Yakushi-ji Temple, Nara

Built in the 7th century, Yakushi-ji was one of the Seven Great Temples of Nara and is head of the Hosso sect of Buddhism.

Yakushiji temple

Main hall and pagodas at Yakushiji Temple.

The temple houses a fine collection of Buddhist art objects, including a Yakushi Triad, a Sho Kannon and an exquisite 8th century painting of Kichijoten (Kisshoten) on hemp cloth (shown only for a week in November).

Yakushiji Temple Yakushi Triad

Yakushi triad at Yakushiji Temple.

Detailed information: Late in the 7th century (A.D.680), the construction of Yakushiji was planned by Emperor Temmu to pray for the recovery of his Empress from a serious illness. The construction of Yakushiji on the site of Asuka, the south part of Nara, in the Fujiwara Capital, was not completed before the Emperor's death.

During the long term of the construction, Temmu died, and his Empress acceded to the throne and was called Jito. In fact the actual construction was taken under her reign, and the dedication ceremony for enshrining the chief Buddha, Yakushi Nyorai, was held in 697. The whole compound was completed in 698. But it was only ten years later that the Capital was moved to the north of Nara (in 710), and Yakushiji was also moved to the present site in 718.

The splendid layout of buildings including Kondo (Main Hall), Kodo (Lecture Hall), the East and West Pagodas seemed like the reappearance of the paradise on the earth. However, Yakushiji was burnt down and destroyed by fires, wars, or natural disasters several times, and the largest damage was caused by the civil war in 1528. Today only the Yakushi Triad in the Kondo, the Sho-Kannon in the Toindo, and the East Pagoda recall the grandeur of its original features.

Yakushiji is one of the seven large temples in Nara (Todaiji, Daianji, Yakushiji, Saidaiji, Gangoji, Horyuji, and Kofukuji), and the head temple of the Hosso Sect, the oldest Buddhist sect in Japan.

Yakushiji Temple Lantern

Main hall of Yakushiji Temple.

In 1976 the present Kondo (Main Hall) reappeared on the earth as if it were the Sea God's Palace as the figure of the Hakuho Period instead of the temporary construction rebuilt in 1600. This hall was erected through the movement for copying of the Heart Sutra. Millions of pious people took part in this movement and made many donations to rebuild the Kondo.

The principal images in the Kondo, the Yakushi Triad, consist of Yakushi Nyorai and two attendant Bodhisattvas. They were originally covered with gold, but the great fire of 1528 gave the statues their present appearance of rich black sheen.

Yakushiji temple gate

South gate of Yakushiji Temple.

Yakushi Nyorai (Buddha Bhaisajyaguru) is a National treasure from the Hakuho Period (645-710). It is cast in bronze and 255cm high. The statue was originally cast by the order of Emperor Temmu in 680, and completed by Empress Jito in 697.

He is the Buddha of Healing, and the Lord of the Emerald Pure Land in the East, who vowed to cure disease of the mind and body. For this reason he was already very popular in Japan before the 7th century. He is also worshiped in order to achieve longevity. Although Yakushi Nyorai generally has a medicine pot in his left hand, the statue in this temple does not have it and he sits on the medicine box instead of the lotus pedestal.

Yakushiji Temple Courtyard

Mountains seen beyond the main halls of Yakushiji Temple.

The bronze Pedestal of Yakushi Nyorai is a National Treasure from the Hakuho Period. It's height is 150cm.

The designs in relief on the pedestal are unique in their combination of various elements with different cultures of the world. The grape-vine scroll pattern at the edge of the upper projecting frame is very close in style to Greek work. The lotus flower pattern around the pedestal is seen in Islamic mosques in the Middle East. The barbarians crouching in the decorative arch are often seen at Hindu Temples in India. The strange animal designs of the dragon (the east side), the phoenix (the south side), the tiger (the west side), and the tortoise (the north side) are influenced by the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China.

These various designs of the pedestal show the internationality of the Nara Period. This pedestal seems to be a symbol of the Silk Road.

Yakushiji Temple Hondo

Yakushiji Temple's Lecture Hall.

The bronze figures of Nikko Bosatsu (Bodhisattva Suryaprabha) and Gakko Bosatsu (Bodhisattva Candraprabha) are National Treasures of the Hakuho Period, each 320cm high. Nikko Bosatsu attends Yakushi Nyorai on the right side, and Gakko Bosatsu attends him on the left side. Nikko means the sunlight and Gakko means the moonlight. They are impressive because of their twisted bodies, their graceful features, and the free flow of their robes. Yakushi Nyorai is similar to a doctor of mind and body. It may safely be said that Nikko and Gakko Bosatsu are the nurses.

Yakushiji Temple Pillars

Yakushiji Temple's east wing.

