Saidai-ji Temple (Nara City) (西大寺 (奈良市))

Saidai-ji Temple is a temple which is located in Saidaiji Shibamachi, Nara City, Nara Prefecture and the grand head temple of Shingon Risshu sect. It was built in the Nara period at the wish of the Empress Koken having Joto, a priest, as kaisan (the first chief priest). As one of the Seven Great Temples of Nanto (Nara), it boasted magnificent temple buildings in the Nara period, but it declined in the Heian period for a certain time. It was restored in the Kamakura period by Koshobosatsu Eison. Its sango (the name of a group of Buddhist temples to which the temple belongs) is Shohozan (In the Nara period, temples did not have sango and its sango was given later.). Present honzon (principal object of worship) is Shakanyorai (Shakyamuni).

Origin and history

Saidai-ji Temple is a temple which was established in 765 at the imperial order of the Empress Shotoku (Empress Koken). Gilt copper statues of Shitenno (the four guardian kings) which were built by the Retired Empress Koken (Empress Shotoku) invoking suppression of rebellion by FUJIWARA no Nakamaro have been enshrined. Those statues of Shitenno are enshrined in Shitendo (hall for shitenno) of Saidai-ji Temple even today, but only Jaki (imp) which is downtrodden by statue of Zochoten (guardian of the southern quarter) is the original since establishment and all other statues are manufactured or supplemented in the later period.

The name of the temple 'Saidai-ji' is, needless to say, in contrast to 'Todai-ji Temple' which is famous for daibutsu (large statue of Buddha). When established, it was a large temple, which was included in the Seven Great Temples of Nanto having magnificent buildings consisting of Yakushikondo (kondo [golden hall] for Yakushi [healing Buddha]), Mirokukondo (kondo for Maitreya-bodhisattva), Shitendo (hall for shitenno), Juichimendo (hall for Juichimen Kannon [eleven-faced Kannon, Goddess of Mercy]), five-story pagodas on the east and west and so on. However, it declined in the Heian period and many halls and pagodas were lost by fire or typhoon and the temple itself was controlled by Kofukuj-ji Temple.

Eison (Koshobosatsu, 1201-1290), a priest in the Kamakura period, is the restorer of Saidai-ji Temple. Eison was born in 1201 in Sonokami County, Yamato Province (present Yamatokoriyama City). Since the age of eleven, he had trained himself in Daigo-ji Temple, Koyasan and soon and, in 1235 when he was thirty-five years old, he became the chief priest of Saidai-ji Temple for the first time. Since then, after experiencing the chief priest of Kairyuo-ji Temple (Hokkeji-cho, Nara City) for a certain period, he returned to Saidai-ji Temple in 1238 and devoted himself for restoration of Saidai-ji Temple, which had been devastated, for more than 50 years until he died at the age of ninety years old. Eison worried about the state of corruption and degradation of Buddhism in Japan at that time and tried to restore the precepts of Buddhism. He devoted himself also for relieving the poor and the sick and so on and exerted himself to social welfare works in the current term. Many of Buddha statues and handicrafts which exist now in Saidai-ji Temple including honzon, the statue of Shakanyorai, were made in Eison's time. After that also, many priests of great sanctity and learning including Ninsho appeared one after another and efforts to restore devastated kokubunji (provincial monasteries) in various provinces were made. Eight provinces were shown in the 'Saidaiji Matujicho' (list of all subtemples) made in the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (Japan) in 1391, and it is inferred from other historical materials of the same period that, other than those, kokubunji in ten and several provinces were subtemples of Saidai-ji Temple.
(Among kokubunji existing today, only kokubunji in former Iyo Province has relation with Saidai-ji Temple, and other than it, multiple kokubunji belong to various schools of Shingon sect.)

Saidai-ji Temple suffered a serious damage in the Muromachi period in 1502 and all of buildings existing today were rebuilt in the Edo period and later. Saidai-ji Temple left Shingon sect and says that it belongs to Shingon Risshu sect. In addition to Hozan-ji Temple (Ikoma City, Nara Prefecture), the grand head temple of the sect, Joruri-ji Temple in Kyoto, Kairyuo-ji Temple in Nara, Futai-ji Temple in Nara, Gokuraku-ji Temple in Kamakura City, Shomyo-ji Temple in Yokohama City and so on belong to Shingon Risshu sect.

Temple buildings and Buddhist images

There are hondo (main hall), Aizendo (hall for Aizen Myoo [Ragaraja]), Shitendo, Shuhokan (treasure house) and so on in the precincts. Foundation stones of the ruins of toto (literally, eastern pagoda) still remain in front of hondo.

