Ringing in the new year at Todai-ji

We decided to do something different this new year eve. We walked down to Todai-ji at midnight to usher in the new year with the blessings of the great Daibutsu. Todai-ji is the largest of the Seven Great Temples of Nara and one of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara“.

The roads were lit and the streets were empty. Nothing new for someone who has lived in Nara even for a short amount of time. Once we reached the Nara Park area, we could see some families walking towards the temple. A group of deer were gathered under the street lights.

The narrow road comes directly up to the temple from behind. As we reached the Todaiji grounds, the crowd became denser. The regular gate that is used for entry for tourists was closed. The caretakers were preparing to open the imposing main gate. Generally the main gate remains closed and visitors have to use the two smaller side gates on each side. A huge queue had formed in front of the main gate. It looked like all of Nara had descended to the temple. It was still not midnight. We went towards the back of the queue and took our positions. We waited patiently for the clock to strike, midnight. The gate was opened to the public exactly at midnight and they started letting people in to the courtyard.

New Years Eve in Nara

Once we went through the gate, the horned roof of the Daibutsuden is the first thing that comes into view. People gradually made their way to the Daibutsu Hall. Todaiji houses the Nara Daibutsu, a gigantic bronze statue completed around 757. It took 9 years and an enormous manpower of 2 million workers working together to complete this magnificent statue. In the dark my Nikon D7100 was struggling to take photos. Mani was having better luck with her Sony Alpha 6000. It does offer better results in low light.

Over the years, the main wooden building and the statue have been damaged by fire and natural calamities several times. Each time it was repaired keeping the authenticity of the place intact. As we got closer, we could see the Buddha face clearly from the windows on the upper floor. It is one of the motivations for the huge crowd. The upper floor windows are opened rarely and on very important occasions. People come from afar just to see Buddha’s face from these windows.

I fished out my zoom lens and took a closer shot of the face. This was taken handheld as tripods are not allowed to be set up inside the premises.

On both sides of the wide path, there were several bonfires in tub like apparatus. It was cold and we waited near one of the bonfires for the initial crowd to disperse.

Once the crowd was sparse, we went towards the Daibutsuden Hall. It has begun to drizzle. Rain had been forecast and so we had brought along our waterproof jackets.

I have been inside the Daibutsuden before but on entering the dimly lit main hall, one can’t, but be overwhelmed over and over again by the 15 meter high, gilt bronze statue sitting on sacred lotus leaves. The blackened statue depicts Rushana, also known as Dainichi Nyorai or the Cosmic Buddha.

After paying respects, we walked out. At the main gate, the queue was no more, but there was still a steady stream of enthusiasts who wanted so see the face of the Buddha through the upper doors. I set up my tripod and took some pictures of the entrance gate.

Near the Nakamon Gate, there is a small pond and Todai-ji looked amazing from there.

Everything about Todaiji is huge. It has a long history and many stories attached to it. Every time I come and see the huge Daibutsuden Hall, I feel really small. We were supposed to leave for Hiroshima at dawn, so we left early for home. Nara Park with its herds of deer and the Todaiji make for an amazing night. If you are around Kyoto or Osaka, do take out a day to visit this lovely place.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked my post. I also visited Todaiji during the day time some time back. You may find useful information if you are planning a visit.

Todai-ji : Home of Buddha

Today we went for a walk to Nara Park to explore the age-old Buddhist temple of Todai-ji (東大寺). Once the most powerful temple in all of Japan, guarded by the fierce Sohei warrior monks, its phenomenal rise eventually forced the Emperor to shift their capital from Nara to Kyoto to stop its growing influence.

After a long week of dull cloudy days, the sun was finally shining through. It was a Monday and I was hoping the crowd would be less compared to the weekends. The last time we were at the park, it was late in the evening and the temple hall had closed down for the day. Shrines and temple in Japan close down early around 5/5.30 pm depending on the season. The last entry time is generally around 30 minutes before closing time.

Mani & I walked down to Todai-ji along the route from Nara University. The lanes on this route are much peaceful compared to the regular thoroughfare via Kofuku-ji. The narrow lanes lined with vintage wooden houses adds to the nostalgia. After walking for about 10 minutes, we were at the Daibutsu-ike pond.

Nandai-mon Gate of Todai-ji

A few paces beyond the pond, we took a right turn to reach the Nandai-mon Gate – a large wooden gate watched over by two fierce-looking Asuras. Eighteen giant pillars, each of 21 m height, support the roof with the entire structure rising to about 25 meters above the stone plinth on which it rests. The Nandai-mon Gate is the largest temple entrance gate in Japan, complementing perfectly in scale to the huge Daibutsuden (Buddha Hall).

The original structure erected during the Nara period was destroyed by a typhoon in the Heian period (794-1185). The present gate, which dates to the Kamakura period (1185–1333), was reconstructed by Chōgen, the monk responsible for restoring Tōdai-ji, at the end of the twelfth century. The ridgepole was raised in 1199 and the structure was completed in 1203.

The Nio statues, positioned on either sides of the gate, were carved sometime in the 13th century by the sculptors Unkei and Kaikei. It is said they took only 69 days to carve out these immensely detailed wooden statues. The massive statues are about 8.4 meters in height and look particularly impressive at night when they are illuminated.

The statues represent the Nio Guardian Kings. Known as Kongo Rikishi , the statues, one with mouth open, the other with mouth closed, are said to represent life and death. In Indian mythology, these two guardian kings are referred to as Vajradharas or thunderbolt holders. I have researched in more detail about the history of Nio Guardians. You can read all about it here.

The 7m-tall wooden kongorikishi statues at Tōdai-ji in Nara were made by Busshi Unkei in 1203.

