Todaiji Temple (東大寺, Tōdai-ji) in Nara is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Japan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and houses several National Treasures of Japan. In this post, we’ll share photos of Todaiji, tips for visiting this important temple, and our experience in visiting.
Thanks to its huge bronze Buddha, Todaiji Temple is a must-visit for most visitors to Nara. In fact, this is often listed as one of the top sites in Japan, and many tourists probably take side-trips from Kyoto or Osaka with Todaiji Temple being the impetus for the diversion.
Considered the Great Eastern Temple, Todaiji Temple is one of the “Seven Great Temples of Nara.” These temples date back to when Nara prospered as the capital of Japan…before the capital moved due to the meddlesome influence of said temples on political affairs. Todaiji’s counterpart, Saidaiji (Great Western Temple), and the other five temples are today among the most popular attractions in Nara. Of these, Todaiji Temple is undoubtedly the most renowned…
While Todaiji Temple consists of numerous buildings spread out upon a large complex, one building in particular beckons all visitors and draws hordes of tourists.
That is the Great Buddha Hall (大仏殿, Daibutsuden), which is the largest wooden structure in the world. Or was, maybe? Some resources suggest a couple of other places have since eclipsed it.
Regardless, at 157-feet tall, it’s gigantic and awe-inspiring as you approach. Just look at the people in the photo above on the steps leading up to the main hall.
Perhaps what’s most impressive is that the Daibutsuden today is not even as tall as it once was. As with several structures in Nara, this hall has been destroyed twice by fire, and was most recently rebuilt in 1709, at a size about 30% taller than its predecessor.
This Great Buddha Hall houses an immense bronze statue of the Daibutsu, or Great Buddha. I’ve found several other names for this online, including the “Cosmic Buddha,” “Vairocana Buddha,” and “Dainichi Nyorai.” I think a couple of these names are synonymous, but the idiosyncrasies of Japanese Buddhism elude me, so I won’t speculate.
Whatever the case may be, this Buddha is both great and giant. It stands some 50 feet tall (seated!) and weighs over 500 tons. Todaiji Temple has other statistics about the size of random elements of the statue, all of which add to its grandiosity.
The Daibutsu’s two main creators were a Korean artist named Kuninaka-no-Kimimaro, who is believed to have directed the construction of the statue and the hall. Takechi-no-sanekuni is believed to have directed the design and sculpture of the statue.
Most impressive, more than 2,600,000 people worked or contributed to the construction of the Great Buddha and its Hall, with approximately 350,000 working directly on the statue’s construction.
However, what exists today is not entirely original. Like the hall itself, the Daibutsu statue has also changed over time. To what degree original elements of the statue, if any, remain is unknown. Due to earthquakes and other damage, parts of it have had to be recast. The current hands and head of the statue each date from different periods, although you’d be hard-pressed to ascertain that just from looking at the statue.
Recently, a human tooth, pearls, mirrors, swords, and jewels were discovered inside of the knee of the Great Buddha via x-ray imaging. These relics are believed to have belonged to Emperor Shomu, who had issued the edict for the construction of Todaiji Temple in 741.
While the Great Buddha Hall and its statue are unquestionably the main draws to Todaiji, the complex is vast, with plenty of other buildings and a beautiful landscape to explore. Visitors to Todaiji enter the temple through the Nandaimon Gate (Great South Gate).
This gate is known for its giant guardian gods, which are tall wooden statues protecting the temple within from evil. It’s also known for the deer that tend to lurk around it, begging (or assaulting, as the case may be) guests for crackers.
Todaiji Museum is a modern building located near the Nandaimon Gate. This museum is said to feature a rotating exhibitions of treasures from the temple, including Buddhist statuary and religious art. It’s separately ticketed, but you can purchase a combined ticket for the main hall and the museum. In hindsight, we regret not buying this combined ticket.
Kaidanin Temple is another of the buildings of the complex, which originally served as Japan’s preeminent ordination hall for new monks. While it no longer serves such purpose, it does house celebrated clay statues of the Four Heavenly Kings.
