Kofuku-ji, one of the two head temples of the Hosso sect, is located in Nara Park, a broad park full of deer in the middle of the city of Nara.
The Hosso sect is one of Nanto Rokushu, or the Six Buddhist Sects of Nanto. “Nanto” is another name for Nara, which means “the Southern Capital”, and comes from the historical fact that it was once the capital of Japan before Kyoto.
Kofuku-ji itself is regarded as one of the temples called Nanto Shichidaiji, or the Seven Great Temples of the Southern Capital, along with Todai-ji, Saidai-ji, Yakushi-ji, Ganko-ji, Daian-ji, and Horyu-ji (sometimes Toshodai-ji is included instead of Horyu-ji, since Horyu-ji is not located in Nara City).
Anyway, Kofuku-ji is one of the most prominent temples not only in Nara but in the whole nation, and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.”
Kofuku-ji is said to have originated in 669 when Fujiwara no Kamatari (614 – 669), the founder of the Fujiwara clan, fell ill and his wife Kagami no Okimi erected a temple called Yamashina-dera in Yamashina area to pray for his recovery.
Following the Jinshin War in 672, the temple was relocated to where a new capital later to be called Fujiwara-kyo was being planned to be constructed.
The temple was renamed Umayasaka-dera since the name of the place was Umayasaka.
When the capital moved to Heijo-kyo (modern-day Nara City) in 710, so too was the temple, and this time it was renamed Kofuku-ji. It was placed where it stands now, and it may be said that this was the virtual foundation of Kofuku-ji.
Under Fujiwara no Fuhito (659- 720), the Fujiwara clan boasted a tremendous power in those days, and as Kofuku-ji was their tutelary temple, many buildings were erected by emperors, empresses and family members of the Fujiwara clan.
In 720 a government department which took charge of the construction of Kofuku-ji was set up, and the construction went on even after Fuhito’s death.
The temple had flourished since until the Meiji Restoration took place, and at this event Kofuku-ji was severely damaged. Its grounds were converted into Nara Park, and for this reason, the temple is located in the park now.
Some of the things worthy of seeing at present Kofuku-ji are Goju-no-to, Sanju-no-to, To-kondo, Hoku-endo, Nan-endo, and Kokuhokan. Of these, first four are designated as National Treasures.
Goju-no-to, or the five-storied pagoda, was initially built in 730 by Empress Komyo, who was a daughter of Fuhito. It burnt down several times and was reconstructed every time, and the present one was built in around 1426.
It’s about 50 meters (164 feet) tall and is the second highest wooden building in Japan after Goju-no-to at To-ji in Kyoto.
Sanju-no-to, or the three-storied pagoda, was erected in 1143 at first, but that one was destroyed by fire in 1180. It is considered that the present one was reconstructed soon after that.
To-kondo, or the eastern main Hall, was originally built in 726. The one stands now was completed in 1415.
Hoku-endo, or the northern octagonal hall, was reconstructed in around 1208 after the first one built in 721 was lost in 1180. Placed inside are statues of Shitenno, which are also National Treasures.
Nan-endo, or the southern octagonal hall, is not a National Treasure but is an Important Cultural Property. It’s the fourth reconstruction completed in 1741, though it’s designed in an older style. This building is the 9th station of the Saigoku 33 Pilgrimage.
Kokuhokan, or the national treasure hall, is a museum which houses artifacts, paintings, documents and such, many of which have been designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. Popular among visitors particularly is the statue of Ashura.
Where to eat around Kofuku-ji
Nihon-ryori Obana is a fancy Japanese restaurant near Kofuku-ji. If you want to live it up a little and have a nice lunch, this is the place for you.
Where to stay around Kofuku-ji
Super Hotel Lohas JR Nara Eki
Super Hotel Lohas JR Nara Eki is a budget hotel adjoining JR Nara Station. There’s a large common bath for each gender which draws in water from a hot spring, and room rates are reasonable. Breakfast with freshly baked bread is popular here.
AB Hotel Nara
AB Hotel Nara is another budget hotel which is a 2-min walk from the east entrance of JR Nara Station. There’s a large common bath for each gender here also. Breakfast is served buffet style.
Sarusawaike Yoshidaya is a ryokan-style inn near Kofuku-ji. It’s so close that you can see goju-no-to from the bath. There are both Japanese-style rooms and Western-style rooms, and some have a half-open-air bath.
It serves washoku course dinner using local foods such as Yamato beef and Yamato pork (Yamato is an old name for present-day Nara Prefecture).
More than 30 million tourists visit Nara every year.
Though some locals say it cannot attract as many visitors as Kyoto, Nara is no doubt one of the most renowned tourist destinations in Japan, and as an ancient capital prior to Kyoto, there are many things Kyoto doesn’t have, like the treasures of Shoso-in that will be exhibited at the Nara National Museum in fall every year.