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Nanendo, one of the temple buildings scattered in Nara Park

Kofukuji - Temples in Nara
The Dream of a Temple

That Kofukuji was one of the most splendid temples that ever graced Japan is not immediately apparent when one sees its sad remnants in Nara Park. Most of the halls are normally closed, others have become more museum than temple. Standing at the neat, tree-lined gravel paths where Nara's symbol, its herd of rather aggressive deer, roams, they do not impress one as a living temple anymore. History has battered them into their present incongruous state. But the art they house, although only a remnant of what once was, is still fabulous.

Kofukuji was built as the clan temple of the powerful Fujiwara family, who from the 8th through 11th centuries dominated the court. Originally set up in 669 in Yamashina near Kyoto as a chapel to the memory of Kamatari, the founder of the clan, it was moved to the present spot in 710 when the capital of Heijokyo was established. The Fujiwaras wanted to show off their family temple in the same prominent location they occupied in politics, so they established it on an elevation that afforded a good view of the capital. There it stood next to a sacred area at the foot of Mt Kasuga, where not long afterwards their tutelary shrine would also be established. The shrine would care for the fortune of the living, the temple guaranteed the bliss of the deceased Fujiwaras. In 721, a year after the death of the powerful Fujiwara leader Fuhito (who was also the father of the empress) Kofukuji was elevated to the status of state temple.

Most of its buildings and statues were donated by the court as prayers for sick emperors or memorial chapels for deceased ones. This again once shows the emphasis on death and the afterlife in this temple. The 'Bliss' in the temple's name is of course the Bliss in Afterlife. Thus the North Octagonal Hall (Hokuendo) was donated as a memorial chapel by Empress Gensho, the East Main Hall (Tokondo) by Emperor Shomu as a wish for the recovery from an illness of the same Gensho, who was by then former empress, the pagoda by Empress Komyo and the West Main Hall (Saikondo) was also set up by Empress Komyo to the memory of her mother, Lady Tachibana.

Next the China Hall (Toin) was added to house the huge volume of Buddhist sutras brought back in 735 by the priest Genbo, who for 19 years had studied Hosso school doctrine in China and now became the head priest of Kofukuji. A lecture hall and refectory were built; the last major project was the construction of the South Circular Hall (Nanendo) in 813 to house a Fukukensaku Kannon statue. Kofukuji at its height boasted 175 buildings, among which a hospital and a university, as well as workshops for Buddhist art.

Tokondo and Pagoda
Tokondo and Pagoda

Declining Fortune
As the above shows, it was a wonderful temple, sponsored by the greatest in the land, possessing top art works. It also wielded large worldly power and like Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei had an army of 'warrior monks' to enforce its policies. In medieval times, it possessed estates all over Japan and formed the de facto government of what is now Nara prefecture. Its Fujiwara connection also gave it large influence in national politics. This was bound to bring disaster.

The first wave of destruction came in 1180, in the civil war between the Taira and Minamoto, when Taira Shigehira raided the Nara temples that had sided with his enemies. He destroyed both Todaiji and Kofukuji and his name has since been vilified. Kofukuji was, however, soon restored and the works by the sculptors of the Kei school that replaced lost statues were fortunately at the pinnacle of Buddhist art. They worked in the new, realistic style of the Kamakura period. In the following centuries the temple's fortunes were again on a downward path. Fires continued to take their toll, as did the wars of the sixteenth century. The Fujiwara had by now been reduced to political insignificance, so financial sponsorship was lacking.

The final blow to the temple's fortune was given, unexpectedly, by Japan's first modern government. In the attempt to install State Shinto as the national religion and erase Buddhism (Haibutsu Kishaku), Kofukuji suffered grievously. One of its halls was seized to serve as prefectural office, another became a school, and its large land holdings were converted into the present park. The Kasuga Shrine, that always had been an integral part of the temple, was split off and many art treasures were destroyed. Several priests of Kofukuji demonstrated how deep their religion went when they opted to become priests of the now suddenly more powerful Kasuga Shrine instead. Fortunately, the Meiji regime soon came to its senses and late in the 19th century set up the Nara National Museum to start preserving Buddhist treasures.

The Kokuhokan housing the temple's treasures
The Kokuhokan housing the temple's treasures

Remnants of Glory
Of the original Kofukuji buildings, nothing remains. The present ones are all later reconstructions, although some are still quite old. The Tokondo or Eastern Main Hall was originally paired with a Central and Western Main Hall, but now is the only surviving temple hall. It was rebuilt in the fifteenth century (in 1421 to be exact). Together with the Nanendo, this is the only place in the temple where you get the feeling it is a religious establishment. Nanendo, by the way, houses a Fukukensaku Kannon (unfortunately, not usually on view) and is on the Saikoku Kannon Pilgrimage Route, making it Kofukuji's link with popular Buddhism.

