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Visiting the Giant Buddha of Nara - A First-Timer's Complete Guide to Todai-ji Temple

Visiting the Giant Buddha of Nara - A First-Timer's Complete Guide to Todai-ji Temple

Date published: 10 October 2019

Todai-ji is a temple complex in Nara known for its Daibutsuyo style of architecture. It is one of the largest sightseeing spots in all of Kansai and full of so many highlights that some would argue there's no point in going to Nara if you miss visiting the temple. Take your time touring of not only the temple's grand edifices, such as the Great South Gate and the Great Buddha Hall, but also the many halls and the museum, to enjoy all that Todai-ji has to offer.

In this article:
1. What Kind of Temple is Todai-ji?
2. Kongo Rikishi Statues Guard the Todai-ji main gate
3. The Daibutsuden, One of the Largest Wooden Structures in the World
4. Meet the Giant Buddha, Japan's Largest Buddha Statue
5. Don't Miss the Shitennoji Statue in the Kaidan-in
6. Nigatsu-do Hall, Famous for Its Water-Drawing Ceremony
7. Take a Break in the Ryuudo-do
8. Take Home Secret Recipe Miso as a Souvenir
9. Plethora of Statues in Hokke-do Hall
10. Stop by the Todai-ji Museum
11. Don't Forget a Goshuin Temple Seal Stamp

What Kind of Temple is Todai-ji?

What Kind of Temple is Todai-ji?

Todai-ji Temple is also known by the alternative name "Konkomyo-shitenno-gokoku-no-tera". In the Nara period, Emperor Shomu built the Daibutsu-sama large Buddha statue (also called Rushanabutsu) as a prayer for good fortune in all things, as based on Buddhist teachings, and in year 752 held a grand ceremony to consecrate and "open the eyes" of the statue. This led to the preparation of a giant Buddhist temple, which came to be called "Todai-ji" based on the characters representing the fact that it was a large temple built in eastern Heiji-kyo (the then capital of Japan). It is a prominent large temple among all of Japan, as well as the main temple of the Kegon sect of Buddhism. It is also well known for the water-drawing ceremony held in the Nigatsu-do Hall, which marks the beginning of spring in Nara.

Kongo Rikishi Statues Guard the Todai-ji main gate, the Great South Gate

Kongo Rikishi Statues Guard the Todai-ji main gate, the Great South Gate

As you continue along the path leading into Todai-ji Temple, you will pass through the national treasure-designated Nandai-mon, or Great South Gate. Todai-ji's main gate is 25 meters in height, and its must-see features are the "Kongo Rikishi statues" created by Buddhist statue sculptors Unkei and Kaikei. The muscled figures are impressive and imposing. Normally, the two Nio guardian gods of a temple face the main gate and consist of Agyo, facing and opening his mouth to the right, and Ungyo facing to the left with his mouth closed. But the statues of Todai-ji's Great South Gate are situated in a rare style, instead facing each other, with the left and right statues reversed from the typical pattern.

This magnificent gate was reconstructed in the Kamakura era under the direction of Chogen Shonin himself, the Buddhist monk who restored Todai-ji Temple after it was destroyed in a fire. The gate utilizes a method of construction wherein thick, straight pillars are transfixed by horizontal crossbeams (or nuki), unique for the way it is two-layered from the outside while open and hollow from the inside. Be sure to take a look upward while you pass through the gate.

The Daibutsuden, One of the Largest Wooden Structures in the World

The Daibutsuden, One of the Largest Wooden Structures in the World

Todai-ji Temple's main hall, the Daibutsuden ("Great Buddha Hall"), boasts an incredible scale of size, stretching approximately 57 meters wide, 50 meters deep, and 48 meters tall, making it famous for being among the largest wooden buildings in the world. The current structure is the third reconstruction, rebuilt in the Edo period. In present day it is still one of the world's largest wooden buildings, but it was in fact even larger at the time of original construction.

The best angle from which to photograph the hall is slightly left of the main gate, from the hallway you can enter after paying the admission fee. The octagonal gilt-bronze stone lantern in front of the Daibutsuden, a national treasure, is a precious relic from the time of the building's original construction.

Meet the Giant Buddha, Japan's Largest Buddha Statue

Meet the Giant Buddha, Japan's Largest Buddha Statue

At last, we enter inside the Great Buddha Hall. As soon as you go inside you fill find the Daibutsu-sama Great Buddha seated imposingly before you.