Hondo (important cultural property)

The building is of yosemune-zukuri (a square or rectangular building, covered with a hipped roof) and hongawarabuki (a style of tile roofing in which round and square tiles are laid down alternately). Because the hall rebuilt after destruction by fire in the Muromachi period was damaged, it was decided not to repair but to rebuild and construction work was commenced in 1798 and it was completed around 1808. No tsuchikabe (an earthened wall, or a mud wall) was used and traditional style with little decoration was adopted. It was designated an important cultural property as a representative large-scale Buddhist temple in the late Edo period. It was once told that this hall was built in 1752, but, as described above, it was built in the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Standing statue of Shakanyorai (Shakyamuni) (important cultural property)

It is honzon of Saidai-ji Temple. It was made in 1249 by Zenkei, a busshi (sculptor of Buddhist statues). It is a representative work of so-called 'statues of Shakanyorai in Seiryoji style' and an imitation of sangokudenrai (literally, transmitted in three countries; 'sangoku' means India, China and Japan) statue of Shakyamuni in Seiryo-ji Temple in Kyoto. Many nonyuhin (goods stored inside the statue) were contained in the statue. Many of Buddhist statues of the age of restoration of Saidai-ji Temple in the Kamakura period were made by the school called Zen-ha which used a character "善 (zen)" in their names including Zenkei ("善慶") of this statue.

Statue of Monju Bosatsu (Manjusri) and five attendants statues (important cultural property)

It was made in 1302. Many nonyuhin were contained in the statue.

Shitendo - It was rebuilt in the Edo period in 1674.

Standing statue of Juichimen Kannon (Eleven-faced Kannon [Goddess of Mercy]) (important cultural property)

It was made in the late Heian period.

Standing statues of Shitenno (important cultural property)

Originally, they are statues of Shitenno it was made at the wish of the Empress Shotoku, but today, only jaki under the foot is left from the Nara period.


It was Konoe-ko Mandokoro Goten in Kyoto Imperial Palace and relocated in 1762 (or 1767 by another view).

Seated statue of Aizenmyoo (Ragaraja) (important cultural property)

It was made by Zenen, a busshi, in 1247. Although it is small in size, it is a representative work of statues of Aizenmyoo in Japan. Original colors and kiriganemonyo (delicately made metal foil craft works) have been preserved in good condition. It is treated as hibutsu (a hidden Buddhist statue) and opened for public around October to November, every year. It has been inferred that the sculptor, Zenen was the same person as Zenkei, who was the sculptor of the statue of Shakanyorai which is honzon of hondo of Saidai-ji Temple. Although it is a small statue, many nonyuhin (goods stored inside the statue) were contained in the statue.

Seated statue of Koshobosatsu

It is an image sculpture of Eison, who was the restorer of Saidai-ji Temple, enshrined in a room on the observer's left. It is an image of Eison in 1280 when he was eighty years old and the sculptor was Zenshun, Busshi. His appearance with long eyebrow and bulbous nose seems to carry down the relic of the model of the sculpture. It is a feature of Buddhist statues of the age of restoration of Saidai-ji Temple in Kamakura that many nonyuhin were contained in the statue. In particular, tremandous volume of materials including remains of parents of Eison were contained in this statue.


It is a treasure house in which temple's treasures are exhibited.

Seated statues of Tohonshibutsu (important cultural property)

They are Shakanyorai, Amidanyorai (Amitabha Tathagata), Ashukunyorai and Hoshonyorai (Ratnasambhava, one of the Five Wisdom Buddhas) and they are made with mokushin kanshitsu-zukuri (wood-core dry lacquer). They are believed to have been enshrined in the first story of the lost five-story pagoda and they were made in the late Nara period. Two out of four have been deposited to Tokyo National Museum and Nara National Museum.

Cultural properties

The precincts of the temple are designated a national historical site.

National treasures

Color paintings on silk of 12 devas

Complete set of 12 still exist. In whole, peeling off and fading of pigment is noticeable, but they are very precious as big pieces of Buddhist painting in the early Heian period, ninth century, for which the number of existing relics is small. Six of them have been deposited to Nara National Museum and three each to Tokyo National Museum and Kyoto National Museum.

Gilt copper sukashi-bori (openwork carving) vessel for Buddha's bones

Although it is a small article only 37 cm high, it is provided with elaborately made sukashi-bori in many places and it is one of the representative works of smithing in the Kamakura period.

Gilt copper hoto (literally, treasure pagoda) and stored articles (danto)

Hoto is a pagoda in a form of cylindrical body of pagoda having roof on it. This work is a gilt copper pagoda approximately 90 cm high and the appearance of wooden structure has been exactly copied. Shari (Buddha's relics) which had been kept by Eison has been stored inside. It was made in 1270.
The official names as a designated national treasure are as follows:
1. Gilt copper hoto, 1. Gilt copper hoju (precius orb)-shaped stupa (enshrined in the lower deck), 1. Gilt copper cylindrical container, 1. Small bag made with nishiki (brocade) with double tasuki hanamon patterns on red background, 1. Crystal gorinto (a gravestone composed of five pieces piled up one upon another) with a small bag made with red nishiki, 1. Crystal gorinto with a 織物縫合小裹 (enshrined in the upper deck).

