and you are sure to discover something wonderful.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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