Just beyond the Nandai-mon, you can find the entrance gate to the main grounds of the temple. This gate however is opened only on special festive days. To enter the compound you have to take a left turn to the corner where you will find a smaller door that leads to the admission ticket booth inside.


Beside the gate, you can find the beautiful Kagami-ike pond. The pond features a tiny green island. On the island there’s a small shrine dedicated to three female kami, protectors of fishermen, called Itsukushima. The name of the pond implies its a mirror, and at a certain angle you can see the reflection of Todai-ji in the pond.

From the pond, we made our way towards the admission booth that lies inside the outer compound. The tickets cost us ¥600 per person. After buying the tickets, one has to go past a narrow gate, beyond which you will find a black Urn semi-filled with ashes. Three troll like creatures hold up the urn on their shoulders.

There is a small rectangular box adjacent to the urn called the saisen-bako, where you can drop some money that goes towards the upkeep of the temple grounds. You should avoid throwing your offering so as not to appear disrespectful. While it is less about the amount of the offering than the sincerity of your prayers, Japanese superstition dictates that certain yen amounts bring good or bad luck. Beside the donation box there are bunches of incense sticks. You can light up a few before offering your prayers.

The five-yen coin is considered a good choice for donation because it sounds like ‘go-en’, the Japanese word for luck. The ten-yen coin, however, is considered unlucky despite being worth twice as much because it sounds like ‘tou-en’, which means that your luck will be far away.

Standing at the urn and looking towards the Great Hall is a grand sight. Pictures cannot convey the feeling I had as I gradually started walking towards the main hall. I felt like a tiny tiny person.

Todai-ji’s grounds are spacious. Within the precincts of the temple are an array of other buildings in the hills, including halls and storehouses that spread over a big part of northern Nara Park. Visitors are not allowed to wander into these areas. As you walk towards the main hall, you will find a small structure to your right where you should wash your hands. It is not necessary but recommended.

Todai-ji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world’s largest wooden building.

Origins of Todai-ji

Buddhism might have its roots amidst the overwhelming Himalayas, it might have bloomed in the Indian districts of Gaya, but ultimately it found its home in the beautiful islands of Japan, specially in this small part of Nara.

The name Todai-ji literally means giant temple east of the capital. It served as an institute of higher learning for monks and as the headquarters of Kokubunji temples established by Emperor Shomu across the nation to propagate Buddhist teachings.

The reign of Emperor Shōmu extended from 724-749 CE. It was marked by several attempted coups and rebellions, as well as natural disasters and epidemics. Towards the later stages of his reign, he tried to be a virtuous ruler. He was inspired by his wife, who opened medical clinics and cared for the needy. He began to believe that Buddhism could bring protection, peace, and prosperity to his people.

There’s a document that verifies that a decision was reached by the emperor in 734 after he’d been worrying greatly about his leadership. Around that time, many people had starved to death after a series of natural disasters, including drought, famine, and a major earthquake. Such was the anarchy that people stole from one another to survive.

In 741, Emperor Shōmu issued an edict that said every province should have a monastery and nunnery. The system of monasteries was known as Kokubun-ji. In 743, the he announced plans to build a huge statue of Vairocana, the Cosmic Buddha.

History of Todai-ji

Todai-ji is the headquarters of the Kegon sect of Japanese Buddhism and Vairocana Buddha is considered by followers of the sect to be the spiritual body of the historical Buddha – Gautama Buddha or Sakyamuni. Construction of the Great Buddha began in 743. The 53-foot-high bronze statue was cast in eight stages. It included 500 tons of ornamentation made of copper, tin, lead, and gold. The casting process used up all the copper in the Japanese archipelago. The chief sculptor, Kuninaka no Kimimaro, was the son of a Korean immigrant.

Did you know: An artist named Kuninaka no Kimimaro led the original Daibutsu construction project

The vast temple was constructed as a symbol of imperial power and took over 15 years to complete. Once the casting was completed in 749, Shōmu gave up the throne and became a Buddhist priest.

The Daibutsu, or Great Buddha, was more than 60 feet high and included three million pounds of metal covered with gold. The original temple hall is said to have been even more spectacular. It is said that the original was 86 meters wide, so 29 meters wider than the current building. It incorporated a blue-tiled roof, white walls, and lacquered pillars. Built in the style of a Chinese palace building, the main hall had enormous red columns along with a yellow ceiling, green window frames, and a black tile roof. Two 90-meter-tall, seven-story pagodas stood at opposite ends of the from the hall. Both were destroyed over a period of time. The Great Buddha Hall was finished in 751 CE.

Fact-file: Its hard to imagine that Daibutsuden is now only two-thirds of its original size. Wonder how huge it was originally

The construction of Todai-ji and the bronze Buddha used up extensive amount of bronze, and by the time it was completed in 749, it had used up all of Japan’s bronze resources.

The Great Buddha and Tōdai-ji temple were consecrated in 752. The “eye-opening” ceremony was attended by visitors from the Asian continent. The 17,000 attendees included monks and nobles from Japan, as well as monks and dignitaries from China, Korea, and India. Of course, the reigning Empress Kōken was there. So was her father, the retired emperor Shōmu.

Though it was originally founded in the year 738 CE, Todai-ji was not opened to public until the year 752 CE.

Just before you enter the temple, you will find the Octagonal Lantern in the style of a Tachi-gata. The lantern dates from the time of the founding of Todai-ji. The distinctive large fire chamber (hibukuro) is covered with a sloping roof (kasa) surmounted by a jewel finial (kurin). It rests upon a stone base surrounded by small stone posts emanating from the pedestal. Eight panels makeup the fire chamber, ornamented with celestial musicians. The lantern contains four pairs of hinged doors decorated with lions running across clouds.

If you look closely you can find on one of the panels a representation of Krishna, a Hindu deity, playing his flute.

