Todaiji (東大寺, Tōdaiji, “Great Eastern Temple”) is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. The temple was constructed in 752. As the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan and grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 to lower the temple’s influence on government affairs. Todai-ji Temple is also known by the alternative name “Konkomyo-shitenno-gokoku-no-tera.”
Todaiji Temple is a complex of buildings that includes the world’s largest wooden structure, the 48m (157 foot)-high Daibutsu-den, built in 743 which houses the 15m (49 foot) gilt bronze Daibutsu (Great Buddha), cast in 749: also the largest of its kind in the world.
Until recently, Todaiji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall), held the record as the world’s largest wooden building, even though the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two-thirds of the original temple hall’s size. The massive building houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). The 15 meters tall, seated Buddha represents Vairocana and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas.
Along the approach to Todaiji stands the Nandaimon Gate, a large wooden gate watched over by two fierce-looking statues. Representing the Nio Guardian Kings, the statues are designated national treasures together with the gate itself. Temple visitors will also encounter some deer from the adjacent Nara Park, begging for shika senbei, special crackers for deer sold for around 200 yen.
Rebuilt in the Edo Period, the Kaidando Hall originally dates back to the 8th century when it served as Japan’s most important ordination hall. Today, it houses celebrated clay statues of the four heavenly kings (shitenno). The Shosoin is a large storehouse constructed in the 8th century. Located a five minute walk behind the Daibutsuden Hall, the building is elevated on stilts and used to store the treasures of Todaiji Temple and the Imperial Family. It can be viewed by tourists from the outside only.
The former site of the Lecture Hall can be found directly behind the Daibutsuden Hall, on the way to the Shosoin. All that remains of the former temple building are some stone foundations in the ground. In the past, Todaiji’s Daibutsuden Hall was flanked by two seven-storied pagodas that were about 100 meters tall. In 2015, the exact location of the former east pagoda was ascertained. The excavated area (shown on the photo) has since been covered up, and there are plans to rebuilt the pagoda to its former glory.
Todaiji Temple Buildings
Visitors to Todaiji enter the temple through the massive Nandaimon Gate (Great South Gate) – rebuilt in the 13th century – and known for its giant guardian gods or nio, 7m-tall wooden statues protecting the temple within from evil. Opened in 2011 is the Todaiji Museum, a modern building close to Nandaimon Gate, which hosts rotating exhibitions of treasures from the temple, including Buddhist statuary and religious art.
The Great Buddha Hall
(Daibutsuden) houses Japan’s largest bronze statue – a darkened figure of the Cosmic Buddha (Dainichi Nyorai). The statue weighs 500 tons and is 16m tall – a masterpiece of Tempyo Period (729-764) art. Several attempts at casting the Buddha failed before success was finally achieved in 752. Ambassadors from as far away from India, Persia, and China attended the dedication ceremony. And the gifts they brought with them were kept in the Shoso-in treasure house behind the hall.
However, little remains of the original 8th-century statue, which has been damaged in fires and earthquakes and subsequently re-cast. Only on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are the upper doors. In front of the face of the Great Buddha, opened at the temple; Worshipers can thus pray to the Buddha from the outside of the temple on this day. West of the Daibutsuden is the Kaidanin, set up in 754 as Japan’s premier ordination hall for new monks. The present building dates from the Edo Period (1603-1858). But it contains some ancient and exquisite clay statues of the Shitenno or Four Heavenly Kings.
The Bell Tower
dates from 1210 and is believed to have been built by the Zen priest Yosai (1141-1215). The bell weighs an incredible 26.3 tons. Todaiji’s grounds are spacious and cover most of the northern Nara Park. Including a number of smaller temple halls and sites of interest around the Daibutsuden Hall. Below are some of the other attractions that can be found in the Todaiji temple complex:
Todaiji is located in the northern part of Nara Park. It is about a 30-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station, or about a 45-minute walk from JR Nara Station. It can also be reached by bus from either station. Get off at Todaiji Daibutsuden from where it is a 5-10 minute walk to Todaiji’s main building.