If asked to think about what the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan is like, most people would imagine some grand structure along the lines of Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) in Kyōto or Tōdai-ji (東大寺) in Nara. Others may conjure up an image of some half-forgotten place, tucked away in a forest somewhere. The oldest temple is actually situated in the small town of Asuka (飛鳥). This quiet, sleepy little town of rolling fields and steep hills is located on the west side of Nara Prefecture. In fact, it was the capital of Japan during the Asuka Period (飛鳥時代) from 539 to 716 C.E.
The plans for Asuka-dera (飛鳥寺), or Hōkō-ji (法興寺) Temple, as it was originally called, were drawn up in the year 588 C.E. by a man named Sōga-no-Umako (蘇我 馬子). By 592 C.E., the kondō (金堂) or Golden Hall and a number of the cloisters were completed. By 593 C.E., the stupa (an earth mound or platform upon which the pagoda is typically built) was finished. The rest of the temple buildings, such as the gates, were finished by 596 C.E. Several years later in 605 C.E., a 4.8 meter Buddhist statue was crafted.
Sōga-no-Umako himself was one of the first people to champion the Buddhist faith and it was he, along with the semi-legendary Prince Shotoku (聖徳太子), that first fought to establish Buddhism as a formal religion in Japan. They defeated the staunchly pro-Shinto Mononobe-no-Moriya (物部 守屋) and his clan at the Battle of Shigisan (丁未の乱). Following the victory, they established Shitenno-ji (四天王寺) temple in Osaka, which is the oldest officially administered temple in the country. They also established Chogosonshi-ji temple (朝護孫子寺) on Mount Shigi (信貴山), close to the location of their victory.
The construction of the temple is recorded in the Nihon Shōki (日本書紀), one of the first written accounts of early Japanese history. It mentions that many craftsmen were brought over from the Baekje kingdom, one of the original three kingdoms from the Korean peninsula and an on-again-off-again ally of early Japan. In fact it was through Japan’s contact with the Baekje kingdom that Buddhism first spread in Japan. In 645 C.E., Emperor Kōtoku (孝徳天皇) enacted the Taika Reforms (大化の改新) which was essentially a mass importation and adoption of Confucian and Chinese customs with the aim of centralizing power in the Imperial Court and thereby reducing the influence of minor lords.
During this time, Asuka-dera played an important role since it was the main temple at which prayers for the good health of the Emperor were chanted. This was the case until 716 C.E. when the capital city of Japan was moved from Asuka to to Heijō-kyō (平城宮) (modern day Nara City) marking the end of the Asuka Period and the beginning of the Nara Period. At the same time, most of Asuka-dera was dismantled and moved to Nara City to create Gangō-ji Temple (元興寺).The simplified temple continued to be used, but was seriously damaged by a fire in 887 C.E. and then was virtually destroyed by succeeding fire in 1196. It was abandoned and went to ruin. The temple wasn't rebuilt until 1632 and then again in 1826.
Asuka-dera sits in a quiet suburban part of Asuka and is actually a few kilometers from the nearest stations of Asuka (飛鳥駅) and Oka-dera (岡寺駅).It is quite out of the way, and has a small gate; it can be quite easy to miss as you are just passing.
The temple itself is actually very small too, consisting of only the Kondo, bell tower, a small pond and a number of trees and statues scattered around the gravel courtyard. Considering its heritage, it feels under-rated, even though it does still attract a large number of visitors every year. I arrived late in the day but there were still a few visitors including a young family with a son, who was enjoying ringing the temple bell which filled the late afternoon with its deep sonorous sound.
The buildings themselves are quite low key too, especially compared to some temples like Shitenno-ji with its large, bright red buildings. The buildings of Asuka-dera are of a fairly simple design with only a few embellishments and the visible wood stained a dark brown rather than a bright red. The simplicity is a common theme across most of the temples in Asuka, and even at other larger temples such as the nearby Oka-dera (岡寺).
After a quick walk around the small courtyard to look at the statues, I went over to the window of a small kiosk attached to the Kondo from where they sell charms. I wanted to get my goshuinchō (朱印帳) Temple Stamp Book signed, so I gave it to the lady inside. She recommended that I take a look around inside the temple while I waited for my book to be signed, so I bought a ticket, took my shoes off and went in.
In the first room is the oldest Buddhist statue in Japan. Even after nearly 1500 years and several fires, the original statue commissioned by Sōga-no-Umako, is still in remarkably pristine condition. It was made by a famous Asuka Period craftsman named Kuratsukuri-no-Tori (司馬鞍作部首止利仏師), also known as Tori Busshi (止利仏師). The Asuka Great Buddha, as it is called, is a beautiful statue made of some 15 tons of copper and 30 kilograms of gold.
After making an offering, I left through a side door which led to a small, mossy garden full of small statues and little rock formations. The garden is surrounded by corridors that make up the office, living quarters and back rooms of the temple.
From here, I followed a corridor which also was also the temple museum. Enclosed in the glass cases along the wall were numerous artifacts from Asuka-dera's long history. These included several statues made from bronze, wood and stone along with a number of old books. There was also a small collection of tiles and other masonry which came from some of the previously destroyed buildings.
The museum also displayed a little bit of information about an archaeological dig that took place in 1956. At the time, they managed to work out the full scale of the very first temple at this site. They discovered evidence of three Kondos, one each on the north, east and west sides of the central pagoda.
The easiest way to get to Asuka-dera is to take a train to either Asuka (飛鳥駅), Oka-dera (岡寺駅) or Kashiharajingu-mae (橿原神宮前駅) stations on the Kintetsu Yoshino Line (吉野線). Since the temple is remote, renting a bike or taking the bus from any of the stations will be necessary.
Address: 682 Asuka, Takaichi-gun, Asuka-mura, Nara,
Hours: April to September – 9.00am to 17.15pm. October to March – 9.00am to 16.45pm
Entrance Fee: Free to enter the temple grounds. For the Kondo, 350 yen
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