Horyu-ji, the world’s oldest wooden building

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We spent Friday in Nara, stopping in Ikaruga to visit Horyu-ji, a Buddhist temple complex that was apparently once one of the Seven Great Temples of Nara (Nara is just full of amazing things. We only saw two really: this and Todaiji – three, if you count the deer of Nara! – and I would love to go back one day).

Horyu-ji is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, and is home to many of the oldest wooden structures in the world; its pagoda is the oldest extant wooden building in the entire world. Later in the day, we visited Todai-ji, which has the largest (premodern) wooden building in the world, so Don was pretty excited about this double architecture adventure for his students. And it turns out, when Don was a new architecture student himself, there were seven buildings he really, really wanted to see – and this was one of them. I found that very charming (of course, last week was not his first visit, but he still got a look of excitement about him as we went through the gates 🙂 )

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Oldest wooden building in the world. Aardvark is not impressed.

But seriously, the first temple here was thought to be completed in 607. That IS pretty amazing. Especially to this Californian, where buildings just 200 years old are considered nearly sacred.

The buildings also smelled a little different from other temples: many of the temples in Japan have a similar, uniquely-Japanese-Buddhist-temple smell (I think it’s mainly from the incense, which is a different kind of incense than the kind at, say, Hindu temples, which also have a distinctive-incense smell.) The familiar incense smell was still present, but with a scent of wood smell I don’t always pick up at other temples, so it was both familiar and unfamiliar. These were seriously impressive wooden buildings.

There is also a museum on the premises with Buddhist artwork from all over Japan; many of the pieces are well over 1,000 years old themselves. It was pretty impressive. I’m not usually one to get excited about sculptures and whatnot (I love paintings, but sculptures just don’t do it for me), but a lot of these pieces were really incredible.

I was especially moved by a sculpture called the Kudara Kannon – an image of Kannon, a famous (the most famous?) Bodhisattva – s/he is known as Avalokitesvara in Sanscrit, and Guan-yin in Chinese, and is beloved and revered for her/his (different cultures portray this bodhisattva as either male or female) incredible compassion. No pictures were allowed in the gallery (one of Don’s students got in trouble for even having his camera out), and although afterwards I went to every vendor in the temple complex – and every souvenir shop on the main road in this tiny town – I found not a single postcard image of the Kudara Kannon sculpture. (Extra weird, because the gallery itself is called Kudara Kannon – this is clearly the showpiece of the entire, amazing, ancient collection.)

So, here’s an image copyrighted by the British Museum instead:

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It is hard to explain what was so moving about this statue (which is nearly 7 feet in real life), but though Don and I went through the museum separately, it turns out we both found it very striking.

Aardvark, however, was taken with Prince Shotoku, who founded the temple. She adored a particular statue of him as a two year old. Apparently, at age two, he clapped his hands together and a Buddha formed between his palms. He is credited by some as being the founder of Japanese Buddhism, in fact.

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I can’t find an image of the precise statue we saw at Horyu-ji, but here is a similar one, for which I can’t find a photo credit but it is from this website: http://museum.ryukoku.ac.jp/en/exhibition/sp.html

Although I could not an exact image of Aardvark’s favorite sculpture, I DID find some images of Hello Kitty dressed up as Prince Shotoku while hunting for a postcard or other image of the Kudara Kannon. And who am I to pass up a transgender Hello Kitty?

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(But seriously, a little gender play for me, the world’s oldest wooden buildings for Don, and adorable Prince Shotoku for Aardvark, all on a tenugui – this is pretty much the perfect souvenir for my entire family!)

But what Aardvark really loved were all the rocks in the temple grounds. She sat down filled an entire shoe with them while Don and I wandered around a courtyard looking at temple buildings. Then she complained it hurt to walk.

Here she is in another area of the temple complex, handing out special rocks to each student:

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Luckily, the students are smitten with her and received her rock gifts with graciousness.

And as always, she loved posing for photos in the train station:

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