Myths surrounding Todai-ji

There are a number of mythical tales surrounding Todai-ji. I will share one of the interesting ones that is mentioned in the 12th century, Konjaku monogatari shu, a collection of folklores.

The story goes like – after Todai-ji was completed, Emperor Shomu desired to hold a dedication ceremony to consecrate its new statue of Buddha. A monk from India known as Baramon was asked to serve as the lecturer at the dedication ceremony. The priest Gyoki and the Emperor were still deliberating on who will read the sutras. Gyoki, himself being a monk of high regard, who became a monk at Asuka-dera, a temple in Nara, at the age of 15 and studied under Dōshō as one of his first pupils.

One night in his dreams, the Emperor was visited by a heavenly being and was told that someone will show up in front of the temple on the morning of the dedication ceremony. Whether he be a priest or a commoner, he or she should be the reader.

The next morning, the emperor confided in Gyoki, his dream and they sent a messenger to the gate of the Temple at dawn in front of the gate of the temple. It so happened that an old man came along, carrying on his back a bamboo basket filled with blue mackerel.

The emperor firmly believed in his dream and asked the old man to be dressed in religious robes and serve as the reader of the sutras. The old man protested that he just a fishmonger and not qualified for such a task. The emperor however would not accept his refusal.

Did you know: 2.6 million people were employed to construct the original Daibutsuden wood building

When the dedication ceremony started, the emperor had the fishmonger take a seat on the dias, beside the lecturer. The babboo basket with th fish was kept on the east dide of the hall. When the dedication ceremony ended, the fishmonger suddenly vanished into thin air. The emperor was not surprised at this as he had expected something miraculous to happen because of his dream. He asked his attendants to check the bamboo basket whis was still there. To their surprise, theu found eighty volumes of the Flower Garland Sutra in place of the mackarel. The local folk to this day beleive that the Buddha hiself had appeared to see through the ceremony.

It was March 14, 752 CE. From that day on, the emperor designated that day for an annual religious service called the “Flower Garland Sutra” service. And so the story was passed on through the ages.

At the entrance to the main temple building that houses the massive Daibutsu, lies another urn where you can light incense sticks and pray before entering. We paid our respects in front of the incense burning urn before entering the ancient building.

The massive building is somewhat darker inside with a pleasant smell of the incense. Inside lies one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha. The 15 meter tall Buddha represents Vairocana and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas.

After achieving enlightenment in what is now the small town of Bodh Gaya in Bihar, northern India, Buddha sat for a week in deep meditation and it is this pose that is represented in the giant statue. The current sitting Buddha statue is 72 feet high, weighs over 550 tons, and is covered with almost 130 Kg of gold.

To build such a large statue and buildings, workers had to dig down 2.5 meters over a 90 meters by 60 meter area, larger than a football field – just to find firm ground. Concrete-like layers of clay, ballast and sand were then placed on the firm ground similar to how the foundations of the Great Wall of China was built.

The Todai-ji Buddha has been severely damaged over the years. In one such instance in the ninth century, its head was knocked down during an earthquake. On two separate occasions, first in 1180, and again in 1567, its right hand melted in a fire that also ravaged the temple. The body of the statue was reconstructed in 1185, and the head rebuilt in 1692. The present statue is said to be only two thirds the size of the original.

Todai-ji’s Indian Connection

Todai-ji also has a strong connection with India, my home country. At the time, the Great Buddha and the Todai-ji were erected, many Indian monks were residing in China, teaching Dhamma and translating Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. In 730 CE the Japanese envoy to the Chinese court, met Bodhisena, a Buddhist monk from south India, and invited him to visit Japan.

After a long journey, Bodhisena and his fellow monks arrived in Osaka and later moved to Nara in the year 736. The monk Bodhisena helped spread the use of Sanskrit and establish Huayan Buddhism in the country. On the invitation of Emperor Shomu, when the temple was inaugurated, Monk Bodhisena took a huge brush and filled in the pupil of the eyes of the Great Buddha.

To the left and right of Buddha lies an image of Nyoirin Kannon; one of the 33 forms of Kannon (Guānyīn/ Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassionate mercy). Nyoirin Kannon, the bodhisattva of the jewel and the wheel, presides over the six realms of karmic rebirth. The statues were added in the Heian period. These eighth-century statues at Todai-ji can be considered undisputed landmarks in the development of Japanese sculpture.

Here in a corner you can find a replica of the golden horn-shaped decorative roof piece that adorns the roof of Todai-ji, known as Shibi. These tail-shaped roof ornaments were first used in China, and became popular in Japan in the Asuka and Hakuhō periods (552 – 710).

They were positioned on the main ridge of temples and palaces, and were thought to provide protection against fire. Japan’s oldest Shibi can be found at Tōshōdaiji Temple in Nara and are dated to the 8th century.

As we walked towards the back, in the clockwise direction, there lies two towering 30-foot-high wooden statues of warriors. The first one we approached was the Kōmokuten (広目天). He is referred to as the King of the West. He is a Hindu deity incorporated into Buddhism as one of the four Shintennō, a group of fierce-looking guardian deities who protect the four cardinal directions of Buddha’s realm. The four are typically placed around the central deity on Buddhist altars. Kōmokuten protects the western quarter. Like the other members of the Shintennō group, Kōmokuten is typically dressed in armor and stands atop a demon.

The Kōmokuten are generally depicted holding a writing brush in right hand and a sutra in left – symbolizing the power of Buddha’s teachings to overcome ignorance, evil, and all obstacles.

On the other corner of the hall lies the Tamon-ten (多聞天). He is said to be the most powerful of the four Shitennō, with the other three serving as his vassals.

