Yamada-dera Temple (山田寺)

Yamada-dera Temple was an ancient temple located in present-day Yamada, Sakurai City in Nara Prefecture. Its posthumous Buddhist title is Jodo-ji Temple or Kegon-ji Temple. Yamada-dera Temple begun to be built in the middle of the 7th century at the wish of SOGANOKURA-YAMADA no Ishikawamaro, a member of the Soga clan, and was completed after Ishikawamaro committed suicide (in 649). The temple went into decline after the middle ages and was abandoned when Haibutsu-kishaku (a movement to abolish Buddhism) took place in the early Meiji period. It was subsequently restored as a small temple in 1892.
It is nationally designated a special historic site as 'the Yamada-dera Temple ruins.'

Yamada-dera Temple was founded by SOGANOKURA-YAMADA no Ishikawamaro.

SOGANOKURA-YAMADA no Ishikawamaro (unknown -649), the founder of Yamada-dera Temple, belonged to a family of the Soga clan, and SOGA no Umako, SOGA no Emishi and SOGA no Iruka were his grandfather, uncle and cousin respectively. Although Ishikawamaro was a member of the Soga clan, he was hostile to the head family of the Soga clan, including Emishi and Iruka, and he conspired with anti-Soga forces, including Naka no Oe no Oji (a.k.a. Katsuragi no Miko, who later became Emperor Tenchi) and FUJIWARA no Kamatari, to support the Isshi no Hen (the Murder in the Year of Isshi or the assassination of SOGA no Iruka), which took place in 645. The new government that was established after the Isshi no Hen appointed Ishikawamaro as Udaijin (the minister of right).

According to "Nihonshoki" (The Chronicles of Japan), SOGA no Himuka, the half brother of Ishikawamaro, gave Naka no Oe no Oji a tip-off that Ishikawamaro intended to raise a rebellion. In response to this, Emperor Kotoku's troops were sent to Ishikawamaro. Ishikawamaro did not offer any resistance to them, and he committed suicide with the family in front of the Buddha hall at Yamada-dera Temple. It is said that Ishikawamaro was innocent and falsely accused, but there are various views on the truth about the incident.


The founding of Yamada-dera Temple is fully described in the uragaki (back-page notes) of "Jogu Shotoku Hooteisetsu" (Biography of Shotoku Taishi), and the historical source is cited whenever Yamada-dera Temple is discussed. The uragaki mentions 'the start of land leveling in 641,' when land leveling work started, and that construction of the kondo (main hall) began two years later in 643. Since the uragaki states that 'priests began to reside at the temple in 648,' it is believed that although the maintenance of the entire temple complex had not yet been completed at the time, it had the appearance of a temple. In 649, Ishikawamaro committed suicide as described above, and as a result, the construction of Yamada-dera Temple was suspended.

Following this, construction work began in 663 on the tower that had not yet been erected, and as the uragaki states that the 'sorin (pinnacle on the top of a Buddhist pagoda) was raised in 676,' the tower is believed to have been completed in that year.
The uragaki also states that 'a Joroku Buddha statue was cast in 678 was consecrated in 685 ('joroku' refers to the height of the statue.)
The standing statue of Buddha is 4.8 meters high, and the sitting statue is about half the height of the standing one.)
Incidentally, only the head of this Joroku Buddha statue is now housed in Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara City, and is designated a National Treasure. The findings of excavations and the chronology of unearthed old roof-tiles indicate that the above details of the founding of the temple are believed to be generally true. Incidentally, there is an article in "Nihonshoki" that says Emperor Tenmu visited Jodo-ji Temple (the posthumous Buddhist title of Yamada-dera Temple) in 685, the year when the Joroku Buddha statue was consecrated as described above. Even after Ishikawamaro's death, the construction of Yamada-dera Temple continued, and it is presumed that in the backdrop, Empress Jito, who was Ishikawamaro's granddaughter, and her husband Emperor Tenmu sponsored the construction.

From the Heian period

In the Heian period, FUJIWARA no Michinaga visited this temple. According to "Fuso Ryakki" (A Brief History of Japan), Michinaga visited Yamada-dera Temple in 1023, when he marveled that magnificence and solemnity inside the temple was beyond description, showing that the Yamada-dera Temple building already existed in the early 11th century. "Tonomine Ryakki" (Abbreviated Records of Tonomine) (1197), which was written well over 100 years after this time, explains that the then Yamada-dera Temple became a branch temple of Tonomine-dera Temple (present-day Tanzan-jinja Shrine), its building fell to ruin and that only the sites of some parts of the building remained.

