Day Two in Nara: Kofukuji Temple

Note: This post is dedicated to reader “Rory”.

After a nice day in Kyoto seeing both Chion-in and the Silver Pavilion, we left early the following day and took a long trip to Nara via the Kintetsu Line. Note to travelers: spend the extra money (about ¥1100 per person) and get the limited express (tokkyū 特急) and save about 30 minutes in travel time. We arrived at Nara Station which is very conveniently located in the heart of Nara city.

Nara, compared to Kyoto and even more to Tokyo, is a smaller, quieter, relaxed place.1 It definitely has a timeless, old-school feel to it, as it was the capitol of Japan long, long ago, but moved to Kyoto by the 8th century. Currently it’s celebrating its 1300 year anniversary, with a nice mascot named Sento-kun, shown here getting a hug from my daughter:

Daughter and Sentokun 2

That’s not to say Nara is backwards either though, just very quiet and timeless. The food is also quite good, and the udon I tried had a different flavor than what I knew back in Tokyo. Anyway, once we set foot outside the station, all we had to do was take a right turn and walk about 5 minutes to the first stop: Kofukuji Temple, home of the Hossō sect. I was quite excited to see this famous historical temple at last, and hoped to get a feel for what remains of the once-great Buddhist sect in Japan.

As the pamphlet I have explains, the Kofukuji Temple was the tutelary temple of the powerful Fujiwara family, which steadily rose in power until the 11th century when Fujiwara no Michinaga (the same fellow whom Lady Murasaki served under) practically ruled Japan as regent. The temples fortunes and greatness rose along with the Fujiwara clans’, but during the Genpei War when the samurai first rose to power, Kofukuji sided with the wrong side2 and was burned to the ground in punishment, and it never fully recovered. By this time the Fujiwara clan steadily declined in power, eclipsed by the new samurai class, and even now exists only as a shadow of its former self. Likewise Kofukuji and the Hosso sect diminished in influence over time, though still retaining its roots as part of “Nara Buddhism”, and many of its greatest buildings were burned down in past wars never to be recovered. Of the three Golden Halls that once existed, only the Eastern Golden Hall, Tōkondō (東金堂) still stands, though rebuilt many times.

Anyway, as we neared Kofukuji, we were beset by the famous Nara deer who are constantly pressing for food. We quickly got around them, and headed toward on entrance of Kofukuji (the north-west entrance):

Kofukuji Sign 2

It is here that you can reach the National Treasure Hall, the Kokuhōden (国宝殿) easily. The Kokuhōden is a kind of museum preserving a lot of the relics from Kofukuji over the years, including the famous Ashura statue advertised a lot lately. Photographs are not allowed inside, so I can’t show you what I saw, but the Kofukuji website in Japanese has all the artifacts cataloged with pictures here, so take a look. Being in that museum with so many fantastic works of art was like being in another period of Buddhism. Seeing the various types of devas (including the famous Ashura statue), the types of demons, and the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas themselves was amazing. It was really like seeing the entire corpus of Buddhist mythology come to life. I particularly liked the section that featured the great disciples of the Hosso sect, as each monk had a different expression on his face, one sad, another stern, another peaceful and so on. The great centerpiece, a massive, massive statue of Kannon Bodhisattva was great to see as well. Again, I can’t emphasize enough how powerful the feeling was of being back in early Buddhist times in Japan, when so much of this stuff was fresh and new, and so mystifying, like the sutras coming alive.

After that experience, we made our way to the Eastern Golden Hall and the accompanying Five-Story Pagoda. The Eastern Golden Hall was commissioned by the pious Emperor Shōmu to help his aunt, Empress Genshō recover, and his devout wife, Empress Kōmyō was the inspiration behind the Pagoda that stands next to it. Even today, this stands as a symbol of marital harmony. First, here’s the Pagoda:

The Five-Story Pagoda of Kofukuji

And next to this was the Eastern Golden Hall:

The Eastern Golden Hall

If you were to stand between them and face west, you could see the Southern Octagonal Hall (more on that later):

Overlooking the Southern Octagonal Hall

As it was a very sunny day, the iPhone I used had some trouble with light and shadow contrasting so much, so the picture above had to be edited a little.

In any case, we went to Eastern Golden Hall, which has the Medicine Buddha as its main image. Again, photographs are not allowed, but the gallery of items can be found here. First, I approached the donation box, or saisen bako (賽銭箱) and tossed in a coin, then rang the bell:

Eastern Golden Hall Gong

The rope was a little heavy and awkward to swing, so it took a few tries to get it right. From there, I entered a door to the right, and saw a large array of statues, from smallest to the largest (Medicine Buddha) and decreasing again. The centerpiece of course is the Medicine Buddha, as Emperor Shōmu wanted to help his wife recover, and in that period of time in Japan, sutra readings and other meritorious works by the aristocracy were seen as having a positive, tangible effect. In keeping with the Buddhist text, the Medicine Buddha Sutra, the Buddha is flanked by two Bodhisattvas, Nikkō (sunlight) and Gakkō (moonlight), and then by the 12 Heavenly Generals or junishinshō (十二神将) who are also mentioned by name in the sutra. In frequent Japanese iconography, the Medicine Buddha is flanked by both bodhisattvas and the twelve generals. Also in the same room was a statue devoted to Manjushri Bodhisattva, who according to the pamphlet, was a frequent source of devotion by Buddhist scholar-monks who wanted to further their studies or pass exams. Even today, some devote Buddhist scholars still do this and the April 25th festival to Manjushri is still very popular at Kofukuji.