Tamon-ten protects holy places and places where Buddha expounds the teachings. He is generally depicted carrying a pagoda-shaped treasure house in his right hand (from which he gives wealth to only “the worthy”) and holding a spear with his left hand to ward off distractions. He is also believed to have a deadly dragon breadth which is why he always stands with his mouth shut.

In-between the two statues, towards the back of the Daibutsuden Hall, several detailed miniature models of the former buildings are on display.

Another popular attraction inside the hall is a pillar with a hole in its base. It is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life. Quite a few kids were going through in there. I had no chance but I did notice some adult Japanese trying their utmost and succeeding.

We went around a full circle around the Buddha statue and came up to the exit. Several souvenir shops can be found near the exit where they sell charms, hand-beads and other souvenirs.

Outside the hall, to the right of the temple is a wooden statue of Binzuru Pindola Bharadvaja, seated in the lotus position. One of 16 Arhats designated by the Buddha Sakyamuni at his death to keep spreading his teachings. There is a belief that the statue has a gift of healing. if one touches a part of the Pindola in the same part of his body where they have any health concern, it would get cured right away.

On a lighter note, because of its positioning, you cannot reach the back of the statue, so people with back problems can stay away!

According to local stories, one day, the Buddha asked Binzuru to visit a wealthy man whose family was plagued by evil spirits with simple instructions to exorcise the spirits. Binzuru banished the demons in the house. The wealthy man, being grateful, wanted to celebrate. After repeated offers of the drink, Binzuru capitulated to have one as not to be rude to his host. It was not long before he was all drunk and the spirits returned.

Buddha, hearing of this, banished Binzuru from his company. Binzuru, filled with regret, followed the Buddha around the country and sat outside the Buddha’s tent to hear his sermons. On his deathbed, Buddha, acknowledging his loyalty, called for Binzuru and forgave him. He commanded Binzuru to remain in the world as a healer. Binzuru thus always sits outside the temple, so people come to him to ease their suffering.

As we walked out, I noticed many omikuji tied along wooden posts. The omikuji are random fortunes written on white strips of paper at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan. When people receive a negative forecast they tend to tie the omikuji at the temple to ward off the negative fortune.

It was truly a memorable experience visiting Todai-ji. I may not be a religious person but I love the wonderful tales these historic places tell.

We wandered around Nara Park all day spending some time at the Kasuga Taisha. The area also has some wonderful restaurants where you can indulge in local delicacies. In the evening, we went down to Ukimido to capture the lovely pavilion in the vivid colors of sunset. Once it was dark and the street lights began to come on, surrounding us in a romantic light, as we walked back towards the city.

I went back to Nara Park various times to capture the heritage site during the night. During these late hours, visitors are comparatively much fewer and it is easier to photograph these mesmerizing structures.

Todai-ji at Night

If you can come back in the evening, the park looks completely different. Late in the evening, the temple grounds close, but the gates around the park are brightly lit up. Apart from one or two people, the area is generally devoid of tourists. With no tourists around to feed them, the deer wander away down to the meadows to graze. This is the Nandai-mon Gate at night.

Past the  Nandai-mon Gate, I took some more shots of the main temple entrance gate.

A few paces to the east, the Todai-ji was also looking beautiful overlooking the Kagami-ike pond. It is because of this beautiful reflection on the surface of the pond that gets its name Kagami-ike or ‘mirror lake.’

You can find more pictures of the Todai-ji temple when I visited it on New Year’s Eve when the main hall is opened to the public even during the night.

Admission Timings

Apr – Oct : 7:30 – 17:30
Nov – Mar : 8:00 – 17:00

Admission Fees

Adult ¥600


752 CE

Built by

Emperor Shomu

Photo Walk to Kasuga Taisha

The sun was shining again and I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to explore Kasuga Taisha. We had missed going inside the shrine on the day we went for a walk in the Nara Deer Park and it looked like a lovely day to fix it.

Kasuga Taisha was built in 768 CE by Lord Fujiwara, by the order of Emperor Shotoku. It enshrines four gods from important shrines around the country. From the 8th century, as the Fujiwara dynasty grew in clout, the Kasuga shrine also prospered. Kasuga Taisha became so powerful that even Emperors came to worship here. During that time, the Fujiwara clan wielded such huge amount of political influence that some emperors even married daughters from this clan.

I had stashed up a handful of acorns the day before when I was at Toshodaiji. As I walked past the Deer park, herds came running towards me with needy smiles. After feeding them, I sat in the park for a few minutes with my camera bag doubling up as a back pillow.

The deer gleefully loitered in the verdant greens, munching on the soft grass. It was funny sometimes as they would head-butt the visitors with senbei in their hands and chase them around the park.

The males would keep an eye on the females and if anyone wandered too far they would run after them screeching at them to rejoin the herd.

After an hour of lazying in the soft sun, I started towards the Kasuga Taisha shrine. The road to the shrine goes through a truly primordial forest. The wide gravel path is lined on both sides with hundreds of moss-covered stone lanterns. These lanterns numbering around 2000, are lit during Lantern Festivals in early February and mid August, which must be an awe-inspiring sight.

At the gate, a pair of Shishi, lion-dogs stood guard. The lion-dogs also called Koma-inu, traditionally stand guard outside the gates of most Japanese Shinto shrines. In contrast, the Buddhist temples are typically guarded by the Nio Protectors. As guardians outside the shrine gate, one Shishi is depicted with its mouth open, to scare off demons, and the other with its mouth closed, to shelter the good spirits.

A few minutes up the path is the main entrance. The whole shrine is painted in bright red with green accents. I stood near the entrance to get a clean shot without people, but they just kept streaming in. The priestesses were dressed in lovely red & white Kimono. Near the shops, you can find some ema wood planks hanging with prayers from the visitors.

