薬師寺 Yakushi-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.

薬師寺 Yakushi-ji

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


 ○○○○○ 薬師寺 日中仏教界の百世之師をまつり次世代を育む寺院 ○○○○○ 




天平時代の華麗な彩色に目を奪われるのが、東塔と対になっている西塔。よく見ると東塔よりも少し高くなっていますが、これは年月の経過による材木のたわみや基礎の沈下を計算したもの。再建に当たった文化財保存技術者で『最後の宮大工』と呼ばれた西岡常一(にしおか つねかず)によると、500年後には西塔も東塔と同じ高さに落ち着くとか。500年後に伝える仕事、壮大ですよね。




○○○Yakushi-ji: a temple that is an iconic figure in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism○○○

In 1998, the ‘Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara’ were registered as World Heritage sites. These are Todai-ji, Kofuku-ji, Kasuga-taisha, Gango-ji, Yakushu-ji, Toshodai-ji, the ruins of Heijo Palace, and Kasugayama Primeval Forest. The heritage-listed area is 616.9 hectares, while the buffer zone and ‘historic environment harmonisation area’ make up a further 2,501.5 hectares. The area is a unique piece of heritage. It was chosen for the list due to the Nara period architectural style of its structures, and its evidence of 8th century cultural exchange with China and Korea that influenced Japan’s unique mix of Shinto and Buddhist ideas.

This time I introduce one of these monuments: Yakushi-ji, located in Nishinokyo-cho, Nara City, Nara Prefecture. 1,350 years ago, Xuanzang travelled the Silk Road from China to India, and brought back 657 Buddhist texts. He compiled ‘The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra’ and made Yakushi-ji and Kofuku-ji the head temples of the Hosso sect of Buddhism. (He also was the inspiration for the monk character in ‘Journey to the West’, also known as ‘Monkey’ in the English-speaking world.)

Yakushi-ji was established in Fujiwara-kyo by Emperor Tenmu in the year 680, but in 718 it was moved due to the relocation of the capital. Excavations of the Yakushi-ji site at Fukuwara-kyo and today’s Yakushi-ji have revealed that both temples were built with almost precisely the same scale and structure. It’s amazing how exact the measuring techniques of 1,300 years ago were! The distinctive arrangement of the temple, centering on the main hall (‘Kondo’) and lecture hall (‘Kodo’) and with a three-storey pagoda to the east and west, is now known as ‘yakushiji-style’. Unfortunately, due to fire caused by war in 1528 as well as several natural disasters, the only original structure today is the East Pagoda (‘To-to’). Later, thanks to the Hakuho Temple Restoration Project led by Takada Koin, 124th abbot of Yakushi-ji, the main hall was restored in 1976, the West Pagoda (‘Sai-to’) in 1981, and the central gate (‘Chu-mon’) in 1984.

The serenely beautiful East Pagoda looks like it has six storeys but in fact only has three. It was likened to ‘frozen music’ by Ernest Fenollosa, a great admirer and introducer of Japanese art to the outside world (though the phrase ‘architecture is frozen music’ is of German origin).
The eye-catching West Pagoda has magnificent Tempyo period coloration. Close examination reveals it is slightly taller than the East Pagoda, but that is because of the latter’s wood warping and foundations sinking over centuries. According to Nishioka Tsunekazu, an expert in the preservation of ancient shrines and temples, after 500 years both towers will be the same height. Isn’t that amazing, to do work for 500 years hence?

Yakushi-ji is a very open temple, holding many events in which ordinary people can take part and experience Buddhism: sermons and the hand-copying of sutras; ‘temple school’ for primary and junior high school students during summer vacation; ‘Seinen-shu’,a program in which high school and university students can take part in traditional temple events; and concerts in dedication to the gods by musicians of many genres.

Next we introduce the Heijo Palace ruins, another ‘Historic Monument of Ancient Nara’.