The Buddha's official name is "Rushanabutsu" (meaning a Buddha to illuminate the world) and is considered to be the founder of the sutra of the Kegon Buddism sect. The statue is an incredible 15 meters high, with a 5-meter long face. It is reported that half of all citizens at the time of construction assisted with erecting the statue. It has been restored several times, but some original Nara era pieces remain, such as the flower petals and stomach section. You can approach and pray to the Daibutsu-sama from either the front, left, or right sides.

Try Passing Through the Hole in the Pillar

Try Passing Through the Hole in the Pillar

In the pillar to the back right of the Great Buddha Halls's giant Buddha statue is a hole that is said to be the same size as the statue's nostril. It is believed that those who can pass through the hole will be granted good health and protection from bad luck. It is a popular activity for children on school field trips and international tourists, and there is always a crowd around the pillar hoping to capture a photo or movie of someone passing through the hole. The hole is about 37 by 30 centimeters wide and 110 centimeters deep, and more rectangular than round or elliptical.

Also in the Great Buddha Hall you can find models of the temple and purchasable omamori good luck charms, a Todai-ji seal stamp, and more.

Don't Miss the Shitennoji Statue in the Kaidan-in

Don't Miss the Shitennoji Statue in the Kaidan-in

Exit the Great Buddha Hall and travel west along the temple path to the "Kaidan-in". Inside this hall, built by Chinese monk Ganjin Wajo, are Shitennoji statues from the Nara period, one in each of the hall's corners. The four statues - Jikokuten guarding the east, Zochoten the south, Komokuten the west, and Tamonten protecting the north - are considered to be great masterpieces. Each of the statues can be seen standing on top of a demon and looking off into the distance. The minute details, like their rich expressions, musculature, and folds in the cloth of their clothing, are very difficult to create with wood. The most popular of the four is reputedly the handsome Komokuten.

Nigatsu-do Hall, Famous for Its Water-Drawing Ceremony

Nigatsu-do Hall, Famous for Its Water-Drawing Ceremony

We travel from the Kaidan-do next to the rear temple road behind the Great Buddha Hall.

Here you can follow the cobblestone path, and the atmosphere is incredible. Let's try entering the national treasure Nigatsu-do Hall. The hall and stage stand elevated in the east back of the temple premises from which you can enjoy an unparalleled view of the entire Nara Basin, particularly recommended to see in the evening. The hall is called Nigatsu-do because of the Buddhist water-gathering ritual performed in the second month, or "nigatsu" of the old calendar (present-day March 1-14th). Every night torches are lit around the hall for to illuminate the monks' nightly walk, creating sparks of fire that dance over visitors' heads. Before the torches go up, an announcement explaining the water gathering ritual is broadcast in English and Chinese as well.

After Visiting Nigatsu-do Hall, Take a Break in the Ryuudo-do

After Visiting Nigatsu-do Hall, Take a Break in the Ryuudo-do

"Ryuudo-do" is a tea shop to the south of Nigatsu-do Hall. The shop is famous for Todai-ji's secret recipe Gyoho miso, which you can't buy anywhere else, and its original sweets. The shop's featured item, the warabi-mochi, is exquisite. Made right in the tea shop, you can order the warabi-mochi chilled in the summer and warm in the winter. The mochi's soft, springy texture and the lightly sweet kinako powder and special kuromitsu brown sugar syrup are all divine. Popular among international tourists are the ohagi and matcha, which are of course also all hand-made in the shop. The red bean paste, made from Hokkaido-grown azuki beans, is delicious and filling.

Take Home Some Secret Recipe Miso as a Souvenir

Take Home Some Secret Recipe Miso as a Souvenir

Highly recommended as a souvenir is the "O-mizutori Gyoho Miso", a snackable miso paste made from an ancient Todai-ji Temple secret recipe. It is made using ingredients like gobo root, soybeans, and sesame that are used often by secluded monks and said increase their spiritual power. The secret manufacturing method is taught only in this shop and the miso not sold anywhere else, making it a genuinely rare and exclusive item.

The strong flavored miso goes well with warm rice, cucumber, tofu, denraku, or by itself as a snack with a drink of sake, so the multi-purpose gift will make an excellent souvenir. (90g/650 yen, 180g/1300 yen, all tax included)

  • Ryuudo-do
    龍美堂
    • Address Todai-ji Nigatsu-do Southern Tea House, 1-406 Zoshi-cho, Nara City, Nara
    • Phone Number 0742-23-6285

    Business Hours: 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
    Scheduled Closings: irregular

Be Overwhelmed by the Plethora of Statues in Hokke-do Hall

Be Overwhelmed by the Plethora of Statues in Hokke-do Hall

After descending from Nigatsu-do, continue on to Hokke-do Hall (alternatively named Sangatsu-do). This area was the central area of the temple before the construction of the giant Buddha, and Hokke-do Hall is Todai-ji's oldest surviving building from the Nara period, rumored to even be a relic remaining from Todai-ji Temple's predecessor, Konshu-ji Temple. The principal deity enshrined here, a Fukuukensaku Kannon, is the savior of all people. The statue has 8 arms, wears a silver crown encrusted with hundreds of gems, and holds a rope.

