Asuka-dera Temple (飛鳥寺)

Sango (literally "mountain name", this is a title prefixed to the name of Buddhist temples): Torigatazan
Religious school: Buzan school of Shingon Buddhism
Principal image: Shaka Nyorai (the Japanese name for Shakyamuni), also known as the Great Buddha of Asuka, a designated Important Cultural Property
Established: around the end of the sixth century
Founder: SOGA no Umako
Official name: Torigatazan Angoin (at present)
Other names: Hoko-ji Temple, Gango-ji Temple (both former names)
Fudasho (temple collecting and offering amulets): ninth of the thirty-three temples of the New Kansai Kannon Pilgrimage
Cultural property: bronze sitting statue of the Buddha (Important Cultural Property)

Asuka-dera Temple is a temple located in Asuka Village, Takaichi District, Nara Prefecture. It's predecessor was Hoko-ji Temple, the clan temple (ujidera) of the Soga Clan and the first proper temple in Japan (Hoko-ji means 'the temple where Buddhism flourished'). It is known by several different names. That is to say, the name of the temple built by SOGA no Umako was Hoko-ji Temple or Gango-ji Temple, and the official name of the small temple now standing on the site of Hoko-ji Temple's Chukondo (Middle Hall) is 'Angoin'; however, the name 'Asuka-dera Temple' appears in travel notes from the Edo period, and is also included in various technical terms, for example 'Asuka-dera-style temple layout'.

In this article, 'Asuka-dera Temple' is used for both the temple built by Umako and the present temple which succeeded its tradition. Angoin belongs to the Buzan school of Shingon Buddhism. The principal image is of the Buddha, Shakyamuni, and is known as 'Asuka-daibutsu' or Great Buddha of Asuka; the temple was founded by Umako. Its 'sango' is Torigatazan, but since the ancient Asuka-dera Temple did not have a 'sango', this is a later addition. Torigatazan' is the name of a mountain to the northeast of the temple where Asukaniimasu-jinja Shrine is located.


Hoko-ji Temple, the predecessor of the present Asuka-dera Temple, was built from the late sixth century to the early seventh century as the clan temple of the Soga Clan and, along with Toyura-dera Temple (a nunnery and predecessor of Kogen-ji Temple) in Toyura, Asuka Village, is the first true Buddhist temple in Japan.

According to the "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan), SOGA no Umako decided to build Hoko-ji Temple in 587. He is said to have sworn to build a temple if he was victorious over the anti-Buddhist faction, led by MONONOBE no Moriya. SOGA no Umako won the battle, so he decided to build the temple in Makaminohara, Asuka.

The "Gangoji-engi" (Origin of Gango-ji Temple), written in 747, while giving the same year, differs from the "Nihonshoki" in the details. According to the "Gangoji-engi", in 587, 'a visitor from Baekje' offered counsel on building a temple for male Buddhist priests because there were only nunneries at that time in Japan, then Emperor Yomei ordered the later Empress Suiko and Prince Shotoku to seek out a place for the temple.
(At that time in Japan, there seem to have been no official male Buddhist priests although there were nuns, such as Zenshin-ni who went to Baekje to study.)

The "Nihonshoki" states that construction of Hoko-ji Temple began in 588, with the dispatch of Buddhist priests and craftsmen from Baekje and the demolition of the residence of Konoha, ancestor of the Asuka no Kinunui no Miyatsuko, in Makaminohara, Asuka. The "Nihonshoki" entry for 592 mentions that "construction began on Grand Hoko-ji Temple's Buddha statue hall and corridor", so it is possible that this was the first year of full-scale construction after ground leveling and procuring lumber.

The "Nihonshoki" entry for February 21, 593, also reports that "the Buddha's bones are put in the foundations of the central pillar of Hoko-ji Temple's pagoda" and, the following day (the 22nd), that "the central pillar was raised". In 1957, excavations at the site of the pagoda confirmed a vessel containing the Buddha's bones had been buried under the foundation stone of the central pillar.

The "Nihonshoki" article for November, 596, states that "Hoko-ji Temple was completed". However, as stated below, the principal object of worship, a Shaka-sanzon, or Shakyamuni Buddha Triad, was not finished for a further nine years, meaning the temple did not have its principal images for nine years after it had been completed. On this point, different researchers have different explanations, with one theory being that the pagoda was completed first in 596, and the other temple buildings were built in turn after that.

