Kawara-dera Temple (川原寺)

Kawara-dera Temple is a Buddhist temple located in Asuka (Asuka Village, Takaichi District, Nara Prefecture), which was the center of political culture in ancient Japan. It is also called Gufuku-ji Temple. It was considered one of the four great temples of Asuka along with Asuka-dera Temple (Hokko-ji Temple), Yakushi-ji Temple and Daikan-daiji Temple (Daian-ji Temple), but after the medieval era its prosperity declined. The ruins of Kawara-dera Temple have been designated as a National Historic Site, and currently Gufuku-ji Temple, which belongs to the Toyama school of the Shingon sect and which inherited the light of Buddhism from Kawara-dera Temple, stands over what used to be the Chukon-do Hall (Middle Golden Hall).


Kawara-dera Temple was one of the four great temples of Asuka along with Asuka-dera Temple (Hokko-ji Temple), Yakushi-ji Temple and Daikan-daiji Temple (Daian-ji Temple), and although it is thought to have been constructed during the reign of Emperor Tenchi in the mid-seventh century, there is no mention of the founding of the temple in the official records in the "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan). The time and circumstances surrounding its creation have been debated over many years and there are several theories, and for this reason it is also called 'the mysterious temple'. The other three great temples were relocated to Heijokyo at the time of the move of the capital to Heijokyo, but Kawara-dera Temple remained in the Asuka area. It was burnt down at the very end of the Heian Period in 1191 and very little remains of the original structure other than the roof tiles and senbutsu (fired earthen Buddhist statues) that have been excavated, and the cornerstones of the doto (temple and pagoda).

Although the chapter dealing with the year 653 in the "Nihonshoki" states 'With the death of Somin, many Buddhist statues were placed in Kawara-dera Temple in his memory', there is an editor's note stating 'it may have been Yamada-dera Temple not Kawara-dera Temple', showing that even at the time the "Nihonshoki" was edited this story was already unreliable. Therefore, the earliest concrete record of Kawara-dera Temple is the section from March of the year 673 in the "Nihonshoki", mentioned below. According to the article, 'writers were gathered at Kawara-dera Temple to transcribe the complete Buddhist scriptures for the first time'. This article is famous as being the first record describing the transcription of the complete Buddhist scriptures in Japan, but the name Kawara-dera Temple appears quite abruptly, and "Nihonshoki" does not mention the circumstances surrounding the founding of the temple. For that reason, there are several theories regarding the founding of Kawara-dera Temple.

"Shoji Engi Shu" (a book describing the history of every temple) contains the theory that it was built in 584, but from looking at the age of objects that have been excavated from the Kawara-dera Temple ruins, such as tiles, it is unlikely that it was built that early. From the reference in the aforementioned "Nihonshoki", it is thought to be quite certain that the temple was built before 673, and the theory that Emperor Tenchi built it over the site of Kawahara Palace once managed by his mother Empress Saimei (the second enthronement of Empress Kogyoku) seems most credible. Kawarhara Palace was a temporary palace used after Itabuki Palace burnt down, until the move to Okamoto Palace the following year.

Temple Layout

During the excavation and research conducted between 1957 and 1959, it was revealed that the temple layout of Kawara-dera Temple was quite unique with one tower and two kon-do halls, and the style is now called the 'Kawara-dera Temple style temple layout'. At Kawara-dera Temple the corridors from the left and right of the middle gate cut the center of the temple into squares, and Chukon-do Hall is located at the center of the northern area. In the area surrounded by corridors, a five-level pagoda stands to the front and right, to the east of Chukon-do Hall, and Saikon-do Hall (West Golden Hall) stands to the west. The way the temple and towers stand next to each other within corridors is similar to the layout of Horyu-ji Temple Sai-in (West Precinct), but one key difference is that while Horyu-ji Temple's kon-do hall faces south, Kawara-dera Temple's kon-do hall faces east towards the tower. According to the results of the excavation and research, the design of Saikon-do Hall included an open front (without any fittings or walls) just like the existing main hall of Toshodai-ji Temple, and Chukon-do Hall was a building of very open design with two pillars in front and one on each side, and eaves which descend over all four sides of the main building. These buildings have all been lost, and only the cornerstones remain. It is notable that marble cornerstones, which have not been seen elsewhere, were used for Chukon-do Hall. The temple history mentions 'agate' cornerstones, however, they are actually marble. Furthermore, the tiles used at the time of construction which have been unearthed at Kawara-dera Temple have a very intricate design of eight flower petals split in two and are called 'double-petaled lotus flower design tiles', which later became mainstream in tile design.

Fire and After

The fact that Kawara-dera Temple burnt down in 1191 is recorded in Kanezane KUJO's diary "Gyokuyo". Also, a historical source from 1070 called 'Omi Gufukujiryo Shoen Chushin' (Reports of the Manor of Gufukuji Temple in Omi Province) mentions that a document related to the manor was burnt in the fire at Gofuku-ji Temple (Kawara-dera Temple), promoting speculation that there was another fire prior to 1070. Kawara-dera Temple was rebuilt in the Kamakura Period, but it burnt down once again at the end of the Muromachi Period after being struck by lightning, and it was never able to regain the scale it once had.

In 1974, over one thousand sozo (earthen images) and senbutsu were excavated from Itabuki-jinja Shrine on the hill behind Kawara-dera Temple. Senbutsu are fired earthen items, and are very close to brick in quality of material. A large number of tiles called Sanson Senbutsu measuring 20cm both in length and width and embossed with the three Buddhist deities, have been excavated from the hill behind Kawara-dera Temple. There have been no other instances of a large number of senbutsu being excavated from one location anywhere else in Japan, and although their use has not been clearly identified, the theory that they completely covered the walls of the temple as a decoration is most favored.

Currently, the Kawara-dera Temple ruins are maintained so that the original positions of the great southern gate, the middle gate and the corridors are identifiable. Gufuku-ji Temple, which stands close to the Chukon-do Hall ruins, is a temple that has inherited the light of Buddhism from Kawara-dera Temple, and houses the wooden statues of Jikokuten and Tamonten (from the early Heian Period) which have been designated Important Cultural Properties.

[Original Japanese]