Near the gate the fortune-telling stalls were doing good business. The outer area is free, but to enter the shrine, one has to pay an admission fee. After waiting for some time, once the crowd thinned out, I went to the admission booth. The ticket cost me ¥500. Inside the path is marked with arrows for tourists.

While outside all lanterns are made from stone, the ones inside are cast in bronze. Some of them are covered with gold leaf. The architecture of the Shrine is known as the “Kasuga style” due to the unique shape of its roof.  

According to Japanese Shinto rituals, shrines were generally destroyed and rebuilt every 20 years for purification. So, technically the current structure as of today is the 57th Kasuga Shrine, an exact reconstruction based on the original layout.

Main Lantern

The first hall I walked into was the prayer room or Kyojyo. A priest was reciting Sutras. Shinto worship is highly ritualized, and follows strict conventions of protocol, order and control.

Past the prayer room, I reached a corridor lined with many bronze lanterns.

At the far end of the corridor was a closed room. The room was dark and dimly lit by the lanterns. It was an un-earthly experience inside the room. I had to really crank up the ISO to take this shot.

I circled back towards the front area. There I found many more golden lanterns hanging in a neat row.

To the left of the front building was another path. I followed it towards the back of the shrine.

There are a couple of smaller shrines towards the back, surrounded by thick green grove. I walked around taking some pictures.

It was evening and time for me to head back to the university cafeteria for an early dinner.

Admission Timings

6:00 to 18:00 (April to September)
6:30 to 17:30 (October to March)

Admission Fees

¥ Free (outer area)
500 Yen (inner area)


768 CE

Built by

Lord Fujiwara, by the order of Emperor Shotoku

Exploring the Yakushi-ji Temple

After spending a couple of hours in the peaceful gardens of Toshodai-ji, I walked down to Yakushi-ji using Google Maps as my guide. It led me along a narrow path along a Canal. The water flowing in the Canal was sparkling clear. I cannot in my wildest dream think of such clean flowing water in Kolkata (my hometown).

I trudged along the path at a leisurely pace. At the first intersection, I asked a traffic cop for directions who 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 Garan, Yakushi-ji

The signboard was in Japanese and the paper map I had from the tourism office did not contain any mention of this place. At the end of the courtyard was a beautiful gate. As I walked nearer to the gate I saw an admission booth at the end of the courtyard. The guy at the counter was of little help when I asked about the place, 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. Priced at ¥1100, the admission ticket to Genjo Sanzo Complex also includes entry to the Yakushi-ji temple grounds.

It was a working day and thankfully the crowd was a lot less compared to Nara Park

In the center of the walled structure is a two-storey red pagoda. The corridors surrounding the pagoda were decorated with Bonsai trees. Along with the tiny trees, the exhibit also featured some beautiful Ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) flowers.

Towards the end of the passage, in a covered area, I was found some 6 foot high paintings featuring 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 enriching wall paintings. Photography of the paintings was prohibited.

On my way back I was clicking some photos of the red Pagoda when a Japanese guy, approached me. I don’t recall his name but he was quite friendly and we got into a conversation. I told him I was from India. In his broken English and lot of app translation, he made me aware of the Hiuen Tsang connection. Tsang is also known by the name of Genjo Sanzo.

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

Hiuen Tsang

The Genjo Sanzoin Garan(薬師寺玄奘三蔵院伽藍) was built in honor of Hiuen Tsang (Xuanzang in Chinese, 602-664) , who traveled to India in around 632 CE to seeking learn more about Buddhism. His travels along the Silk Route is something I studied with great zeal as a child. His visit to India was an important event during the reign of king Harshavardhana. We are much indebted to this Chinese traveler for the valuable accounts he left behind, detailing the political, religious, economic, social conditions of those times.

He spent around five years studying Buddhism at the University of Nalanda. He brought from India about 20,000 scrolls of sutras and dedicated his life to translating about 13,000 of them. No mean achievement. For his contribution, a memorial hall was dedicated to him at Nalanda in Bihar, that I plan to visit someday. Built in 1981, the octagonal hall enshrines some remains (a few pieces of skull) of Hiuen Tsang.

It is also interesting to know how the remains of Hiuen Tsang 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 initially brought to Jionji in Saitama. Some of these ashes were later donated to Yakushi-ji in 1981 when the Genjo-Sanzoin complex was built.

Confirming the way to Yakushi-ji, I made my way towards the 9th century temple. Before leaving, I roamed around the beautiful garden of the Hiuen Tsang memorial. In the garden 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.

Yakushi-ji Temple (薬師寺)

It didn’t take me long to reach the entrance to Yakushi-ji, it’s just opposite to the Genjo Sanzo Complex. One has to cross the road and go past the admission checkpoint. I had to show the ticket I purchased at the Genjo Sanzoin. The entry to the temple grounds goes through a small building
selling souvenirs and books. You can find many books dedicated to the history of the temple, some if English but mostly in Japanese.

History of Yakushi-ji Temple

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, the construction of Yakushi-ji was commenced in 680 CE on the orders of Emperor Tenmu. It was hoped that the grand temple will aid in the recovery of the Empress from a serious illness at that time.

You might be left bewildered that this huge site was initially constructed in Asuka in south Nara, in the Fujiwara capital.

Unfortunately, during the long term of the construction, Temmu himself died and his wife acceded to the throne. For most parts of the temple, the actual construction was undertaken during her reign. In 697, the dedication ceremony for enshrining the Yakushi Nyorai was held and the temple was opened to the public.

Within just 10 years of its completion, the capital was moved to north of Nara in 710. Following this in 718, the whole Yakushi-ji compound was shifted to the current site.

As you walked into the compound, the first thing you will notice is the Kodo hall to your right. A few steps ahead on the right you will find a small building with a huge bell.

