Gango-ji Temple (元興寺)

Gango-ji Temple is a temple in Nara City, counted as one of Seven Great Temples of Nara. The predecessor of this temple was Asuka-dera Temple, the oldest orthodox Buddhist temple in Japan, which was erected in Asuka (an ancient capital of Japan during the Asuka period [538-710]) by SOGA-no-Umako. Following the transfer of the national capital to the Heijo-kyo (an ancient capital of Japan in current Nara), Hoko-ji Temple was also transferred from Asuka to the new capital to become Gango-ji Temple (however, Hoko-ji Temple in Asuka remained in the original site to be today's Asuka-dera Temple). Gango-ji Temple was a temple with an influence as much as neighboring Todai-ji Temple and Kofuku-ji Temple in the Nara period. However, having gradually declined since the medieval period, the temple is now divided into two temples as follows.

(1) Gango-ji Temple in Chuin-cho, Nara City. It was referred to as 'Gango-ji Temple Gokuraku-bo' until 1977. The temple is a branch temple of Saidai-ji Temple (Nara City), belonging to the Shingon Ritsu sect. The honzon (principal object of worship at a temple) is Chiko Mandala (a diagram that depicts Buddhist deities according to certain geometric formats and illustrates the Buddhist world view).

(2) Gango-ji Temple in Shibanoshinya-cho, Nara City. The temple is a branch temple of Todai-ji Temple, belonging to the Kegon sect. The honzon is Eleven-faced Kannon (Goddess of Mercy).

Gango-ji Temple in Chuin-cho, Nara City is registered in the list of World Heritage as a part of '{Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara}.'
As the above-mentioned two Gango-ji Temple separated from one temple, they are dealt with together in this section.

Origin and history

At present, the following three regions are designated as 'The Historic site, Gango-ji Temple': (1) 'Gango-ji Temple Gokuraku-bo' in Chuin-cho, Nara City, (2) 'Gango-ji Temple (remains of pagoda)' in Shibanoshinya-cho, Nara City, (3) 'Remains of Shoto-in Temple of Gango-ji Temple' in Nishinoshinya-cho, Nara-City. All of these regions formerly belonged to Hoko-ji Temple (now Asuka-dera Temple), the oldest orthodox Buddhist temple in Japan, erected in Asuka by SOGA-no-Umako in the end of the sixth century.

Following the transfer of the national capital to the Heijo-kyo in 710, Yakushi-ji Temple, Umaya-zaka-dera Temple (later Kofuku-ji Temple), Daikandai-ji Temple (later Daian-ji Temple), etc. were transferred to the new capital. While Hoko-ji Temple was transferred to the Heijo-kyo in 718, Hoko-ji Temple in Asuka was left at the original site without being abolished.
Generally, the temple in Asuka is referred to as 'Hoko-ji Temple,' while that in the Heijo-kyo is referred to as 'Gango-ji Temple.'
Both terms of 'Hoko' and 'Gango' provide the temples with the meaning of the first temple in Japan where Buddhism thrived.

Gango-ji Temple in the Nara period prospered as a Dojo (place of Buddhist practice or meditation) of the Sanron sect and the Hosso sect, boasting a gigantic scale of temple buildings and site comparable with Todai-ji Temple and Kofuku-ji Temple. The temple site was long and slender in the north and south direction with about 440 meters in north and south and about 220 meters in east and west. The south of Sarusawa-ike Pond located in the south of Kofuku-ji Temple, most of the area called 'Nara-machi' today, was originally included in the precincts of Gango-ji Temple. The southeast area of Sarusawa-ike Pond where the police station is located corresponds to the northeastern end of the old precincts, while the area where Nara City Onjo-Kan Hall (Narukawa-cho, Nara City) is located corresponds to the southwestern end of the precincts.

In contrast to Todai-ji Temple and Kofuku-ji Temple that increased in influence in Nara, Gango-ji Temple gradually declined around the late Heian period. According to 'Dosha Sonshoku Kenroku Cho' (the record of damages of the temple), a historical material compiled in the early 11th century, temple buildings of Gango-ji Temple including Kon-do Hall (main hall of a Buddhist temple) were so ruined in those days that they appeared miserable.
There was an Amida Jodozu (illustration of the Pure Land of Amida, also called Chiko Mandala) in Gango-ji Temple that was produced under the instruction of a scholar priest, Chiko, in the Nara period
This Mandala became popular in line with the spread of Mappo-shiso (the "end of the world" belief) in the end of the Heian period as well as the boom of worshiping Amida Buddha. The hall enshrining the Mandala was called 'Gokuraku-bo,' which gradually developed as a different temple from the original Gango-ji Temple. This hall is the Gango-ji Temple now located in Chuin-cho, Nara City, popularly known as Gango-ji Temple Gokuraku-bo. The existing Hon-do Hall (main hall) and Zen-shitsu Room (room for Zen sitting meditation) of Gango-ji Temple Gokuraku-bo were originally priests' living quarters where priests including Chiko lived in the Nara period, which were reconstructed in the Kamakura period.

