Yakushiji (薬師寺) was constructed by Emperor Tenmu in the late 7th century for the recovery of the emperor’s sick wife. One of Japan’s oldest temples, Yakushiji has a strictly symmetric layout, with the main hall and lecture hall standing on a central axis, flanked by two Pagodas.
The main hall was rebuilt in the 1970’s after being destroyed by fire and houses Yakushi trinity, a masterpiece of Japanese Buddhist art. The East Pagoda is the temple’s only structure to have survived many fires that have beset the temple over the years, and dates from 730. It appears to have six floors, but is in fact only three, like the West Pagoda.
Construction Notice: The East Pagoda of Yakushiji is undergoing major renovation works over a time period of almost ten years (until April 2020)
The principal temple of the Hosso sect, Yakushi-ji was originally constructed in the seventh century and still contains statues from that period. Begining in A.D. 680 during the reign of Emperor Temmu, only the East Pagoda survived, with the remaining structures seen here today dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. Highlights include the Main Hall (Kondo), containing the famous Akushi Trinity, a nearly three-meter-tall figure with both Chinese and Indian influences flanked by noblemen and dating from A.D. 697. The original three-floors East Pagoda, standing 38 meters high and topped by a unique metal pinnacle, is the only surviving example of Buddhist architecture of the seventh century. Behind the Pagoda is the East Hall, built in the 1285 and containing a two-meter-high bronze figure of Sho-Kannon, a gift from the King of Paekche (Korea). Other buildings of note are the Bussokudo with its stone bearing footprint of Buddha; the bell tower with a Korean bell, and the treasury containing two beautiful paintings of Kichijo-ten, goddess of beauty, and a Chinese priest.
The Genjo-sanzoin Garan is a recently built complex, located slightly north of the main complex area. Constructed in 1991 complex is dedicated to the Chinese monk Genjo-sanzo, who lived in the 7th century and is famous for his extensive travels to India and Central Asia. Yakushiji is the head temple of the Hosso Sect of Japanese Buddhism, upon which Genjo-sanzo’s teachings had a profound influence.
The main building at Genjo-sanzoin Garan is a central octagonal hall, in which some of Genjo-sanzo’s remains enshrined. Behind the octagonal hall is a building displaying works of Hirayama Ikuo, one of Japan’s most famous painters who passed away in 2009. The paintings depict scenes of Genjo-sanzo’s journeys, which have inspired Hirayama’s work. Unfortunately, complex is closed now, for about half the year already (see admission details below).
By train: The temple is located right beside Nishinokyo Station, which can be reached from Kintetsu Nara Station by taking the Kintetsu Nara Line to Yamato-Saidaiji Station and transferring to the Kintetsu Kashihara Line. The entire trip takes about 25 minutes and costs 260 yen.
By bus: Bus number 72, 78 and 98 provide three connections per hour from Kintetsu Nara Station (20 minutes, 270 yen) and JR Nara Station (15 minutes, 270 yen) to Yakushiji Temple. The closest bus stop to get off are Yakushiji (薬師寺), served by buses 72 and 78, and Yakushiji Chushajo (薬師寺駐車場), served by bus 98. When returning to central Nara, you can catch bus number 72 or 77 from Nishinokyoeki bus stop (西ノ京駅) twice per hour or bus number 97 from Yakushiji Chushajo bus stop once per hour.
Hours: 8:30 to 17:00 (entry until 16:30)
Closed: Main temple: No closing days
Genjo-sanzoin Garan is closed from mid January till the end of February, from July to the mid of September (except Obon in the middle of August) and in December. Admission: 1100 yen (800 yen when Genjo-sanzoin Garan is closed)
Another of the Seven Great Temples of Nara, also in Nara Park, the Kofuku-ji Temple complex, consisted of 175 buildings in its heyday. Founded in A.D. 669, the surviving buildings include an octagonal hall, the Nan-endo, built-in A.D. 813, and home to a statue of Fukukenjaku-Kannon carved in 1188, along with magnificent sculptures of the four celestial guardians and the six patriarchs of the Hosso sect. In front of the hall is a ninth-century bronze lantern with an inscription attributed to Kobo-daishi. As well as a three-story pagoda.
Other buildings of note are the Northern Hall (Hoku-endo), also octagonal and built for Empress Gensho in A.D. 721 and famous for its 13th-century wooden statue of Miroku-bosatsu; the East Hall (To-kondo) with its 15th-century statue of Yakushi-nyorai, along with older eighth-century statues; and a splendid five-story pagoda erected in A.D. 730, at 50 meters the second highest pagoda in Japan containing many historically significant figures.
Kofukuji (興福寺, Kōfukuji) used to be the family temple of the Fujiwara, the most powerful aristocratic clan during much of the Nara and Heian Periods. The temple was established in Nara at the same time as the capital in 710. At the height of Fujiwara power, the temple consisted of over 150 buildings.
The temple features several buildings of great historic value, including a five and three-story pagodas. At 50 meters, the five-storied pagoda is Japan’s second tallest wooden pagoda, just seven meters shorter than the five-storied pagoda at Kyoto’s Toji Temple. Kofukuji’s pagoda is both a landmark and symbol of Nara. It was first built in 730, and was most recently rebuilt in 1426. Neither pagoda can be entered by the public.
While entrance to Kofukuji’s temple grounds is free and possible around the clock, there are three areas that require paying an entrance fee: The Central Golden Hall, the Eastern Golden Hall and Kofukuji’s National Treasure Museum.
Kofukuji’s main temple hall, the Central Golden Hall, was destroyed by fire roughly 300 years ago and was not rebuilt in its original size until recently. After many years of reconstruction, the hall was reopened to the public in October 2018. East of the Central Golden Hall stands the Eastern Golden Hall which houses a large statue of the Yakushi Buddha.
Located not far from the Eastern Golden Hall, the National Treasure Museum exhibits part of the temple’s great art collection and is an absolute must-see for lovers of Buddhist art. Among many outstanding exhibits is the three-faced, six-armed Ashura Statue, one of the most celebrated Buddhist statues in all of Japan.
Another pair of interesting buildings are the Northern and Southern Octagonal Halls. They both originally date back over a thousand years, and their present reconstructions were completed in 1210 and 1789 respectively. They are not usually open to the public.
Access: Kofukuji is a five minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station, or a 20 minute walk from JR Nara Station. Kofukuji can also be reached from JR Nara Station by clockwise running loop bus or any of the buses bound for Kasuga Taisha (5-7 minutes, 220 yen). Get off at Kencho-mae bus stop.
Hours: Interior of temple halls and museum: 9:00 to 17:00 (entry until 16:45) The temple grounds are open 24 hours.
Admission: 500 yen (Central Golden Hall)
700 yen (National Treasure Museum)
300 yen (Eastern Golden Hall)
900 yen (National Treasure Museum and Eastern Golden Hall)