法隆寺 Horyu-ji - World Heritage in Japan

 World Heritage in Japan


I’ve lived my whole life as a Japanese person, but when I went overseas I realised I know practically nothing about Japan. So now I’m learning about Japan’s World Heritage Sites, from oldest to newest. Those who are interested, and even those who are not, come along for the ride.

法隆寺 Horyu-ji

撮影協力 / メルボルン総領事館 Thanks to the Consulate-General of Japan, Melbourne


 ○○○○○ 世運隆替の中で絶えることなく息づく信仰の力 法隆寺 ○○○○○ 








○○○Horyu-ji: the strength of unwavering faith through the vicissitudes of fortune○○○

This time I introduce Horyu-ji, a temple added to the World Heritage list in 1993 due to its importance in the history of Japanese Buddhism and its great influence on religious architecture in Japan. If I say ‘the temple with the five-storey pagoda,’ you might know the one I mean. The World Heritage protected area is around 586 hectares, including 48 structures belonging to Horyu-ji Temple, one structure belonging to Hakki-ji Temple, and land belonging to the village of Ikaruga. There are several theories concerning when the Horyu-in West Temple (Sai-in) was constructed, but it is said to be the oldest wooden building in the world. Itsukushima Jinja, the shinto shrine introduced last month, and Horyu-ji, perhaps the origin of Japanese Buddhism, were registered together to the World Heritage List; together they express the way that Shinto and Buddhism are practised side-by-side in Japan.

Horyu-ji is a temple in the town of Ikaruga, in Ikoma District, Nara Prefecture. Horyu-ji was built by devout Buddhist Prince Shotoku who did much work to spread the religion in Japan. Today it is the headquarters of the Shotoku Sect, founded by Prince Shotoku; due to its location, it is sometimes called Ikaruga Temple. Incidentally, the town’s name ‘Ikaruga’ is derived from a bird called the ‘ikaru’, which is why the town’s logo features a bird.

Horyu-ji is made up of Sai-in (in the west) and To-in (in the east), along with sub-temples surrounding each. Notably, different parts were built in different eras. Sai-in was built in the year 607, but was probably destroyed by a fire in 670 and rebuilt from the late 7th century to the early 8th century. In the past, there was an intense controversy over whether the temple had been reconstructed, but recent research has led to this theory being widely accepted. Sai-in’s main structures – the ‘kondo’ (sanctuary hall), five-storey pagoda, central gate and cloisters – are of international significance, as they are in an early Buddhist architectural style that has disappeared even from Korea and China, where Buddhism originated. The fact that these structures have survived 1300 years is due to the efforts of ‘miyadaiku’, carpenters who specialise in constructing and repairing shrines and temples. Once there were miyadaiku all over Japan, but today fewer than 100 remain. I realise it must be hard to find a successor for so exacting a trade, but how lonely for the miyadaiku...

To-in was built in the first part of the 8th century by a high priest called Gyoshin, as a tribute to the memory of Prince Shotoku. One of the main structures of To-in is the octagonal Yumedono (Hall of Dreams), in which is enshrined the Guse-Kannon, a Buddhist statue said to have been modelled after Prince Shotoku. This octagonal style is likely derived from the eight trigrams of the Chinese I Ching, so it’s no wonder the Yumedono looks like it could be something out of a Chinese film. Furthermore, sub-temples began to be constructed around To-in and Sai-in in the 12th century and more in the 17th and 18th centuries. This makes Horyu-ji a place where one can see at one time the many changes in Japanese Buddhist architecture.

In addition to the World Heritage-listed structures, Horyu-ji also contains many precious Buddhist statues and murals; for a while, when there were difficulties preserving the temple, some of the treasures were donated to the Imperial Household. But today Horyu-ji still contains around 2300 precious historical artifacts, of which 190 (including buildings) have been designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. Horyu-ji really is a treasury of Buddhist culture.

Next time, I introduce a temple called Yakushi-ji in Nara Prefecture.