The five story pagoda, especially beautiful when seen from Sarusawa Pond as a looming silhouette, was rebuilt for the 6th time in 1426. It is the symbol of Nara and the second highest pagoda in Japan. There is also a three story pagoda of the 12th century, standing in a forgotten corner behind the Nanendo, perhaps the reason why it has survived. The North Octagonal Hall, finally, is from 1210. The main statue is a Miroku Bosatsu sculpted by Unkei, dating from 1212. Other famous statues in the Hokuendo include the colored wooden sculptures of the Indian monks Muchaku Bosatsu (Asanga) and Seshin Bosatsu (Vasubandhu), who have very expressive faces. These were also made by Unkei in 1212.

A Stolen Healer
Tokondo is the hall where I come first when I visit the temple on my pilgrimage. I find the same Buddha universe here as in Yakushiji: a Healing Buddha flanked by Bodhisattvas of the Sun and Moon, again established as a prayer for an ailing empress. Around the altar also stand the Twelve Generals, symbolizing Yakushi's Twelve Vows to save mankind, small but very energetic figures. The Yakushi is more than two and a half meters high, but this statue from 1415 is rather flat and can not compare with the grandeur of Yakushiji's Healing Buddha. The most interesting statues in this hall are Yuima (or Vimalakirti) and the Bodhisattva Monju, who both figure in the Vimalakirti Sutra. Since its earliest years, one of Kofukuji's most important annual observances has been the Assembly of Vimalakirti (Yuima-e), dedicated to the spirit of Fujiwara no Kamatari, the founder of the line. In the sutra the rich layman Vimalakirti lies ill. At the behest of the Buddha, Monju visits him, but Vimalakirti displays a much greater understanding of Buddhism than the Bodhisattva. Vimalakirti therefore became a figure with whom lay patrons of Buddhism liked to compare themselves.

In fact, the Yakushi Nyorai of Tokondo was destroyed several times and there is an interesting episode linked with him. After the first destruction in 1180, attempts to cast a new statue failed. This motivated the Kofukuji monks to steal the Yakushi triad of Yamadadera, an old temple in southern Nara, that apparently had fallen on hard times. This was a very un-Buddhist example of power politics... But the stolen image did not bring the temple luck: it was also destroyed by a fire, except for the head and a piece of an arm. That was when the present image was cast. The stolen head was kept inside the altar and rediscovered in 1937. It now graces the temple museum, and as it was cast in 685, in the Hakuho period, in its sunny, boyish style it in fact predates Kofukuji. The Nikko and Gakko Bodhisattvas which flank the present Yakushi in the Tokondo are still the stolen ones.

The North Octagonal Hall
The North Octagonal Hall

Although the Tokondo is the center of what is left of Kofukuji as a temple, the Kokuhokan or temple museum forms its artistic heart. Here the statues are gathered from halls that themselves have been lost. Although Kofukuji does not impress visitors as a living temple anymore, the Buddhas are still there.

All we have from the Nara period is a small number of wonderful dry-lacquer statues, called the Eight Classes of Divine Protectors and the Ten Great Disciples. They originally belonged to the West Golden Hall, donated by Empress Komyo (herself a Fujiwara daughter) for the repose of her mother, Lady Tachibana (d. 733). The central image was a large Shaka statue, accompanied by Fugen and Monju and surrounded by the Four Deva Kings, Taishakuten, Bonten, the Eight Classes of Divine Protectors and the Ten Great Disciples. It must have been a veritable recreation of the paradise of the historical Buddha. Now only the above mentioned attendant statues survive...how much greater must have been the main statues of the hall! But also what remains is reason for gratefulness.

The Eight Classes of Protectors originally are weird demon gods, but in Kofukuji they have been made human. Ashura, for example, are demi-gods, partly good and partly evil, who can be very violent. But in the famous Kofukuji statue, that of a friendly boy, there is not much of that rage left. The Ashura has three faces and six spindly arms. Two hands are clasped in front of his breast, as if in prayer, an attitude that matches the central face. The other arms sway in the air - now empty, they probably used to carry weapons. The side faces fit such a more warrior-like attitude as they reveal a sort of quiet anger. The boy-god with his soft central face is popular among Japanese youngsters, especially girls, who perhaps see him as their ideal friend.

To the left of Ashura stand three other Protectors of the Shaka: Sakara, Karura and Hibakara. Karura, the bird-man, is the most interesting because of his perfectly formed beak. On the right side stand three of the Ten Disciples of the Buddha: Kasenen, Ragora and Subodai. They have very realistic faces, as if they were portraits made after real monks in the 7th century.

