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Notes on the Geography of Japan: Horyuji

We've taken a 10- or 15-minute train ride from Nara, plus a short walk, to see perhaps the oldest wooden building in the world.  It's at the Horyuji Temple--the "Temple of the Flourishing Law"--founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku at the command of his aunt, the Empress Suiko.

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The Nandaimon or Great South Gate, built in 1439. Late in the day, in other words.

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The path north to the Chumon or middle gate, from the seventh century. In the background is the temple's famous seventh century, five-storied pagoda.

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Closer.

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Closer.

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Closer.

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We've stepped off to the right for another view, this time highlighting the roofed corridor or kairo which encloses the sacred space. It's open on the side facing inward but is screened on the outside with slat windows, or renji mado.

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Set in the chumon are two kongo-rikishis, or gate guards. The one on the left is black.

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On the right, red.

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The chumon or middle gate seen from the inside. The gate is unusual in having an even number of bays, so that there's no middle one. The midline of the approach, in other words, is blocked by a central line of columns.

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Inside, there are three dominating structures. This one is the main hall, or hondo. The same building is more often called kondo, literally the golden hall. The double roof is supplemented at the base by an additional and lighter eave, a mokoshi.

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A sunnier view, from the southeast this early morning in February.

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Dragons slither in the corner brackets.

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Inside the kondo, the Shaka (Sanskrit = Shakyamuni) Triad centers on a small bronze 7th-century image of the historic Buddha.

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Next to the kondo is the Goju-no-To or pagoda, with its original timbers from 607. Its broad eaves, including an additional mokoshi at the base, balance the verticality of the structure with strong horizontals. A stack of horizontal rings called kurin crosses the bronze finial or sorin.

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At the pagoda's base, four clay grottoes show scenes from the life of the Buddha.

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The two buildings, seen from the northeast.

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Back at the chumon and looking north between the kondo and pagoda to the far side of the temple enclosure and its daikodo, or great lecture hall. This arrangement, with kondo and pagoda side by side instead of lined on the temple axis, is uniquely Japanese, though Japanese temples don't always follow it.

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Here's the lecture hall from the southwest corner. The building to its left is the library or sutra repository, the kyozo.

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The lecture hall dates from 991.

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Closer.

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Inside.

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The figure is the Buddha Yakushi (Sanskrit = Bhaishajyaguru), the "Healing Teacher," flanked here by attendants. Yakushi appears here because the temple was built to honor a vow from the emperor Yomei to build it if he recovered from an illness. He didn't, but his widow went ahead anyway.

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Side view.

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Adjoining the temple on the east is the shoryoin, the sacred spirit hall dedicated to Prince Shotoku's soul. The building was originally a dormitory for monks; the southern end was converted to this use in the 13th century.

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The approach.

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Inside, an altar.

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The adjoining building is the kofuzo, a treasure storehouse, in this case plastered to resist fire. More commonly, such buildings had unplastered log walls.

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On the west side of the temple is a path to an octagonal temple on the low hill in the background.

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It's the Saiendo, or West Round Hall, containing another image of Yakushi.

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A roof pendant or keman, here on museum display.

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A bracket arm in the cloud design.

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We've left the Saiin or West Temple but turned to look back for a moment. We're on our way to the smaller but important East Temple, or Toin.

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Inside its enclosure is the Yumedono or Hall of Visions, where Prince Shotoku is said to have retreated when needing divine help in his interpretation of difficult texts.

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The roof ornament consists of a base, a "sacred jewel" sparkling in the suien or "flame" style, and a summit flask suggesting that the building was not only a Buddha hall but a memorial pagoda for Prince Shotoku.

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Eave-corner ornament.

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Inside the building is, or was, a hidden, life-sized statue of Amida (Sanskrit = Avalokiteshwara).

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Adjoining the East Temple is this bell tower, a toin shoro in the spreading-skirt style (hakamagoshi).

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Closer.


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