Toindo Hall of Yakushi-ji

I kept walking down on the straight path towards the Toindo Hall. Before the Toin-do Hall a temple existed here known as the Tozen-in Temple, built under the instruction of Imperial Princess Kibi during the Yoro era (717-724) to pray for the soul of her mother, Empress Genmei. The present Toin-do Hall was constructed in 1285 during the Kamakura period.

The standing statue of Sho-Kannon (Aryavalokitesvaraand from the Hakuho Period, 645-710), the Honzon of this hall, is enshrined inside Zushi (a cupboard-like case with double doors within is an image of Buddha, a sutra, or some other revered object kept at a temple) in the hall. The statue is said to retain the influence of Indian sculpture style of the Gupta Period (350-650) In the year 1733, during the Edo period, the hall was reconstructed, but facing West this time. The hall is the oldest Zen hall in Japan.

The hall also contains some Nio statues. These photos might be a bit blurry as photography was forbidden inside the hall and I used my heavy-weight 80-400 mm lens to take these.

The below idol of Jikokuten, is part of the four heavenly kings. According to temple records, it is said to be created in 1289 CE and painted in 1296. The idol poses fiercely with its feet on devils while protecting forcefully the teachings of Buddha.

Kondo Hall of Yakushi-ji

I circled around the Toindo Hall and found myself at the front gate of the Yakushi-ji temple. Yes, its a bit weird but the main entrance to the temple grounds is actually at the back.

At the gate you can see two huge warrior statues guarding the entrance on both sides. Niō (仁王) or Kongōrikishi (金剛力士) are two wrathful and muscular guardians of the Buddha standing at the entrance of most Buddhist temples in Japan.

These Nio guardians have their own interesting story. If you wish to know more, read here about the Nio Guardians.

The main hall referred to as Kondo is characterized by two illustrious pagodas on either side. The Hall houses a bronze Buddha from 697 AD. The Yakushi Nyorai, or Healing Buddha, is seated between two attendant Bodhisattvas, Nikko Bosatsu (of the sun) to the right and Gakko Bosatsu (of the moon) to left. The engravings on the pedestal where Buddha is seated seems to be a from a combination of cultures including Greece, Persia, India & China. Originally covered with gold, they now appear black due to the fire in 1528.

The statue was originally cast during the reign of Emperor Temmu in 680 and completed by Empress Jito in 697. It is the Buddha of healing who vowed to cure the disease of the mind and the body.

Note: Generally Yakushi Nyorai is depicted with a medicine pot on its left hand, but the statue in this temple does not have it.

West Pagoda at Yakushi-ji

Yakushiji temple grounds contains two pagodas. Unfortunately the East Pagoda was all covered up for repairs which is going to last till about April 2020. The East Pagoda is a National Treasure from the Hakuho Period. It is about 34 meters 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.

Pagoda means a grave in the Pali, the ancient Indian language

Daikodo Hall of Yakushi-ji

I walked around the back towards the Lecture Hall. The Kodo (Lecture Hall) was rebuilt in 1852. It is the largest hall in the temple grounds.

This hall enshrines Miroku Triad from the Hakuho Period flanked by two Arhats. The Miroku Nyorai is flanked by Houonrin Bosatsu (left) and Daimyoso Bosatsu (right) as you face it.

Shaka Judai Deshi Jo (Sakyamuni’s Ten Great Desciples)

Behind the sculpture of Buddha, with a thin wall dividing the room, are kept 10 idols of Arhats. The Arhats are said to be the followers of Buddha who have followed his Eightfold Path and attained the Four Stages of Enlightenment and are free of worldly cravings. These 10 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.

These statues were sculpted by Shinya Nakamura from Kagoshima Prefecture.

Yakushi-ji was burnt down and destroyed many times by fires, wars and natural disasters. However the biggest damages were caused by fires – first in 973 and then again in 1528.

Today only the Yakushi-ji triad in the Kondo, the Sho-Kannon in the Toindo and the East Pagoda recall the grandeur of its original features.

It was already 4:30 pm and the temples around Nara generally shut down after 5 pm. I took some more pictures of the west pagoda and then walked back to the souvenir stalls.

At the souvenir shop 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 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 smiling “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 🙂

I walked towards the train station looking for the nearest bus stop. 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 myself going back to Kintetsu and they were in the same route.

We decided to walk back down the road towards the canal to Toshodai-ji. At Toshodai-ji we asked an elderly lady and she pointed us towards the correct bus stop. We waited there at the stop for a few minutes, along with some other tourists before the bus came along and drove us back to our destinations.

Yakushi-ji at Night

If you wait around a bit for the darkness to set, you can also see the wonderful image of the West pagoda lit up by the bulbs inside the Yakushi-ji complex. The summit of the Pagoda, called Water flame lights up in bright golden as the evening slips into the night.

Yakushi-ji has a lot of history. It is one of the seven large temples in Nara that includes like Todai-ji, Daian-ji, Saidai-ji, Gango-ji, Horyu-ji and Kofuku-ji. 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.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I visit one the most overlooked temple at Nara Park – Kasuga Taisha.

When was Yakushi-ji built ?

680 CE near Kashihara. Yakushiji was originally constructed in Fujiwara-kyo south of Nara (present day Kashihara city), and was finally completed in 698. The temple was moved to its present location in 718, after the capital was moved to the north of Nara in 710.

What are Yakushi-ji temple visiting hours?

8:30 – 17:00 (last admission at 16:30)

What is the price of admission tickets for Yakushi-ji?

Only Yakushi-ji: Adults: ¥800
Yakushi-ji with Genjo Sanjo-in: Adults: ¥1,100

When is Genjo Sanjo-in is open to public?

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

Do they have an official website?

yes, please go here: http://www.nara-yakushiji.com/

Hike to Mount Wakakusayama

It was a lovely sunny day. I packed my gear and headed towards Nara Park. I didn’t have anything specific planned, just wanted to go over there and relax among the lovely deer herds.

