Toshodai-ji, founded in 759 by Chinese priest Ganjin (Jianzhen in Chinese pronunciation), is the head temple of the Ritsu sect, which is one of the Six Nara Buddhist Sects.
It is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara”.
Ganjin, requested by priests from Japan, tried to come to Japan to propagate Buddhism but failed five times, and when he finally succeeded on the sixth attempt in 753, he had already lost his eyesight in the hardship.
When Ganjin arrived at modern-day Nara in 754, he at first presided over Todai-ji for five years performing ordination of priests. In 759 as he was given the former residence of Prince Niitabe Shinno, he constructed Toshodai-ji there to teach Buddhist precepts.
The temple became what it looks like now after he passed away in 763. He rests in his grave in the temple grounds, and around it flowers called keika donated by his hometown in China are planted, blooming in summer.
Structures designated as National Treasures at Toshodai-ji are Kondo, Kodo, Koro, Kyozo, and Hozo, all of which were built in the Nara period (the 8th century) except for Koro completed in 1240. Of these, particularly noteworthy are Kondo, or the main hall, and Kodo, or the lecture hall. Kondo is the only existing main hall erected as such in the Nara period in the nation.
And Kodo was part of the Imperial Palace until it was relocated from there in around 760. There are many more buildings other than these, and there are numerous Buddhist sculptures designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Heritages as well.
About Ganjin was not known much in China prior to WWII. Knowing this, some Japanese endeavored to send the statue of Ganjin created in the 8th century in Japan back temporarily to his hometown, but this attempt didn’t bear fruit because of the war.
After WWII, owing to the recognition of Ganjin through an acclaimed 1957 historical novel about him in Japan, the attempt to send the figure back once again gained momentum, and it finally reached its destination for a while in 1980, reminding us of the journey’s resemblance to Ganjin’s repeated bids to cross the sea.
Where to eat around Toshodai-ji
Sobakiri Yoshimura is a soba restaurant located between Toshodai-ji and Yakushi-ji. Chilled soba is said to be good at this site. Handmade, flour-free soba noodles served here are thin but chewy. Kakiage (tempura topping) is tasty if you have it with salt.
Maguro-goya is a tuna restaurant. There are many dishes using fresh tuna on the menu and their prices are reasonable. Fried tuna is the most popular.
Nino is an Italian restaurant. Its customer service is pleasant, and as you can choose the sizes of pasta and pizza from three, it’s popular among female. Both lunch and dinner are satisfying.
Where to stay around Toshodai-ji
Nara Park Hotel
Nara Park Hotel has a reputation for superb customer service.
Its imperial cuisine “Tenpyo no Utage” was reconstructed from 1300 years old documents.
This restaurant is frequently used for banquets, also. Though the building is a little outdated, you may feel somewhat nostalgic if you see its wooden spiral staircase and the like.
Nara Royal Hotel
Nara Royal Hotel is a large hotel which is located in a convenient place to reach Toshodai-ji, Saidai-ji or Heijo-kyo. There’s a large common bath of natural hot spring, and the lobby is large.
Breakfast buffet is popular here, and it’s delightful to have a meal while enjoying the view of the garden with trees and a waterfall. It’s rumored that Prince Akishino uses this hotel unofficially.
Heijo is a modern ryokan-style inn on a hilltop, and you can enjoy a splendid view from here. Its rooms are in Japanese-style and clean. Cuisines using local specialties are also received well.
At the foot of each chair placed beside the window in the room, there’s a plate emitting infrared, and by putting your feet on it, it makes you relaxed. There’s no open-air bath, but there’s a large common bath for each gender.
Toshodai-ji is a historic temple established in the Nara period. If you walk through the beautiful temple grounds covered with moss, you will feel refreshed.
You may also recall the hardship and the noble ideal of abbot Ganjin while taking the walk.