The Kofuku Temple complex was founded in 669 by a member of the Fujiwara family
to ask Buddha for the clan leader’s health. It was originally built in Kyoto, but was moved to its present location
when Nara became Japan’s capital in 710. Over the years, the complex grew to about 175 structures becoming in the eighth century one of Japan's greatest temples.
In its glory days during the Nara period (710-794), Kofuku was one of the "Four Great Temples"
of ancient Japan. However, in the XII Century, when the Fujiwara's power over Japanese politics declined, the temple lost its leading supporters. Today, only 7 important buildings remain, four of which have been designated National Treasures of Japan and are also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara
There are two pagodas in the Kofuku complex
. They are located on either side of the Great Southern Gate. They are the “Three-story Pagoda” and the “Five-story Pagoda”. Other notable buildings in the complex are the Central Golden Hall (currently under restoration to be completed in 2018), the Eastern Golden Hall, the Northern Octagonal Hall and the Southern Octagonal Hall. No pictures of the religious figures inside the buildings are allowed.
The five-story pagoda
The Five-story pagoda was built in 725; the current structure was restored in 1426. With a height of 50 metres, it is the second highest pagoda in Japan (after Kyoto’s Tōji Temple
), and one of the symbols of Nara. The pagoda houses four Buddha triads (an image of Buddha plus two attendants) displayed around the central pillar. The four Buddha images are known as “The Healing Buddha”, “The Historical Buddha”, “The Buddha of the Western Paradise and Infinite Life” and “The Buddha of the Future”.
The three-story Pagoda
This pagoda was built in 1143. The present building was reconstructed around 1274. This pagoda holds four paintings on wood containing 1000 images of each of the four Buddha enshrined in the Five-story Pagoda.
The Eastern Golden Hall
The Eastern Golden Hall is located just north of the Five-story Pagoda. The original hall was built in 726. The present structure is a reconstruction of the original building dating from 1415. The hall contains a precious collection of Buddhist statues. The main statue is another version of the “Healing Buddha” surrounded by four Heavenly Kings which are warrior demi-gods usually placed in the corners of a Buddhist building guarding Buddhism and the building from malicious spirits.
Additional statues in the Eastern Golden Hall include 12 Heavenly Generals, and images of three Bosatsus
(a.k.a. Ksitigarbha, an enlightened being who, out of compassion, forgoes Nirvana to help all living beings, particularly deceased children and aborted babies, to achieve salvation). This building also houses paintings, ancient books, craftworks and historical documents.
The Northern Octagonal Hall
This hall was built in 721. The present structure is a reconstruction of the original from 1210. Several important figures, which are National Treasures, are housed in this building. These are a statue of “The Buddha of the Future” surrounded by two attendant Bosatsus and four Heavenly Kings.
The Southern Octagonal Hall
The Southern Octagonal Hall was erected in 813. The present structure is a reconstruction dating from 1789. It is considered one of the most beautiful octagonal temples of Japan. It is included as the 9th stop of the traditional Kansai 33-temple pilgrimage route. This Hall contains a main altar piece with the figure of the “Bosatsu of the Unfailing Fishing Line" who uses a fishing line to catch and help people who are suffering. Other statues in this temple are the six patriarchs of the Hossō
sect of Buddhism, and another set of 4 Heavenly Kings.
A visit to the Kofuku Temple complex in Nara is not only an occasion to admire beautiful historic buildings and religious figures, but also a great motivation to learn more about Buddhism, one of the main religions of Asia and the most important faith in Japan, having had a major impact on the culture and development of Japanese art, literature and architecture over the past 15 centuries.