In addition, there are also 10 more national treasures and important cultural assets, including and Kongo Rikishi and Shitennoji statues. The 3-4 meter tall collection of 10 statues is truly overwhelming. This is a must-see part of the temple complex.

You'll Want to Also Stop by the Todai-ji Museum

You'll Want to Also Stop by the Todai-ji Museum
A replica of the giant Buddha's hand displayed beside the entrance

The Todaiji Museum is located within the Todai-ji Temple Cultural Center on the temple premises. There are five main exhibition rooms, each on a different theme and set up for easy viewing. The theme of Room 1 is Todai-ji at its original time of establishment, and Room 2 is full of interesting objects, including a statue of the young Buddha, a designated important cultural artifact statue of Senju Kannon Bosatsu, a Bosatsu Hanka statue, and more Buddhist statues, crafts, artwork. It can also be beneficial to visit the museum before visiting each of the temple halls, as the museum will help you get to know the history and significance behind Todai-ji Temple.

In the museum information center you can find pamphlets of not only Todai-ji Temple but also other tourist spots in Nara City and Nara Prefecture, available in three languages.

Original Temple Goods Are Also in High Demand

Original Temple Goods Are Also in High Demand
350 yen each; Todai-ji original bath salts, 2-pack for 700 yen or 6-pack for 2000 yen; all prices tax included
Ceramic bells (Nio guardians) 650 yen; masks 5400 yen each; all prices tax included

Let us now introduce popular souvenirs among the museum shop's exclusive products. First up are the temple guidebook and other books. The official guidebook is available in Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean, French, and German.

The picture books and others are also popular items. Next, take a look at the temple's orginal file sleeves. There are 14 varieties of designs, depicting the Daibutsu-sama as well as the Kongo Rikishi statues, Nikko and Gekko Bosatsu statues, and other Buddhist figures and Shoso-in images.

The third souvenir that gets many repeat buyers is the Todai-ji Temple original bath salts. Finally, the ceramic bells of the Nio guardians faces and the masks are also sought-after products. The Jikokuten and Gekko Bosatsu masks are especially popular among international tourists.

Don't Forget a Temple Seal Stamp and a Seal Stamp Booklet

Don't Forget a Temple Seal Stamp and a Seal Stamp Booklet
Tomoe Shinohara-designed "Todai-ji Temple Seal Stamp Book"

At Todai-ji Temple, you can receive stamps at not only the Great Buddha Hall but also the other various halls. At the Great Buddha Hall, since the temple is of the Kegon sect, in the middle of the stamp is a "kegon" flower symbol and the Sanskrit characters for Buddha. In all, there are 18 different kinds of stamps throughout Todai-ji Temple, including those depicting Kaidan-do Hall's four deities and Nigatsu-do Hall's 11-faced Kannon. The original stamp book picturing a chrysanthemum seal and the matching stamp book case are also beautiful.

Pictured in the photograph is the Todai-ji Temple original temple seal stamp book, with cover design by singer and artist Tomoe Shinohara. Variations of the noble purple booklet, with illustrations of the Daibutsu-sama, Nara deer, and camellia flowers, are available for sale at the Great Buddha Hall and other locations.

  • Todai-ji
    東大寺
    • Address 406-1 Zoshi-cho, Nara City, Nara
    • Nearest Station from JR Yamatoji Line "Nara" Station or Kintetsu Nara Line "Kintetsu-Nara" Station, 4-10 minutes via Nara City Outer Loop Bus, 5-minute walk from "Todaiji Daibutsuden Kasuga Taisha Mae" bus stop; alternatively, a 20-minute walk from Kintetsu-Nara Station
    • Phone Number 0742-22-5511

    Visiting Hours: temple grounds always open (Great Buddha Hall, Hokke-do Hall, and Kaidan-do Hall open 8:00 AM - 5:00 PM; Todaiji Museum open 9:30 AM - Great Buddha Hall closing time *Times vary by season)
    Visiting Fee: Great Buddha Hall, Hokke-do Hall, Kaidan-do Hall, Todaiji Museum each 600 yen; Todaiji Museum and Great Buddha Hall combined pass 1000 yen
    Scheduled Closings: none (museum occasionally temporarily closed)

Text by:WEST PLAN
Main image: DMstudio House / Shutterstock.com

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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