One of the most impressive sightseeing spots in Nara is Todai-ji. A massive temple complex more than 1,000 years old that houses several impressive structures as well as some of the biggest buddha statues in the world.
Todai-ji, located in the northern parts of Nara Park, has played an important role for buddhism in Japan since the religion was imported from China back in the 8th century. This was during the Nara-era, when Nara was the capital of Japan, hence Nara also became the site of one of the first and biggest temples in the country.
The founding of the temple is believed to have happened sometime during the 720’s, but the construction of the structures, and the giant buddha statues, took a long time. In 743, the Emperor Shomu issued a new law, that made the population of Japan become involved in the construction of temples all over the country, as he believed that this would protect the country from disasters and war in the future.
According to records held by Todai-ji, more than two and a half million people were involved in this process in some way. By contributing raw materials like wood or metal, or by providing food for the 350,000 people working directly on constructing the statues.
Fires and earthquakes delayed the construction process significantly, and it wasn’t until 752 that the official opening ceremony could be held. More than 10,000 monks, as well as 4,000 dancers, are said to have attended the eremony. The construction of Todai-ji was a major project for the government of Japan during that time, and is supposed to have been so expensive that the project nearly bankrupted the country.
Since then, the Great Buddha Hall has been destroyed at least twice. In 855, the head of the Great Buddha Statue fell off due to a big earthquake. Other structures belonging to Todai-ji have also been completely destroyed due to earthquakes, fires and lighting. Last time the great Buddha Hall was rebuilt was in 1709. The current structure used to be the world’s biggest wooden structure, despite it being about 30% smaller than its predecessor. The current buddha statue is almost 15 metres high and consists of several parts, dating from different eras. The hands are believed to have been made during the Momoyama Period (1568-1615) and the head dates back to the Edo Period (1615-1867).
In 1998, Todai-ji was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, and currently attracts thousands of visitors every day. It consists of several structures, of which seven are also considered National Treasures. As well as the the Great Buddha Hall (Daibutusden), there are also the wooden gates of Nandaimon and Tegaimon, the “shoro” or bell tower, and the halls of Kaizan-do, Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do.
The Todai-ji complex is so big that there is even a dedicated museum for those who really want to learn more about all the intricate details. It was opened in 2011 and is located near the Nandaimon gate. Admission is 500 yen.