The largest wooden building in the world, the temple of Todai-ji, or ‘Great Eastern Temple’, is the Japanese headquarters of the Kegon school of Buddhism.
Located in the capital Nara, the main buildings of the Todai-ji temple complex were constructed between 745 and 752 BC under Emperor Shōmu, a devout Buddhist, marking the adoption of Buddhism as state religion. At the time, Japan had experienced a series of disasters, including crop failures, a smallpox outbreak and an alleged coup, all seen as a lack of piety.
Shōmu needed to unite Japanese clans under his centralised rule. Therefore, a 743 BC law stated that the people should be directly involved in building temples, with over two million people contributing through food and labour to constructing the great hall at Todai-ji.
In 741 BC, Shōmu ordered the founding of a monastery in every province, lavishing massive funds on existing temples and monasteries, depleting the imperial treasury.. The Todai-ji temple was erected as the central administrative temple, the original hall eighty-eight metres long and forty-eight metres high, housing a huge bronze image of Variocana, the universal Buddha. Shōmu dedicated the temple and bronze Buddha in 752, declaring himself slave of the Three Precious Things: Buddha, Buddhist law and the church.
However, the centre of Japanese Buddhism eventually moved from Nara to Mount Hiei near the new capital Kamakura, so Todai-ji’s role in maintaining authority declined. Several fires also partially destroyed the temple: one in the 12th century AD after the Genpei War, when it was rebuilt hastily by the new Shogun in a massive building project; another in 1567 at a time of financial difficulty.
Today, Todai-ji is home to many precious cultural treasures linked to the temple, whilst also remaining a place of Buddhist rituals such as the Shuni-e. You can walk around the main hall of the Daubutsu-den, reconstructed to half of its original size, and beyond into the central park of Nara, looking out onto the beautiful Wakakusayama hills.
Many people visit to see the giant bronze Buddha, over two-hundred and fifty tons in weight. There is also a museum by the main gateway, displaying intricately crafted religious treasures.
Getting to Todai-ji
Tadai-ji is located within Nara Park, just off the 369 main road. It is only accessible by foot inside the park, however, nearby Kintetsu-Nara train station is a 1km walk away. The Nara Bus Terminal is also a 5 minute walk away.