Once I reached the Deer Park, I bought some senbei for the deer. I was just wandering about when I noticed the alluring green meadows of Mt. Wakakusa, just east of Todai-ji. I find hiking to be one of the most relaxing and rewarding activities. So I set off along the path up the beautiful hill.

Mt. Wakakusayama is also known as Mikasayama or Mount Mikasa. It’s real claim to fame is being set on fire on the fourth Saturday every January during Wakakusayama-yaki, also known as the Grass Burning Festival, to commemorate a historical battle among monks of Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji.

Myths surrounding Wakakusayama

According to local folklore that goes that many centuries ago, sometime during 1760, the monks of two of Nara’s most powerful Buddhist temples, were locked in a conflict regarding their boundaries. The conflict grew into a big fight and Mt. Wakakusayama ended up being torched.

In remembrance of that horrid day, even today a torch is lit with sacred fire at the Kasuga Taisha shrine, and carried by monks in a procession to the foot of Wakakusayama, where the hill is set on fire. It usually burns for around 30 minutes before a show of fireworks lights up the sky.

Contradicting with the above, there is another story that is connected with the keyhole-shaped tomb called Uguisuzuka Kofun on the top of the third hill of Mt. Wakakusa.

In the past, a superstition developed that if you burn the mountain, you can repel the ghosts that return from their tombs. It is said that as a result, people passing through the Wakakusayama started to set the mountain on fire.

These wildfires repeatedly began threatening the precincts of Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji specially, in winter when the grass turns dry. In December 1738, Nara Magistrate’s Office put up a notice board prohibiting people from setting fire to the mountain. However, arson by superstitious people continued to occur. To avoid such dangers, towards the end end of Edo period, Nara city established a rule to allow people to burn the mountain grass in the presence of government representatives, along with those of Todai-ji Temple and Kofuku-ji Temple.

The Yamayaki (mountain burning) festival is also said to be derived from these superstitions to comfort the spirits of the dead at Uguisuzuka Kofun located at the top of mountain.

Hike to Wakakusayama

At the base of Mount Wakakusa, there is an admission booth that accepts ¥‎150 as entrance fee. Please note that there are two entrances to Mt. Wakakusa, the South Gate and North Gate. These gates are located about 300 meters apart.

The mountain slope is very gentle, more like a hill. Mt. Wakakusa consists of three hills and is 342 meters high. It covers a total area of 33 hectares with lush green grasses, specially during summer months.

The trail to the summit are opened only from third Saturday in March to the second Sunday in December.

The grassy slope is just amazing, coupled with the beautiful herds of deer roaming around. There are two routes up the hill, I took the left one. It attracts less tourists because it is steeper. One has to climb some steps before hitting the well maintained forest trail.

Fall was just around the corner and dry leaves crunched underneath my shoes as I hiked up with my camera. A few minutes into the hike, I was surrounded by towering cedars of the Kasugayama Forest. Sudden bursts of wind would blow the dry leaves along the path with a loud howl. As I hiked up the trail, occasionally one of the Shika deer would peek through the trees in the dimly lit forest. They are a lot hesitant than their kin who dwell near the Todai-ji temple, who would literally chase you down for food.

I took my time making my way up the trail, enjoying the relative solace of the forest.

I reached the first summit in about 40 minutes. The grass was green and the wind was gentle. A couple were sitting there with their dog. I greeted them with a subtle, “Konnichiwa!”

It was a beautiful day, but only a handful of tourists had braved the hike. I lay down on the inviting soft grass watching the quite city of Nara from above. The hill overlooking the city, with the gentle cool wind on a sunny day made me forget about everything for a while.

After relaxing for a while on the slopes, I went back on the trail towards the summit. The weather of Nara is such that even if its hot, you will always find a strong breeze blowing across most of the time. It keeps you energized on the hike.

The hike thereafter is relatively a lot easier. The trail is marked by dense Kans grass on both sides.

After a while I reached a small white shack. If you reach the white structure, it means you are almost at the end of the hike. From here a series of steps will take you to the summit.

Time to hike to Wakakusayama

The peak is only about 342 meters but it gets quite windy at the top. Overall excluding the time I spent at the first summit, it took me around and hour to reach the top of Wakakusayama. At the top of the mountain is a nice vantage point to view the quaint city of Nara.

It was not long before a deer came around attracted by the smell of food in my pocket. They are always hungry! I fed it the senbei I had brought along. It didn’t last long, as we were joined by more deer, and suddenly I found myself being chased by them.

As evening drew in, I started my walk down the hill, hoping to come up here again sometime during the evening to catch Nara with its lights.

Thank you for reading. Please leave me a comment or ask away if you need any information on hiking up the lively mountain or follow my story as I visit the Yakushi-ji temple in the suburbs of Nara.

Opening Hours

9:00 – 17:00
Shin-Mt. Wakakusa Driveway timings: 8:00 – 23:00 (- 22:00 in Winter)

Annual Closure

From the Monday following the second Sunday in December to the Friday before the third Saturday in March

Admission Fees

Adults: ¥150

A Walk through Nara Deer Park

The sun was shining and it was a lovely day for a walk in the Nara Deer Park. Nara Park is a huge park in central Nara. Established in 1880, it is the location of many of Nara’s attractions including Todai-ji, Kasuga Taisha, Kofuku-ji, but the star attraction is the herds of Deer roaming freely all over the park. We left our home after a quick breakfast at Nara University Cafeteria.

Nara is best experienced by walking. The closest temple on the map is Kōfuku-ji, around 10 minutes walk from Kintetsu Nara Station. A narrow alley beside the Station connects the road to Kofuku-ji. The road to the temple is lined with souvenir shops and eateries on both sides.