Getting a by-blow of a peasants' uprising in 1451 during the Muromachi period, Gango-ji Temple went up in flames. While the Five-Storied Pagoda (called Goju-no-To) and other structures narrowly escaped the fire, main temple buildings such as the Kon-do Hall and the original illustration of Chiko Mandala were burned down.
Around those days, the temple was divided into three temples: 'Gokuraku-in Temple' enshrining Chiko Mandala, 'Gango-ji Temple Kannon-do Hall (a temple dedicated to Kannon)' developing around the Five-Storied Pagoda, and 'Shoto-in Temple.'
Gokuraku-in Temple became a branch temple of Saidai-ji Temple in Nara City, belonging to the Shingon Ritsu sect. The temple flourished as a temple for folk religion such as Chiko Mandala, Kobo Daishi (a posthumous title of the priest Kukai), Prince Shotoku after the Medieval period.

On the other hand, 'Gango-ji Temple Kannon-do Hall' located in the south of Gokuraku-in Temple became a branch temple of Todai-ji Temple, which developed around the Five-Storied Pagoda. The Five-Storied Pagoda and Kannon-do Hall, remains of the original Gango-ji Temple, which had escaped the fire broke out in the Muromachi period, were finally burned down in 1859 in the end of the Edo period.
Afterward, the temple has been declining, although it succeeded to the temple name of 'Gango-ji Temple.'

Gokuraku-in Temple fell into ruin after the Meiji period.
The Hon-do Hall, which is now designated as a National Treasure, had been so ruined with broken floorboards and torn thatched roofs until around 1950 that it was ridiculed by saying, 'The temple is haunted.'
Taizen TSUJIMURA, who became the chief priest of Gokuraku-in Temple in 1943 during the World War II, encouraged the maintenance of the precincts and the repair of the building, while devoting himself to the social welfare work for war orphans. The precincts were gradually maintained: for example, TSUJIMURA established "The Foundation of Gango-ji Temple Research Center for Buddhism and Race Resources (財団法人元興寺仏教民俗資料研究所)" within the precincts in 1962 (the center has been renamed "Gangoji Cultural Property Research Center" in 1978), and a repository was established in 1965 for storing and exhibiting the temple's treasures. "The Foundation of Gango-ji Temple Research Center for Buddhism and Race Resources (財団法人元興寺仏教民俗資料研究所)" was established with the initial aim of studying the tens of thousands resources related to the popular faith (board stupa, etc.) that had been found from a loft during the demolition and repair work of the Hon-do Hall. Gokuraku-in Temple was renamed 'Gango-ji Temple Gokuraku-bo' in 1955 and again renamed 'Gango-ji Temple' in 1977.

Temple buildings

As for the temple buildings of Gango-ji Temple in the Nara period, the Nandai-mon gate (literally, Great South Gate), Chu-mon gate (literally, Inner Gate), Kon-do Hall (Miroku Buddha is enshrined as Honzon), Ko-do Hall (lecture hall), Sho-do Hall (hall preserving the temple bell) and Jiki-do Hall (dining hall) were arranged on the straight from south to north. Furthermore, cloisters expanding from the right and left sides of Chu-mon surrounded the Kon-do Hall, which reached to the right and left sides of the Ko-do Hall. There was To-to-in Temple spreading around the Five-Storied Pagoda in the east of the outside cloisters, while there was Shoto-in Temple in the west of the outside cloisters (It is believed that a small pagoda was enshrined inside of the Shoto-in Temple). All of these buildings had already been burned down and disappeared. On the right and left sides behind the Ko-do Hall, there were several priests' living quarters. The structure of these living quarters looked like row houses extending east and west. Of them, the priests' living quarters located at the fore part in the east were remodeled in the Kamakura period to be the existing Hon-do Hall and Zen-shitsu Room.

