Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area
Buddhist Monuments In The Horyu-ji Area
Cultural Japan Asia And The Pacific Nara Prefecture

The Buddhist monuments in the Horyu-ji area are the earliest Buddhist monuments in Japan, dating from shortly after the introduction of Buddhism to the country, and had a profound influence on subsequent religious architecture. They represent the adaptation of Chinese Buddhist architecture and temple layout to Japanese culture and the subsequent development of a distinct indigenous style.

Buddhism entered Japan from China via Korea in the mid-6th century AD. In the 7th century the pious Prince Regent Shotoku founded the religious centres of Horyu-ji and Chugu-ji. A disastrous fire destroyed the original Horyu-ji buildings in 670, but structural remains survive below ground in the precinct known as Wakakusa Garan to the south-east of the later West Temple (Sai-in). Rebuilding commenced almost immediately and continued into the early years of the 8th century.

The West Temple was completed first, followed by the East Temple (To-in) on the site of Shotoku's Ikaruga Palace. The great temple complex attracted a number of monasteries (Shi-in);these began as communities of Buddhist priests grouped around lecture halls, but in the 11th century they were gradually extended by the construction of temples, built by the priests and their disciples.

From its foundation Horyu-ji was considered to be the temple that guarded the empire, and so it always enjoyed the protection of the imperial family. In addition, the cult of Prince Shotoku, which began in the 12th century, attracted many pilgrims, and as a result Horyu-ji was always immaculately maintained and conserved.

Hokki-ji was almost completely destroyed at the end of the 16th century during political disturbances and only the three-storey pagoda remains from the original construction. With the Meiji restoration of 1868, which was accompanied by a more prominent role for Shintoism, Horyu-ji fell into a decline. However, the pioneering Law for the Preservation of Ancient Shrines and Temples (1897) resulted in it becoming the subject of a major restoration effort, and it has retained its primacy in Japanese conservation policies and programmes since that time.

The plan of Horyu-ji is patterned on the Chinese style of building in the Six Dynasties Period (Bai-wei: 222-589), with a relatively asymmetrical arrangement of the buildings. The structures are based on the Chinese bay system, a modified version of post-and-lintel construction with intricate bracketing designed to transfer the weight of the heavy tiled roof down to the massive wooden supporting columns. They are especially noteworthy for the skilful use of entasis on the columns and their cloud-shaped brackets.

The World Heritage site covers 48 buildings in total - 21 in Horyu-ji East Temple, 9 in Horyu-ji West Temple, 17 monasteries and other buildings, and the Hokki-ji pagoda. Of these, 28 were built before or during the 8th century - the Kondo (main half), Gojunoto (five-storey pagoda), Chumon (inner gate), and Kairo (roofed corridor) of Horyu-ji West Temple and the Sanjunoto (three-storey pagoda) of Hokki-ji. These may justifiably be claimed to be the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world.

The four old buildings in the Horyu-ji West Temple (Sai-in) all date from 680-710. They are surrounded by ancillary buildings such as priests' living quarters, refectories, gates, etc. Fifteen buildings in the complex are designated National Treasures and six are Important Cultural Properties. Two of the buildings in the Horyu-ji East Temple (To-in) date from the first half of the 8th century - the Yumedono (main hall), an exceptional octagonal building, and the Denpodo (lecture hall). Another important structure, rebuilt in the 13th century, is the Raido (worship hall), which houses ashes of the Buddha. Three buildings in this group are National Treasures and six are important cultural properties. Of the Horyu-ji monasteries (Shi-in), most of which date to the 13th-17th centuries, 14 are designated as Important Cultural Properties. The Hokki-ji Sanjunoto (three-storey pagoda), the completion of which is dated to 705 by an inscription, is designated as a National Treasure.