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Exploring the Yakushi-ji Temple

Exploring the Yakushi-ji Temple

After spending a couple of hours in the peaceful gardens of Toshodaiji, I walked down to Yakushiji. The path beside the Canal was narrow and only meant for walkers or cyclists. The water flowing in the Canal was sparkling clear, I cannot dream of such clean flowing water in Kolkata (my hometown). I trudged along the path at a leisurely pace. At the next intersection, I asked a traffic cop for directions and he directed me towards the gate of the temple. While walking towards the Yakushi-ji temple, I happened to see a lovely courtyard on my right and I went in to take a look.

Genjo-sanzoin, Yakushi-ji

The signboard was in Japanese and the paper map I had did not contain any mention of this place. At the end of the courtyard was a beautiful gate. I wanted to take a few pictures, so I went inside. There was an admission booth at the end of the courtyard. The guy at the counter was of little help, but he did understand “Yakushi-ji” and offered me a ticket to go inside. From the ticket, I realized that it was the Genjo Sanzo Complex. Admission ticket to Genjo Sanzo Complex includes the Yakushiji temple grounds. The ticket was priced at 1100 Yen.

Inside the hall, a Bonsai exhibit was going on. I clicked a few pictures of the miniature trees and some other Ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) flowers.

Towards the end of the hall is a long passage with large 6 foot sized paintings of the various places Hiuen Tsang visited on his journey that culminated with him reaching Nalanda. Ikuo Hirayama, a famous Japanese-style painter is credited for creating these wall paintings. Photography of the paintings is strictly prohibited.

On my way back I clicked some photos of the red Pagoda in the center of the hall. It was then, that a Japanese guy, approached me. He was friendly and we got into a conversation. I told him I was from India. In his broken English and lot of iPhone translation, he made me aware of the Hiuen Tsang connection.

It was the Genjo-Sanzoin, a pagoda built in the honor of Hiuen Tsang (Xuanzang in Chinese, 602-664) , who traveled to India to learn Buddhism via the Silk Road. Built in 1981, it enshrines the remains of Hiuen Tsang. I still remember the story of Hiuen Tsang from my childhood. I used to admire the stories of travelers who would wander and discover new places. He was a popular person in my History textbooks and his stories were most interesting. There is one Hiuen Tsang Memorial Hall in Nalanda that I plan to visit someday.

It is also interesting to know how his remains found their way to Nara. It was in the midst of Sino-Japanese war in 1942 when the Japanese military found Hiuen Tsang’s remains in Nanjing, China. After intense mediation between the two countries, it was settled that both share the remains and enshrine it in their respective countries. The remains were brought to Yakushi-ji, the head temple of Hosso sect and to this day remain inside the Genjo-Sanzoin pagoda.

Note: Genjo-Sanzoin is opened  only from Jan.1-5, Mar.1-Jun.15, Sep.16-Nov.25

More on Hiuen Tsang


While walking back towards Yakushi-ji, I noticed a couple of big black ravens, almost double the size of any I have seen before. Their crackling sounds broke through the pin-drop silence of the grounds. It didn’t take me long to reach the entrance to Yakushi-ji, it’s just opposite to the Genjo Sanzo Complex.

Yakushi-ji is among Unesco’s list of “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara” World Heritage Site alongside Todai-ji and Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The temple is the headquarters of the Hosso sect of Japanese Buddhism. Known as the Temple of Medicine, Yakushi-ji was built in 680 by order of Emperor Tenmu for the recovery of the Empress from a serious illness. There are many buildings in the temple grounds. But most of them were destroyed by fire in 973 and 1528 and rebuilt later.

One has to pass through a small building to enter the grounds. The building has many stalls selling souvenirs and books. As I walked out, the first thing I noticed was this huge bell on the left.

I walked down the path to the left of the Kodo hall towards the Toindo Hall. The original construction had been erected in 721 and rebuilt in 1285. The hall is the oldest Zen hall in Japan. It enshrines a Sho Kannon, a National treasure from the Hakuho Period (645-710). The statue is cast in bronze and 190 cm high. Again photography was not allowed inside the temple. The sculptures were amazing, so I went out, took out my longest lens and shot those sculptures from outside the Hall.

I circled the complex and eventually reached the front Nandai-mon Gate. Similar to other temples, here too they had huge warrior statues guarding the gate on both sides.

The main building, Kondo is characterized by the two illustrious pagodas on either side (unfortunately the East Pagoda was all covered up for repairs.).

The Hall houses a bronze Buddha from 697 AD.  The Yakushi Nyorai, or Healing Buddha, is seated between two attendant Bodhisattvas, Nikko (of the sun) to the right and Gakko (of the moon) to left. Originally covered with gold, they are now a rich black due to a fire in 1528.

The East Pagoda is a National Treasure from the Hakuho Period, 34 metres high. The East Pagoda (Toto) dates from around 698 AD. This pagoda, miraculously survived the fire that destroyed Yakushi-ji in 1528. It is the only surviving architecture of the Hakuho Period in Japan. While the East Pagoda is black in color, the West one is red. The original West Pagoda burned down in 1528 and was rebuilt in 1980.

I walked around the back towards the Lecture Hall. The Kodo (Lecture Hall) was rebuilt in 1852.

This hall enshrines another Yakushi-Triad from the Hakuho Period flanked by two Arhats.

Behind the sculpture of Buddha, on the other side are kept 16 idols of Arhats. They are said to be the original followers of the Buddha who have followed the Eightfold Path and attained the Four Stages of Enlightenment and are free of worldly cravings. These 16 Arhats formed part of the First Council in Rajagrha, where they vowed to renounce material life in order to devote themselves more effectively to the relief of human misery.

It was 4:30 pm and the temples around Nara generally shut down after 5 pm. I took some pictures of the Kondo Hall and the West Pagoda and then head back to the souvenir stalls. I purchased a photo book, containing photographs of the sculptures at Yakushi-ji. The book contains pictures of many age-old figurines that are rarely displayed. I also wanted to buy a bunch of incense sticks, but they were way too expensive at 2000 Yen a bunch.

Before moving out, I asked the person at the counter, how to go back to Kintetsu Nara. He directed me towards the train station nearby, but I was still not too sure with trains, and decided to find the nearest bus stop. I thanked him with a subtle “Arigatou.” I believe one can get away, around Japan with just these three words: Arigatou, Sumi-masen & Gomen-nasai… and not to forget, a Smile 🙂

Evening had set in by then and the East pagoda was lit up like a Christmas tree.

I walked towards the train station looking for the nearest bus stop. The #70 bus passed by me, and I backtracked it to a bus stop nearby. I looked for the time-table at the bus stop, but it wasn’t very clear. A girl, probably also waiting for the bus, asked me about JR Nara Station. I told her I was going back to Kintetsu and they were in the same route. She told me we need to go to another bus stop on the main road but didn’t know which way to go. I was more familiar with the map, since I had walked down the road and was able to identify the direction we had to go. So we went back towards the canal and across it towards Toshodai-ji. At Toshodai-ji she asked an elderly lady and she pointed us towards the correct bus stop, which was just around the corner. We stood there at the stop for a few minutes, along with some other tourists before the bus came along and I was on my way back.

Yakushiji has a lot of history. I was disappointed at first, not to have seen the black pagoda, but still the grounds are a great place to roam around and witness the moments of glory of Nara.

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