Iron hoto and sharibin (bottle for storing remains)

A pagoda in the same style as above-mentioned gilt copper hoto. It is an iron made 172 cm high large-sized pagoda. It contains five suibyo (water jar)-shaped copper container for remains inside. It was made in 1283.

Ten rolls of Konkomyo saisho okyo (Golden Light of the Most Victorious Kings Sutra) attached with kyobako (a box in which Buddhist scriptures are kept) decorated with makie (Japanese lacquer sprinkled with gold or silver powder) with moon and tree peony pattern.

Manuscripts made in 762. Kyobako designated as an attachment was made in the Kamakura period.

Seven rolls of Daibirushana Jobutsu Jinbenkaji-kyo Sutra (Mahavairocana Sutra)

A part of Issai-kyo (complete collection of scriptures) which was prepared and enshrined in Shitendo of Saidai-ji Temple in 766 at the wish of KIBI no Yuri, who was a court lady serving the Empress Shotoku.

Important cultural properties


Color painting on silk of shaka sanzon (Shaka triad) (principal image of ninno-e [name of important ceremony])
Color painting on silk of Monjubosatsu (Manjusri [bodhisattva])
Color paintings on silk of Yoshino mandala (mandala, or a diagram that depicts Buddhist deities according to certain geometric formats and illustrates the Buddhist world view)

Standing wooden statue of Shakanyorai (enshrined in hondo) (attachment: nonyuhin inside the statue)
Wooden statue of Monjubosatsu riding on a lion and five statues of attendants together with nonyuhin inside the statue
Seated wooden statue of Aizenmyoo in a zushi (a cupboard-like case with double doors in which an image of Buddha, a sutra, or some other revered object is kept at a temple), a work by Zenen (enshrined in Aizendo) (attachment: nonyuhin inside the statue)

Seated wooden statue of Koshobosatsu, a work by Zenshun (attachment: nonyuhin inside the statue)
Standing wooden statue of Juichimen Kannon (enshrined in Shitendo)
Standing statues of Shitenno (three copper statues and one wooden statue) (enshrined in Shitendo)
Dry lacquer standing statue of Kichijoten (Laksmi, Buddhist deity)
Mokushin kanshitsu-zukuri (wood-core dry lacquer) seated statues of Amidanyorai (Amitabha Tathagata), Shakanyorai, Ashukunyorai and Hoshonyorai (Ratnasambhava, one of the Five Wisdom Buddhas)
Seated wooden statue of Gyokibosatsu
Standing wooden statue of Daikokuten (Mahakala; the God of Wealth [usually depicted carrying a magic mallet]) and nonyuhin inside the statue

Kurourushisaishoku hanagata odan (literally, black lacquer colored flower-shape large stage) and kurourushi hakogatareiban (literally, black lacquer box-shape reiban (seat for chief priest)(stored in Aizendo)
Gilt copper bussharito (stupa) (As legend goes, Eison obtained it in Ise.)
Gilt copper bussharito (stupa) (As legend goes, the Emperor Kameyama donated it.)
One set of gilt copper mikkyo hogu (The Buddhist instruments of esoteric Buddhism) (Designated in 2004 as an important cultural property)
Gilt copper decorated knife with a rhinoceros horn handle
Shuurushi (vermillion lacquer) rinka (ring of flowers) tenmokubon (tray for tea bowl) with an inscription of Kyotoku 4 (1455)
Daijingu mishotai (mirror with an engraved image)

(Calligraphies and books, ancient documents, and historical materials)
Kongobusshi Eison Kanshin Gakushoki (autobiography of Eison)
Two letters written by Eison addressed to Hokke-ji Temple dated March 19 and 21
List of Sanporyo denpata of Saidai-ji Temple
Pictorial maps of manors of Saidai-ji Temple (a roll of map of Keihoku handen (alloted farmland), Sonoshimo County, Yamato Province, and a sheet of map 西大寺与秋篠寺堺相論絵図)
124 printing blocks for Saidaiji version

Annual events

It is carried out in January, April and October, every year. Tea is whipped using a huge tea bowl using a diameter over 30 cm and weight of 6 to 7 kg and a 35 cm long tea stirrer and served to worshippers. As legend goes, the origin of this event is that Eison dedicated tea to Chinju-Hachimangu Shrine of Saidai-ji Temple and entertained visitors with tea that had been offered.


Several minutes on foot from Yamato-Saidaiji Station of Kintetsu Railway.

[Original Japanese]