To the east of Todaiji on a meandering path that leads uphill are Nigatsudo Hall and Sangatsudo (Hokkedo) Hall, sub-temples of Todaiji.
Nigatsudo Hall is the free one of the two, and we recommend it because it offers stunning views of Nara below. We also found this area to be considerably less crowded. In fact, once you get away from the main hall, Todaiji Temple is not nearly as crowded.
Hokkedo Hall is adjacent to Nigatsudo Hall, and charges a separate admission. We elected not to enter this hall, but it’s said to house some culturally-significant statues, namely one of Fukukenjaku Kannon, who strives to save all souls from suffering.
Even if you don’t care about the view and are not interested in paying to enter this hall, we highly recommend the short hike (it’s not really a hike, but there is some step-climbing involved) to this area of Todaiji, particularly if you visit at a time when the temple is otherwise crowded. It’s a nice, serene escape from the hordes of people.
There were two reasons we originally chose to spend stay in Nara, rather than spending more time in Kyoto: the devious deer of Nara about which we previously wrote, and Todaiji Temple.
Todaiji Temple is sort of a best of both worlds place, as there are deer wandering the path leading to Nandaimon Gate. It feels a bit like the deer really are sacred messengers of the gods…or perhaps nature is trying to reclaim the place. Either way, it’s cool and unique.
There are fewer deer once you’re inside the ticketed area, presumably because deadbeat deer blow all their money on crackers and aren’t willing to fork over the 500 yen to visit.
Seeing the deer at the perimeter of the temple grounds is memorable and unique to this temple, but it’s the Great Buddha that is the main draw of Todaiji. It’s a masterpiece of Tempyo Period art and is colossal. I wish it were possible to get closer to fully appreciate its scale and grandeur, but even from a bit of a distance, it’s impressive.
The whole hall is filled with some exquisite pieces and detailed art, and it deserves some time to savor beyond just gazing up at the giant Buddha.
It’s not something for which I’d make the train ride to see if it were my first visit to Japan and I had limited time in Kyoto, though. I think that would eat a lot of time and also put immense pressure on the temple (as good as it is, I’m not sure it’s that good) to live up to expectations.
As return (frequent) visitors to Japan, it made sense for us to take the side trip to Nara, and spend some time there. One of the things we appreciate most about Kyoto is that it has more ‘old world’ charm than Tokyo, and Nara has even more of this charm than Kyoto.
One mistake we made when visiting Todaiji Temple was not doing it first thing in the morning. It was really crowded when we arrived, which was still fairly early in the morning. We were enamored with those deer in Nara Park, and got distracted with them before heading to the temple. As cute as they may be, don’t let them demand your attention.
The deer will be there all day, and Nara Park is so expansive that you won’t have issue with other tourists. It seemed like the deer outnumbered people by a fair margin when we were there, so getting some attention from them won’t be any trouble. In any case, all you need to do to be mobbed by deer (no matter how busy) is hold out a cracker. Deer will swarm you.
Overall, we were both impressed with Todaiji Temple and its main hall, Great Buddha, and beautiful grounds. Places like this have a tendency to feel overrated or prompt a “that’s it?” response if you encounter huge crowds and don’t do much else at them. There’s the potential for that at Todaiji, but only if you go for a brief visit to see the main hall. Venture beyond that, climb the steps to Nigatsudo Hall, look out at the city, and spend some time seeing the quieter parts of Todaiji. It’s really a huge complex, and has so much beauty beyond the main hall. You can easily spend a couple of hours at Todaiji Temple, and those who savor the visit and invest more time are likely to have a better experience. This is a must-do for any visitor to Nara, and is arguably one of a handful of things that makes Nara a compelling side-trip for (repeat) visitors to Kyoto or Osaka.
Have you visited Todaiji Temple in Nara? Did you think seeing the Great Buddha and its gigantic hall was was worth the cost of admission and the time you devoted to the trip, or would you recommend skipping it? Any insight into this temple or tips for visiting beyond what we’ve shared here? Any questions? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!