’Todai-ji’ or the ‘Great Eastern Temple’ is Japan’s largest Buddhist temple and Nara’s most popular attraction. Founded in 738, construction of the immense temple was not completed until 752 from which time the political power of its resident monks became so large that it prompted – among other reasons – the renaming of Kyoto as the capital in 794 to limit their influence.
The current temple is a reconstruction dating to the late-17th century and houses the ‘Daibutsu’ – one of the largest and most revered Buddha statues in Japan. The seated Buddha measures 15 metres in height, a remarkable and inspiring achievement in craftsmanship. Nearby the statue at the base of one of the temple’s supporting pillars, a hole is the same size as the nostril in the statue, a space that visitors try to pass through furthering them along the path to enlightening (and at the risk of getting stuck – it does happen!).
Todai-ji is one of eight sites listed under the UNESCO World Heritage grouping of the ‘Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara’. That grouping also includes Kofuku-ji and Kasuga Taisha (among others) and underscores Nara’s huge important to the historical and cultural fabric of Japan. It is worth noting that the current temple is estimated to only be two-thirds the size of the previous main hall – a reminder that though what stands today is immense and inspiring, we have inherited but fragments and glimpses of the wonders that once existed in Nara. Many international visitors make the decision to pass on Nara, preferring to spend more time exploring Kyoto. If for no other reason than to see Todai-ji, make sure to allow time to get to Nara for one day.