The Medicine Buddha statue had a big sign beneath it, showing the mantra used in Japanese Buddhism (originally from Shingon Buddhism I think, which had some influence on the Nara schools):3

on koro koro sendari matogi sowaka

…in Japanese katakana phonetics, as mantras are usually written. The others had left, so only “Baby” who was in my arms and I remained. As we said our prayers to the Medicine Buddha, Baby waved goodbye and blew the Medicine Buddha a big kiss. I had not seen her do that in a real long time, so it was very cute and touching.

After buying an ema and writing a request (Baby just scribbled on there a bit), we left and made our way to the South Octagonal Hall or nan’endō (南円堂):

Southern Octagonal Hall of Kofukuji

You can see “Baby”‘s head just at the bottom. Sadly, by this time everyone was getting hungry as we took so long in getting there due to train issues, so I could not go in and see. The good folks at the Kofukuji have pictures of all the relics inside, and according to one site, the Southern Octagonal Hall is an important pilgrimage point for the Kansai-area Kannon Pilgrimage. Here’s a closeup of the lantern at least:

Latern outside Southern Octagonal Hall of Kofukuji

So that was about it for my trip to Kofukuji. I wanted to do more, but time was not on our side, and we had to make room for the trip to Todaiji next door, which was also an awesome adventure. In any case, I felt very privileged just to be there at such a venerable temple, and was happy to pay my respects, however small, to Rev. Tagawa the abbot whose book “Living Yogacara” really inspired me recently, and to the venerable tradition of Yogacara Buddhism.

As for anything lay-oriented (for those interested in Yogacara Buddhism), I didn’t see much there beyond some esoteric elements (mantras devoted to the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas), and recitations of the Heart Sutra, which is almost universal in Japanese Buddhism. Hossō Buddhism definitely proves to be pretty mainstream in any case, just a specialized school of study, as were all the “Nara Buddhism” schools.

Next up on the tour is Todaiji, which was so great, I have to break it up into two posts. :-0 I will have to complete this when I get back to the US next week, but stay tuned!

Namu Yakushi Nyorai
Namu Amida Nyorai

P.S. More pictures on Flickr.

1 My wife is frequently fond of reminding me that her heartthrob idol, Tsuyoshi Domoto from the band Kinki Kids, was born here. We did not have time to make a “pilgrimage” to his house though, thankfully. ;)

2 Proof-positive that religion and politics really don’t mix. Let’s not forget it was Kofukuji, along with Enryakuji, who tried to suppress the Pure Land movement, sometimes by force. A sad chapter in Buddhist history and such a noble temple.

3 For those wishing to further their studies of a given mantra, please get in touch with a reputable and ordained priest of an established Japanese Buddhist tradition (e.g. Shingon, Tendai, Hossō). There are plenty of charlatans eager to entice you with promises of esoteric powers and such, but a legit, ordained priest will teach you this, while keeping things in perspective of what matters: the Buddha-Dharma.

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6 Comments on “Day Two in Nara: Kofukuji Temple”

  1. rory says:

    wow, thanks this is really amazing. All the links the picture galleries, statuary where to begin? it’s just so much. I’ll ask something easy,
    I had no idea that Kannon was the central image at Kofukuji, it looks like Senju [thousand armed] Kannon to me, a very beautiful and powerful statue. I need to take out my dictionary to try and see if I can make out some Kanji.
    a thousand thanks Doug!

  2. Doug says:

    Hi Rory,

    Glad to help. :-) I learned a lot too, plus the atmosphere was just cool.

    I think Hosso Buddhism, like all early Nara Buddhism is pretty eclectic so each building had different images: Medicine Buddha in one, Kannon in another. Pretty different than the one-practice, one teaching schools of the Kamakura period.

  3. mita says:

    Hi there Doug,

    came to stumble upon your blog while having to write a report for a recent school trip to Nara. Anyway, about the Eastern Golden Hall and the Five-Story Pagoda here, I checked on wikipedia and other Japanese sites as well as read this entry on your blog post and I found that on most sites it is written that the Eastern Golden Hall was actually built to help the recovery of Emperor Shomu’s aunt, instead of his Empress…while the Five-Story Pagoda was only written as “built in favor of Empress Kyomo”. Just in case I got it wrong, please let me know :D
    I just noticed the small smiley face at the bottom of the page, so cute!

  4. Doug M says:

    Hi Mita and welcome to the JLR! You’re right, I went back and read the pamphlet I brought back and it says in part:


    I’ll fix that right away. Good catch!

  5. b-fly says:


    I visited Nara today and on my way to writing my own blog I found this nice report. I enjoyed Nara a lot, it’s really a nice city. Please, give my regards to your wife and tell her that I too found that being in the place where Domoto Tsuyoshi was born is definitely a cool thing. XD

  6. Doug M says:

    Hi B-Fly and welcome to the JLR! I did pass on what you said and she smiled and laughed. :-)

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