The Kodo (Lecture Hall) was rebuilt in 1852. This hall enshrines another Yakushi-Triad (nationally important art object, Hakuho Period). On the eighth day of every month the Buddhist Service of Turning Sutras is held in this hall.

Yakushiji Temple Halls

Yakushiji Temple's Main Hall and Lecture Hall.

"Pagoda" means a grave in Pali, the ancient Indian language, and it was called "stupa" in Sanskrit. Pagoda is naturally different from a tower, for it is the grave of Buddha. Yakushiji is the first temple which had the East and West Pagodas in its grounds.

The East Pagoda is a National Treasure from the Hakuho Period, 34 metres high. This pagoda, miraculously surviving the fire that destroyed Yakushiji in 1528, is the only surviving architecture of the Hakuho Period in Japan. This three-storied pagoda, which looks as if it were six-storied because of the Mokoshi (lean-to) added to each story, is rare in its style, and is described as "Frozen Music" because of its rhythmically fine appearance. The original meaning or form of the grave of Buddha has been given to the Sorin part (metal roof-top ornament).

The bronze Sorin is 10 metres high and weighs 3000kg. The Sorin, set above the uppermost roof of the pagoda, is composed of Hoju, Ryusha, Suien, Kurin (nine rings), Fukubachi, and Roban. The bronze Suien (Flamy splashing water) is 190cm high. The Suien, consisting of four pieces, shows the fine openwork of twenty-four images of child musicians and angels scattering flowers. As traditional Japaneses architectures are wooden, they are very dangerous in a time of fire. They have an ornamental charm against fire, such as fabulous dolphins on the top of the castle, fish tails on the roof of the Kondo, or Suien on the finial of the pagoda.

Unfortunately the original West Pagoda burned down in 1528. After the reconstruction of the Kondo, the West Pagoda was rebuilt in 1980 owing to the movement for the copying of the Heart Sutra.

Yakushiji Temple West PagodaYakushiji Temple East Pagoda

The reconstructed west pagoda and original 8th century east pagoda.

The Toindo is a National treasure, rebuilt in 1285. The original construction had been erected in 721. The hall is the oldest Zen hall in Japan. It enshrines a Sho Kannon (Bodhisattva, Aryavalokitesvara), which is a National treasure from the Hakuho Period (645-710). The statue is cast in bronze and 190cm high.

The Sacred Avalokitesvara (Kannon) is one of the six manifestations of Kannon, who is chiefly believed to save hungry spirits. The statue retains some influence of the Indian sculpture of the Gupta Period (350-650), which came through China in the early Tang Dynasty (618-907), in the fine modelling of the hair hanging over the shoulders, the double linked jewels encircling the neck, the delicate gesture of the fingers, the thin transparent drapery winding about the body, and the straight posture.

This graceful figure and the nobleness in his youthfulness are vividly described in the words, "Representation of sublimated prayers". A folk-tale says that this statue was dedicated for the unfortunate life of Prince Arima, who was a hero of tragedy in the Hayuho Period, and died at the age of nineteen on the execution ground.

Yakushiji temple Toindo

Toindo at Yakushiji Temple.

The beautiful painting of Kichijo-ten is a National Treasure from the Tempyo Period, and shown only from January 1-15 and October 8 to November 10. Kichijo-ten (Srimahadevi) is the Buddhist goddess of peace, happiness, and beauty. This is the oldest independent colored painting in Japan, and shows the realistic representation of lady's clothing in those days. It is not only a beautiful painting, but also a religious object. In January the Buddhist Confession Service is held in front of Kichijo-ten in the Kondo. It is said that the model of this Goddess was Empress Komyo.


8th century painting of Kichijoten.

The Bussoku-seki and Bussoku-seki Verses Tablet are enshrined in the Kondo, (Main Hall). The Bussoku-seki (Stone with the imprint of Buddha's feet) is a National treasure from the Tempyo Period (710-784).

Bussoku-seki shows the older religious form of Buddhism before ancient Greek civilization influenced the Indians for worshiping images such as an image of Sakyamuni Buddha. It was deeply worshiped by ancient people just as the Buddhist image is worshiped today. The shape of the Buddha's foot is flat, and Horin (Circles of truth) are engraved on the feet. The length of the feet is 47cm. This Bussoku-seki was made in 752.

The Bussoku-seki Verses Tablet is a National Treasure from the Tempyo Period. This tablet is the oldest one in Japan, on which twenty-one verses praising the Bussoku-seki are inscribed in the letters of the Tempyo Period. These verses are composed in a special style, each of then consisting of thirty-eight letters, were sung by the pious people through the religious practice of worship. The verses are also very important in Japanese literature.

The Hachiman Shrine is a nationally important art object, rebuilt in 1603. It stands about 50 meters from the South Gate. There enshrined are wooden sculptures of Hachiman as a priest (the principal god of the Hachiman Shrine), Empress Jingu, and Empress Nakatsuhime. They are all National Treasures.