The Nara period in Japan was one of huge innovations in religion, government and culture, and Nara was at the centre, adopting and adapting technology and ideas from abroad, including Buddhism. The imperial court and powerful families like the Fujiwara clan commissioned the leading sculptors and artisans of the day to create breathtaking works. Today, visitors can view collections of these works in Nara's museums and temples. Stand in front of the awe-inspiring Tokai Monju or the serene Buddha of Enlightenment, both flanked by impressive supporters, and marvel at the intricacy of Japan’s oldest Ten guardians.
Discover Treasure Troves of Buddhist Art
Nara National Museum
Located in Nara Park, the Nara National Museum provides a comprehensive overview of every period of Japanese civilisation. Around 100 Buddhist statues are displayed in the round so that you can explore the detailed carvings from all sides. Many are designated National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. Some of the pieces from the Kamakura period (1185-1333) are particularly lifelike, including a beautiful figure of the young Prince Shotoku (574-622) and the fearsome Ten figures known as the Twelve Heavenly Generals.
With its five-storied pagoda—the second highest wooden five-storied pagoda in Japan—Kohfukuji Temple dominates the landscape of the City of Nara. The Temple's Central Golden Hall, which was recently rebuilt for the first time in over three centuries and consecrated in October 2018, houses Kohfukuji's principal icon along with other spectacular Buddhist images. Altogether, Kohfukuji owns over one hundred cultural properties, including a number of works by the greatest Buddhist sculptors in Japanese history. Among these are elegant six-armed Ashura image, the realistic-looking Ten Great Disciples, and the gilded image of the Thousand-armed Kannon.
In a quiet street north of Nara Park, this simple temple, founded in 747, holds an exquisite secret. The main hall is dominated by an elegant seated Yakushi Nyorai—the Buddha of healing—protected by the Twelve Heavenly Generals. The serene Buddha figure is carved from kaya wood, while the fearsome generals in dramatic poses are crafted from clay. Take time to admire the intricate and skilled craftsmanship.
Murouji Temple became very popular because centuries ago it was one of the rare temples that welcomed female pilgrims of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, one of the major schools in Japan. Murouji Temple has a particularly beautiful setting. Surrounded by lush forest, the temple complex draws many visitors especially in the early summer when the temple’s pagoda is framed by rhododendrons. Don’t miss the many treasures housed in halls dotted throughout the complex, including the Heian period (794–1185) Nyoirin Kannon known for its gentle countenance, and the impressive 9th-century Shaka Nyorai, the Buddha of Enlightenment, flanked by Twelve Heavenly Generals.
There are many National Treasure statues in Horyuji Temple. In the main hall, visit the Early Asuka Period (mid-6th century-670) large bronze Shaka triad and the Yakushi Nyorai guarded by Japan’s oldest Ten figures. The modern Treasure House contains many of the temple’s greatest treasures including the towering Kudara Kannon. Nearby in the Chugu-ji Temple there is an enigmatic Miroku Bosatsu statue which is often compared to the Mona Lisa.
Abe-Monjuin Temple and its flower-framed lake is a fascinating place to visit. The main hall contains some of the finest works by Kaikei, a famous sculptor of the 13th century. The main figure is Tokai Monju, the Buddha of Wisdom. This massive, awe-inspiring statue sits atop a giant lion, flanked by four companions. The scale and the realism of the carvings are truly impressive, and all are National Treasures. The temple is particularly beautiful when the cherry blossom and cosmos bloom.