Kōfuku-ji is a Buddhist temple that was once, one of the powerful Seven Great Temples, in the ancient city of Nara. The temple is also one of eight Historic Monuments of Nara inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Kofuku-ji temple area contains 3 main buildings, the biggest being Gojunoto, the five storied pagoda. The first monument we noticed is a three-storied pagoda named Hokuen-do. A flight of stairs took us to  Tokon-do, another temple. Both Hokuen-do and Tokon-do have been designated National Treasures of Japan. There is a stone wash basin just before the Tokon-do temple where one can wash their hands in sparkling cold water. Before praying to the Shinto deity, worshipers are required to purify themselves of impurity. The washing of hands with water is called Temizu. Most shrines have similar stone wash basins where visitors can rinse their hands before approaching the deity.

Just beside the hand-washing fountain/basin is a wooden board where numerous people have tied their prayers on small wooden plaques. These plaques, sold at the Shrine, are called Ema. Worshipers buy the plaque, write their wish on it, then hang it on the Ema stand, in hopes the shrine deity will grant their wish.

The beautiful smell of incense sticks drew us towards the Tokon-do temple. I got one for Mani from a stall beside the temple. They cost 100 Yen each. Mani later told me that the incense was for “Happiness” There were others meant for praying for health and peace too. After lighting the incense, we went directly opposite, towards the five-storied pagoda.

Kofuku-ji was initially built in 1426 in accordance with traditional Japanese construction techniques. Since then, the present building has been rebuilt over time. It measures 50 m in height, making it the second tallest pagoda in Japan. We admired the awe-inspiring architecture for some time. I am short of words to describe the beautiful and majestic pagoda. I have never seen a more huge wooden structure in my life.

Nara Deer Park

A small path towards the back of Kofuku-ji directed us towards the main Park area also known as Nara Koen. The park is home to hundreds of freely roaming deer. Considered in Shinto to be messengers of the gods, Nara’s nearly 1200 deer have become a symbol of the city. According to the legend, Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, the kami of the Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki, was once invited to come to Kasuga Taisha, in Nara. He arrived in Nara riding a white deer, and since then the deer are considered sacred beings, divine messengers of Kami. Nara’s deer are tame, although they can be aggressive, specially the male ones, if they think you will feed them. Deer crackers are for sale around the park, and some deer have learned to bow to visitors to ask to be fed.

We walked past Kōfuku-ji on a narrow path laden with soft pebbles. We bought some Shika Senbei, deer crackers from one of the several stalls. The deer keep loitering around the stalls and they came running towards us as we walked away from the stall. The path opened up into a small meadow where several Deer young-lings were feeding on the green grass. We stayed there among the deer, feeding and playing with them. One of them softly landed a couple of head butts on me. It was fun and will be one of the fondest memories of my life.

After a while we got hungry too and went inside a Ramen shop to have some food.


It was late afternoon when we walked beyond the meadow, up towards the forested Wakakusayama Hill. The path up the hill took us towards Kasuga Taisha. The approach path is lined on both sides with scores of stone lanterns. The lanterns are lit up in times of festivals and it must look awesome. After walking for a few minutes the meadows gave way to a more dense forest as we climbed up the Wakakusayama Hill. Located a short walk towards the Kasuga Shrine main complex is the Kasuga Taisha Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden. This garden displays about 250 kinds of plants described in the Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest collection of poems which dates to the Nara Period. A large part of the garden is dedicated to wisteria flowers which usually bloom from late April to early May. The sun was on its descent so we decided to skip it, hoping to come during spring when the flowers will be in full bloom.

Kasuga Taisha is Nara’s most celebrated shrine. It was established at the same time as the capital and is dedicated to the deity responsible for the protection of the city. The shrine’s offering hall can be visited free of charge, but there is a paid inner area which provides a closer view of the shrine’s inner buildings. Kasuga Taisha is famous for its lanterns, which have been donated by worshipers. Hundreds of bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings. The lanterns are only lit twice a year during two Lantern Festivals, one in early February and one in mid August. At the gate one can find many souvenir shops. Girls, dressed as beautiful priestess attend to the visitors.

There are many smaller shrines in the woods around Kasuga Taisha, twelve of which are located along a path past the main shrine complex and are dedicated to the twelve lucky gods. Among them are Wakamiya Shrine, known for its dance festival, and Meoto Daikokusha, which enshrines married deities and is said to be fortuitous to matchmaking and marriage. Rather than going inside Kasuga Taisha, we decided to walk along the forest towards these smaller shrines. The path kept going up. It was exciting walking by ourselves surrounded by the dense forest. After reaching  the end of the path at Shin-Yakushiji-Temple, we started our descent back to civilization. Back on the road, the tourists were sparse, so we decided to pay a quick visit to the Todai-ji temple.


Unfortunately the temple had closed at 5 p.m. so we just loitered around the grounds of the temple.

Todai-ji is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan and grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 in order to lower the temple’s influence on government affairs.

Along the approach to Todaiji stands the Nandaimon Gate, a large wooden gate watched over by two fierce looking statues. Representing the Nio Guardian Kings, the statues are designated national treasures together with the gate itself.

It was going dark fast. We took some pictures of the gate. Towards the side of the temple is a lovely garden with wooded seats. The heavy camera bag had made me tired. We sat there for a while looking at the beautiful landscape. The slightly chilly winds at dusk felt really good. At 6 p.m. except for the street lights, it was totally dark, so we head back home.

I later went back for a photowalk to Todaiji a couple of times to witness the great Buddha in all its awesomeness. I was also lucky to celebrate New Years Eve at Todaiji when it is opened to public at midnight. If you cannot make it on new years, one can still enjoy a lovely walk in summer evenings at Todaiji when the park is illuminated.