The Buddha Head at Kofuku-ji Temple

The bronze Buddha head (National Treasure) owned by Kofuku-ji Temple in Nara City was originally the head of the Yakushi Nyorai (Healing Buddha) statue that was the principal image in the lecture hall of Yamada-dera Temple. According to "Gyokuyo" (Diary of Kanezane KUJO), warrior-monks of Kofuku-ji Temple broke into Yamada-dera Temple, stole the Yakushi Nyorai statue, the principal image in its lecture hall, and placed it as the principal image of Kofuku-ji Temple Tokondo (Eastern Golden Hall). At that time, Kofuku-ji Temple was being rebuilt after it was destroyed by a fire caused by war with TAIRA no Shigehira (in 1180). This Yakushi Nyorai statue went up in flames when a fire broke out at Tokondo in 1411, and only its head, which barely escaped the fire, was housed inside the pedestal of the statue of the principal image that was rebuilt afterwards. This Buddha's head was not known to exist until it was rediscovered in 1937.

Present-day Yamada-dera Temple

Yamada-dera Temple was abandoned because of Haibutsu-kishaku in the Meiji period, and it was re-established in 1892. Today, only the Kannon-do Hall (a temple dedicated to Kannon) and the kuri (the priest's living quarters or the kitchen of a temple) stand around the lecture hall site. The sango (honorific mountain prefix) of present-day Yamada-dera Temple is Taikazan. The temple belonged to the Hosso sect. The principal image is Juichimen Kannon (Eleven-faced Kannon). In the precinct of the temple stands the 'Setsuen no Hi,' the monument erected in 1841 by Shigesada YAMADA, a descendent of Ishikawamaro. Setsuen,' which means 'to prove one's innocence,' was written by calligrapher Kaioku NUKINA.

Temple Complex

The temple layout of Yamada-dera Temple shows that the inner gate, the tower (assumed to be a five-storied pagoda), the kondo, and the lecture hall all lie straight on a central line from south to north, which is similar to the Shitenno-ji-style temple layout. However, Shitenno-ji Temple differs from Yamada-dera Temple in that in the former, the corridor extending from either side of the inner gate joins either end of the lecture hall, while in the latter, the corridor runs between kondo and the lecture hall, with the lecture hall located outside the corridor. The corridor measures 85 meters from east to west and 89 meters from south to north.

The findings of evacuations showed that the kondo of Yamada-dera Temple had a unique floor plan. Ancient butsu-do (a Buddha statue hall) architecture structurally consists of two parts: the central space called the moya or shinsha, and the surrounding space called hisashi (eaves). In the kondo of Yamada-dera Temple, the hashirama (the distance between two pillars) of the moya is approximately 5.4 meters at the front (four pillars) and approximately 3.6 meters on its side (three pillars). In this instance, the hisashi has two more pillars each at the front and on its side; it is usually about 9 meters long at the front (six pillars) and about 7.2 meters long on its side (five pillars), while the hashirama of the hisashi in the kondo of Yamada-dera Temple is 5.4 meters at the front and 3.6 meters on its side like that of a moya, misaligning the layout line across the moya and the one across Hisashi.

Engraved on the pedestal that sits on each foundation stone of the kondo and the corridor is a rengemon (lotus flower pattern). However, it is said that there were twelve foundation stones left in the kondo when archeologist Kenji TAKAHASHI investigated the main hall in the Meiji period, and after that, most of the stones were stolen and came into the possession of antique art dealers and others, and as a result, there are only two left there.

Many senbutsu (Buddha statues molded out of clay, given shape and fired), which were unearthed around the kondo and tower ruins, are believed to have been used to decorate the walls of the doto (temple halls). In addition, the unearthed roof tiles called 'Yamada-dera shiki' (Yamada-dera Temple Style) consist of a combination of Tanben hachiyo rengemon no kimarugawara (roof tiles with a design of lotus flowers with eight leaves around a petal) and Jukomon no nokihiragawara (broad eaves-end tiles with linear patterns), and tiles of the same type have been unearthed at ancient temples around the country, providing guidelines for estimating when each of the temples was built.

Excavation of the East Corridor

The Yamada-dera Temple ruins were converted into state-owned land in 1975, following which a full-scale excavation was conducted. One of the most notable findings of the excavation is the east corridor itself which was unearthed in 1982. After the corridor collapsed due to landslides, part of it was buried in the earth and was therefore preserved, and some pillars, renjimado (windows with vertical or horizontal wooden laths or bamboo) and other things were unearthed in their original form there. It is rare that real parts of a wooden structure, which rot easily, could found in the soil in this way, and these parts are valuable sources for studies on the history of Japanese architecture. A part of the unearthed corridor, which is about 5.4 meters long, was scientifically treated for preservation and is on display in its restored form at the exhibition facility of Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.


Approximately 10 minutes walk east of Asuka Historical Museum


[Original Japanese]