Completed in 752, this temple complex was conceived by Emperor Shomu in the 8th century as the seat of authority for Buddhist Japan. An earthquake damaged it in 855, and in 1180 the temple was burned to the ground. Its reconstruction met a similar fate during the 16th-century civil wars. Only the most central buildings in the once sprawling complex exist today. Among the structures, the Daibutsu-den is the grandest, with huge beams that seemingly converge upward toward infinity.
The Daibutsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha) is a rare example of monumentality in the land of the diminutive bonsai. The current Daibutsu-den was restored in 1709 at two-thirds its original scale. At 157 feet tall and 187 feet wide, it is the largest wooden structure in the world.
Inside the Daibutsu-den is the Daibutsu, a 53-foot bronze statue of the Buddha. His hand alone is the size of six tatami mats. The Daibutsu was originally commissioned by Emperor Shomu in 743 and completed six years
later. A statue of this scale had never been cast before in Japan, and it was meant to serve as a symbol to unite the country. The Daibutsu was dedicated in 752 in a grand ceremony attended by the then-retired Emperor Shomu, the Imperial Court, and 10,000 priests and nuns. The current Daibutsu is an amalgamation of work done in three eras: the 8th, 12th, and 17th centuries.
A peaceful pebble garden in the courtyard of Kaidan-in belies the ferocious expressions of the Four Heavenly Guardian clay statues inside. Depicted in full armor and wielding weapons, they are an arresting sight. The current kaidan-in, a building where monks are ordained, dates from 1731. The Kaidan-in is in northwestern Nara Koen, west of the Daibutsu-den.
The soaring Nandai-mon (Great Southern Gate), the entrance to the temple complex, is supported by 18 large wooden pillars, each 62 feet high and nearly 3 1/3 feet in diameter. The original gate was destroyed in a typhoon in 962 and rebuilt in 1199. Two outer niches on either side of the gate contain fearsome wooden figures of Deva kings, who guard the great Buddha within. They are the work of master sculptor Unkei, of the Kamakura period (1185–1335). In the inner niches are a pair of stone koma-inu (Korean dogs), mythical guardians that ward off evil.
Named for a ritual that begins in February and culminates in the spectacular sparks and flames of the Omizu-tori festival in March, the Ni-gatsu-do (Second Month Temple) was founded in 752. It houses important images of the Buddha that are, alas, not on display. Still, its hilltop location and veranda afford a commanding view of Nara Koen. Behind the Ni-gatsu-do is a lovely rest area, where free water and cold tea are available daily from 9 to 4. Although no food is sold, it's a quiet spot to enjoy a picnic.
The San-gatsu-do (Third Month Temple), founded in 733, is the oldest original building in the Todai-ji complex. It takes its name from the sutra (Buddhist scripture) reading ceremonies held here in the third month of the ancient lunar calendar (present-day February to April). You can sit on benches covered with tatami mats and appreciate the 8th-century treasures that crowd the small room. The principal display is the lacquer statue of Fukukensaku Kannon, the goddess of mercy, whose diadem is encrusted with thousands of pearls and gemstones. The two clay bosatsu (bodhisattva) statues on either side of her, the Gakko (Moonlight) and the Nikko (Sunlight), are fine examples of the Tenpyo period (Nara period), the height of classical Japanese sculpture. The English pamphlet included with admission details all the statues in the San-gatsu-do.
The important temples and structures are close together; allow about three hours to see everything, allowing for time to feed the deer.