It is good to realize that the aristocratic temple Kofukuji belongs to Hosso Buddhism. Hosso is an elaborate philosophy of consciousness, which teaches that the world is a construct of the mind. It combines this with ideas of several levels of consciousness and moral retribution, so that the aristocrats could believe that they were born in a higher state of being than others thanks to their ancestor's good deeds. Aesthetically, this led to the idea that the world was a beautiful dream. In that dream the graceful Ashura certainly has a place.

Tokondo Hall
Tokondo Hall

A dream of paradise
There are many more splendid statues in the small hall. To the back, at the center, I find the dominating presence of a huge Thousand-Armed Kannon, towering above the other statues as if she were the queen of the whole fantastic assembly. There is an Amida, a Shaka, and I also see the pair of Taishaku and Bonten. Humorous are two devils carrying huge lanterns and clearly not liking that heavy task: Tentoki and Ryutoki. I again meet the Twelve Generals, companions of the Yakushi, carved from wooden planks. There is also a bevy of smaller statues: prince Shotoku, several Jizo statues, a fine Monju, and an excellent Miroku in a cabinet. Near the exit, finally, are two very dynamic Kongorikishi showing off their bulging muscles. With that last image of strength, I leave the wondrous host behind me and step again into the real world of the park.

The paradise created in the halls of Kofukuji was a dream and these wonderful statues are like images that still haunt the dreamer after waking up. They are the fall-out of a more perfect vision, a fantasy of heaven and beauty.

When the dreamers, who made this vision come true, thought about the harsh reality of death, they may have believed death, too, could be just such a dream...

Another denizen of the park
Another denizen of the park

Temple Name:

("Temple of Growing Bliss")


Hosso Buddhism

The Nanendo (South Circular Hall) of Kofukuji is no. 9 on the Saikoku Kannon Pilgrimage.


669 as Yamashinadera by Kagami no Himemiko, the wife of Fujiwara no Kamatari;
moved to Nara in 710 by Fujiwara no Fuhito


48 Nobori-oji,
Tel: 0742-22-7755



Hachibushu (Beings of the Eight Classes), 734

Judai-deshi (Ten great disciples of the Buddha), 734

Lantern-bearing goblins called Tentoki and Ryutoki, 1215

Kongo Rikishi, 13th c.

Thousand-armed Kannon, 13th c.

Buddha Head, originally from Yamadadera, 685

Wooden tablets with Twelve Divine Generals (Juni Shinsho), carved in relief, 11th c.

Monju Bosatsu, Tokondo, 12th-13th c.

The holy layman Yuima Koji, by Jokei, Tokondo, 1196

Twelve Divine Generals (Juni Shinsho), Tokondo, 1207

Four Heavenly Kings (Shitenno), Tokondo, 9th c.

Miroku Butsu, by Unkei, North Octagonal Hall (Hokuendo) of Kofukuji, 1212

The Indian monks Muchaku Bosatsu (Asanga) and Seshin Bosatsu (Vasubandhu), by Unkei, North Octagonal Hall (Hokuendo) of Kofukuji, 1212

Four Heavenly Kings (Shitenno), North Octagonal Hall (Hokuendo), 791


Five story pagoda of Kofukuji, 1426

Three story pagoda of Kofukuji, 12th c.

North Octagonal Hall (Hokuendo) of Kofukuji, 1210

Tokondo (East Main Hall) of Tofukuji, 1415

The temple was put on the World Heritage List of UNESCO in 1998.

The Chukondo, the Central Golden Hall, is being newly constructed and scheduled to be finished in 2010 for the 1,300 year anniversary of the temple.


5-min walk from Kintetsu Nara Station, or 15-min walk from JR Nara Station


Kokuhokan Museum: 9:00-17:00 (enter by 16:00). ¥500.

Tokondo Hall: 9:00-17:00 (enter by 16:00). ¥300.

The other buildings, such as the Hokuendo Hall, are sometimes open in spring (around Golden Week) and autumn, but there seems to be no fixed schedule at present. Separate entrance fee.


Jan. 15: Yamayaki, burning of the grass on Wakakusa Hill (from 18:00), a rite which may have started in a battle between monks from Kofukuji and Todaiji.

April 25, Monju-e, Ceremony for Monju and Vimalakirti in the Tokondo.

May 11-12: Takigi No. The oldest torchlight No performances in Japan, already enjoyed by Basho. At the site of the Great South Gate.

Travel tip:

Also visit Todaiji, the Nara National Museum, and the Kasuga shrine in the neighborhood.


Kofukuji's webpage is unfortunately only in Japanese.

The Protocol of the Gods, a Study of the Kasuga Cult in Japanese History by Allan G. Grapard (University of California, 1992) is a pioneering study of the relation between the Kasuga shrine and Kofukuji Temple, which is shown to have functioned as a unified cultic complex through most of its history.

Copyright 2003-2007 Ad G. Blankestijn, Japan. All rights reserved.

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