Visit: 20th February 2016
Our final WHS on this week in Japan, visiting Horyu-ji took things back to basics. The site consists of two sub-sites not far from one another: both Buddhist temples and amongst the oldest wooden buildings in the world. The temple, in fact, is inscribed on the back of the 10 yen coin.
This was our final day in the country and we were due to fly home late that night. This left pretty much the whole day free to sightsee, giving sufficient time for a temple visit. We took a JR Yamatoji Rapid Service from Osaka to Horyuji station and walked the twenty or so minutes to the temple site. The trains are famously punctual in Japan, and keeping to schedule is an obsession for railway staff. In the glass-fronted train we rode that morning you can see the white-gloved driver pointing to his timetable printout to compare the time that we passed a particular waypoint with the time on the schedule. Anything more than a few seconds and he would be kicking himself.
The weather was pretty grey that day, and we passed through some very ordinary – you might even say dreary – areas, which I appreciated because it gives an insight into what humdrum everyday life is like in a culture that is, on the surface, so very different to ours. But it was livened up on this particular day (it was a Saturday) by a local mochi-pounding event. In Japan the rice-harvest is historically celebrated by pounding some of it into a chewy paste, which is then eaten as a snack. It is performed with oversized mallets, and people from the village gather round to watch the mochi pounding. I was pleased to see it taking place quite by chance, as it was something I had seen in videos before setting off for Japan but did not expect actually to see myself.
The WHS technically consists of 48 wooden monuments or structures located at two sites in Nara Prefecture, east of Osaka. They are the earliest Buddhist monuments in Japan, with 11 of the structures dating back to the 7th or 8th centuries AD. This was the first of Japan’s World Heritage Sites to be inscribed by UNESCO. The design and layout show the strong influence of China at the time, for it was from China and the Korean peninsular that Buddhism arrived in Japan. Over time Buddhist architecture was adapted from the Chinese style to suit the needs of Japanese culture, developing into the distinct indigenous style that one sees at other temples throughout Japan (for example in Kyoto).
There is of course a prestigious five-storey Pagoda (rear in the photo above) and a Kondo hall (front). These are the oldest buildings on the site. Nearby is housed a collection of Buddhist statues similar to those we saw at To-ji Temple in Kyoto (but were not allowed to photograph).
It was raining, but since we didn’t have much choice we carried on regardless to walk the 2 kilometres to the nearby Hokki-ji temple. We passed through empty streets and across damp farmland, taking in cloud-obscured views of the low mountains that surround the plateau on which the temples are sited. I did consider attempting to catch a bus, but one look at the Japanese timetable told me that it was not an avenue worth pursuing.
Hokki-ji is much smaller than Horyu-ji, and for a while we were the only visitors there. We paid the monks a nominal few hundred yen to enter and wandered around looking at the three-story pagoda and associated buildings. It was a tranquil place.
Having finished with our temple-spotting we walked another 2 kilometres to a station at Yamato-Koizumi. There was still time in the day, so we ended up going via Osaka to Kyoto again (the third time that week), only to get drenched at the Nijo Castle!
We had a wonderful time in Japan full of unforgettable experiences. My highlights included:
- Eating excellent Ramen in Tokyo and Osaka (and discovering that our beloved chain Ippudo has two restaurants in London. And it’s just as good there – we tried it the other day!)
- Discovering the delicious convenience of Soba noodle joints.
- Flying on a 787 to Okinawa and walking its old streets in the sun.
- Enjoying a refreshing beverage on every corner from Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines.
- Taking in the Zen tranquillity of Tenryu-ji temple in Kyoto.
- Drinking matcha green tea in a restaurant with sweeping views of the wide Uji river.
We will be back, Japan, and hopefully not before too long.