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Gangō-ji Temple - 元興寺 (built 6th century onward, present buildings remodeled in 1244)

Gangō-ji is one of a handful of temples in Japan that retain architecture from the Nara period (奈良時代), which lasted from 710 to 794. According to the Gangō-ji temple website, Gangō-ji was first founded in the late 6th century by Soga no Umako (551? - 626) in the Asuka area of Takaichi county, Nara. Although the temple was dubbed Hōkō-ji local residents referred to it as Asuka-dera temple instead. The temple remained at Asuka until 718 when it was moved to its present location following the transfer of the capital from Fujiwara to Heijō-kyō (today's Nara). Even as Gangō-ji prospered in its new locale Asuka-dera functioned in a diminished capacity and its Main Hall still contains an important cultural treasure -- the Great Buddha of Asuka-dera, the oldest Buddha statue in Japan, traditionally attributed to Kuratsukuri no Tori from the year 606.

The Gangō-ji of the Nara period was one of the pre-eminent temples of the capital, located on the east side of the city in an area immediately to the south of Kōfuku-ji temple. As a first-tier, or national temple, it occupied nine square blocks in a 3 x 3 grid, each block measuring about 120 meters to a side. In such a setting the layout of the temple was quite different from what survives today. The temple's pagoda, which is no longer present, stood at the southeast corner of the site in its own enclosed area (see plan below). To the left of it and somewhat to the north stood the Golden Hall which was enclosed within another courtyard defined by a lecture hall to the north and wrap-around corridors extending southward. Ancillary buildings such as the refectory and monks' quarters stood to the north. This configuration was perhaps unique in Nara--it was the only major temple to have a Golden Hall standing alone within a courtyard, the more common arrangement being to pair it with one or even two pagodas to the south (as was the case at Yakushi-ji, another pre-eminent temple). Its unusual design may have been an homage to temples of earlier eras where this layout was more common.

Gangō-ji grew in size over the centuries but its present state is much diminished from periodic fires. At present the only structures that survive from the Nara era are the Hondo (本堂, Main hall) and the Zenshitsu (Zen room), along with a miniature 5.5 meter model pagoda. Unfortunately, both the Hondō and the Zenshitsu were heavily remodeled from older structures in 1244, during the Kamakura Era (1185-1333), so it is not possible to determine what functions the buildings originally served or even how they looked.

Temple Layout in the Nara Era (710-794)

Plan drawn by Timothy Ciccone following Minoru Ooka in "Temples of Nara and Their Art".
Plan of Gangoji


The approximate location of Gangō-ji Temple is 34.677798' N, 135.831341' E (WGS 84 map datum).


All images copyright 2013 Tsukamoto Masako.

Aoyama, Shigeru. Nara
  Hoikusha Publishing Co., Ltd., 1964. Japan

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   Tokyo Enfield: Tuttle Publishers Group UK distributor, 2010.

McCallum, Donald F. The Four Great Temples Buddhist Archaeology, Architecture, and Icons of Seventh-century Japan
  Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009.

Nishi, Kazuo et. al. What Is Japanese Architecture?
  Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1985.

Ooka, Minoru. Temples of Nara and Their Art
  New York: Weatherhill, 1973.

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