Gango-ji Temple (Chuin-cho, Nara City)

Hon-do Hall (National Treasure) - also referred to as Gokuraku-bo Hon-do Hall or Gokuraku-do Hall. This hall style is classified into the Yosemune-Zukuri style (a square or rectangular building, covered with a hipped roof) with a tiled roof, whose facade looks east (the design of the facade looking east is a distinctive feature in constructing Amida-do Hall [temple hall having an enshrined image of Amitabha]). This hall has several unusual designs as follows: the facade of the hall is the short side of the Yosemune-Zukuri style building (the side that the roof shape looks triangular, not trapezoid), and its facade has even-numbered six-bay pillars with a pillar in the center (the common facade of Buddhism temple buildings has uneven-numbered-bay pillars like three or five without a pillar in the center). As for the inside of the hall, Naijin (inner sanctuary) with boarding floor is enclosed by Gejin (outer place of worship for public people) with tatami mat flooring. This design is suitable for 'Gyodo'--the ascetic practices of walking around the Naijin with praying to Amida Buddha. This hall was originally the east end of the old priests' living quarters, which was remodeled in 1244 during the Kamakura period. Components in the Nara period were reused to turn into big Kakubashira (corner pillar with square or rectangular shape) surrounding Naijin and ceiling boards. Moreover, old roof-tiles in the Asuka period and the Nara period were partially applied to the roof covering the present hall. The old roof-tile reused has the peculiar shape of wide lower edge and tapered off upper edge. The roofed-style created by laying these tiles is called Gyoki roofed-style.

Zen-shitsu Room (National Treasure) - Kirizuma-zukuri style (an architectural style with a gabled roof) with a tiled roof. The Zen-shitsu Room stands closely to the west side of the Hon-do Hall. The room was originally a series of the old priests' living quarters long extending east and west, including a part of the present Hon-do Hall, which was reconstructed in the Kamakura period. Boarding doors fixed in four places of the facade shows that the existing parts consist of four living quarters. It is believed that five to eight priests lived in each quarter. As with the Hon-do Hall, components and roof-tiles of this room are those used in the Nara period. In addition, according to the report issued by Gangoji Cultural Property Research Center in 2000, an examination into the components of the Zen-shitsu Room with the dendrochronological technique shows that those components included trees cut down in 582. This means, if it is true, that part of this structure used older lumber than that used for constructing the temple buildings of Horyu-ji Temple Sai-in.

East Gate (National Important Cultural Property) - a gate brought over from Todai-ji Temple and reassembled. The Muromachi period.

Gango-ji Temple (Shibanoshinya-cho, Nara City)

The remains of the Five-Storied Pagoda - the ancient structural remains that have survived since the Nara period. With an extra-large scale of 9.65m on a side and 72.7m in total height, the pagoda was larger than the Five-Storied Pagoda of To-ji Temple, which was burned down in 1859 along with Kannon-do Hall and others. The pagoda has not yet been reconstructed.

At present, a small pagoda, which was rebuilt around 1935, stands beside the remains of the Five-Storied Pagoda and no other buildings older than the small pagoda remain.

Cultural Property

Gango-ji Temple (Chuin-cho, Nara City)

National Treasures
Hon-do Hall
Zen-shitsu Room

Five-Storied Small Pagoda - enshrined in the repository. The Nara period.
Despite its small size of about 5.5m high, it is designated as a National Treasure in the category of 'architecture,' not in the category of 'handicraft.'
Enshrined indoors, the pagoda has suffered from little damages. Therefore, it is regarded as a valuable material to know the construction in the Nara period. The pagoda was constructed so sophisticatedly that even internal structure was far from being simplified.

Important Cultural Properties
East Gate
Chakushoku-Chiko-Mandala-zu (color illustration of Chiko Mandala painted on a board)
Wooden seated statue of Amida Nyorai
Wooden seated statue of Kobodaishi
Wooden standing statue of Prince Shotoku, by Zenshun

Gango-ji Temple (Shibanoshinya-cho, Nara City)

National Treasure

Wooden standing statue of the Yakushi Nyorai - produced in the early Heian period. It is deposited in the Nara National Museum.

Important Cultural Properties
Wooden standing statue of Eleven-faced Kannon - a deposit in the Nara National Museum.

The excavated articles unearthed from the base of the pagoda remains of Gango-ji Temple, The set of jewelry and copper coins - deposits in the Nara National Museum.

[Original Japanese]