Hōryū-ji Temple - 法隆寺 (built 7th-9th centuries onward)
The oldest wooden buildings on earth are at Hōryū-ji. Four structures remain from the Asuka era (552-710) at the cusp of Japan's written history. These relics are not tiny sheds or insignificant pavilions, but central pieces of the ancient temple. Intact for over thirteen centuries, it is a miracle that fire, typhoon, war, and earthquakes have not destroyed them.
Hōryū-ji's history begins in 587 AD, when the ailing Emperor Yomei ordered the construction a Buddhist temple, probably to cure his illness. Buddhism was a young religion that had recently been imported from Baekje, a Korean kingdom with close cultural and economic ties to the Yamato (Japanese) court. Unfortunately, Yomei died shortly after his directive, but his heir Empress Suiko and her regent, Prince Shōtoku (聖徳太子), kept the project alive, completing it in 607. The Hōryū-ji they knew is not the one we know today, for it burned in 670. Historians continue to debate the precise year of reconstruction, but most agree that it preceded 710, the dawn of the Nara period (710-784), which preceded the Court's move to Kyoto.
The four surviving structures from the Asuka era include the five-story pagoda in the central grounds, the centerpiece of the temple complex, along with the Golden Hall (Kondō) next to it. The two others are the inner gate south of the ancient pavilions, and most of the corridor that wraps around the central precinct. It is an awesome thought that when standing in the inner precinct, one is completely enveloped by artifacts of the 7th century. One also marvels that although Hōryū-ji is from the very beginnings of written Japanese history, the buildings already show a highly refined level of style.
The technical sophistication is generally attributed to Baekje's influence, which sent to Japan a number of skilled craftsmen, monks, and designers that assisted the Yamato Court. The layout and function of the buildings are also similar to those of Baekje In the Yamato era, the pagoda was the primary element of the temple, a role that it passed to Golden Halls as the centuries marched ahead. Derived from the Indian Stupa, the pagoda (meaning eight-sided-stupa) held relics of the historical Buddha, or in Mahayana Buddhism, relics of his disciples. Hōryū-ji's pagoda, beneath its massive columnar core, contains such relics. Interestingly, excavating them is impossible because the weight of the entire structure rests upon that spot. This is unfortunate, since Buddhist reliquaries often contain a number of related artifacts, like Sutra blocks, as seen in the excavation of the slightly later Bulguksa in Korea.
The four ancient buildings at Hōryū-ji show stylistic details that mark them as Asuka era structures. In fact, the majority of knowledge on Asuka era structures comes from Hōryū-ji. These key features include:
- entasis (slight curvature) of columnar elements
- "cloud-pattern" bracket arms with cloud-shaped holes supporting roofs
- Swastika pattern railings
- a thin block plate beneath the brackets at the tops of columns
The block plate detail is easiest to notice in the surrounding corridors, but the others are all visible in the pagoda structure.
Visitors to Hōryū-ji should take time to explore the entire complex, as most of the other buildings are quite old as well. The most notable of the later buildings is the Dream Hall of Prince Shōtoku, an octagonal structure in the Eastern Precinct built in the 9th century to commemorate the founding Prince.
Entry Ticket, showing the West Precinct.
All images copyright 1998-2002 Abraham C. Ahn and Timothy M. Ciccone
Mizuno, Seiichi. Asuka Buddhist Art: Hōryū-ji
Weatherhill, 1974. New York
Nishi and Hozumi Kazuo. What is Japanese Architecture?
Shokokusha Publishing Company, 1983. Tokyo