Excavations from 1956 to1957 found that the original Hoko-ji Temple was a magnificent one-pagoda-three-hall-style temple with a central five-storied pagoda surrounded by a middle kondo, an eastern kondo, and a western kondo.

According to the "Nihonshoki", the principal image of the middle kondo of Hoko-ji Temple, the statues of the Shakyamuni Buddha Triad are said to have been begun by Kuratsukurinotori in 605 and finished in 606. Incidentally, according to "Gangoji-engi", there was an inscription on the halo of the sixteen-shaku (around 4.85m) high statue, which said the statue was "reverently begun" in 605 and finished in 609.

Even after the Taika Reforms led to the extinction of the Soga Clan's head family, Hoko-ji Temple remained a center of religion and, during Emperor Tenmu's reign, came under the protection of the Imperial Court as the one of the 'Four Great Temples', along with Daian-ji Temple, Kawahara-dera Temple, and Yakushi-ji Temple. Relating to that, many ancient coins, known as Fuhonsen, were found in the Asukaike Ruins near Asuka-dera Temple and their origins (including a connection with Asuka-dera Temple) are hotly debated.

Following Transfer of Capital to Heijo

When the capital was moved to Heijo-kyo, Hoko-ji Temple was also moved to present-day Nara City and renamed Gango-ji Temple, though Hoko-ji Temple in Asuka continued to exist under the name Moto Gango-ji Temple. It was destroyed by fire in 1196, and went into a drastic decline during the Middle Ages so that, in the Edo period, only a temporary hall remained. Norinaga MOTOORI, the Edo period scholar, visited Asuka-dera Temple in 1772, describing it in his diary "Sugegasa Nikki" as "having no gate" and "a temporary hall" that contained only the principal image of the Buddha.

A stone monument referring to "Asuka-daibutsu", which now stands at the entrance of the approach to the temple, has existed since 1792 and shows that the statue was already called "Asuka-daibutsu" at that time. The present main hall was rebuilt in 1825 at the end of the Edo period with support from a donor in Osaka, and as such, it is hard to gain an appreciation of the magnificent original temple. However, excavations have revealed that the place where Asuka-dera Temple's main hall now stands is the exact same site as the middle golden hall of Hoko-ji Temple built by Umako, and the principal image of the Buddha (or Asuka-daibutsu), although extensively repaired, is enshrined in the same position as it was in the Asuka period. In other words, although it has experienced a decline, Hoko-ji Temple, the oldest temple in Japan, has maintained its traditions up until today, the 21st century.


The ninth temple of new 33 Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage

Cultural Property

Bronze sitting statue of Shakyamuni (Important Cultural Property) - The principal image of Asuka-dera Temple (Angoin)
It is commonly known as Asuka-daibutsu, or the Great Buddha of Asuka. As mentioned in the 'Origins and History' section, it is said to have been made by Kuratsukuri no Tori at the beginning of the 7th century. He is generally considered to have been the same person as Shibatukuri no Obito Tori, who made the Shakyamuni Triad that is the principal image in Horyu-ji Temple's kondo. It is believed to have originally been a triad like the statues of Horyu-ji Temple's Shakyamuni triad; however, both side-attendants were lost and the statue itself was seriously damaged by fire caused by lightning, so that only the upper half of the face, the left ear, and the index, middle, and third fingers of the right hand are said to be original. Cracked parts are covered with clay and then paper, and then painted with Indian ink, so it is certain that it has undergone extensive repairs. However, it is not precisely known how much of what remains is original. The index finger, middle finger, and third finger of the right hand were confirmed by X-ray to be mortised to the palm. The representation of its almond-shape eyes is common to other extant Asuka-style Buddha statues. Although almost every part of the body seems to have been repaired at some point, the knot tying the string on the chest is done in an old style, and so is likely to replicate the original.


Get off at the Kintetsu Line's Kashiharajingu Station
Take the bus for Okadera-mae for ten minutes
Get off at Asukadaibutsu bus stop

[Original Japanese]