The Todaiji Temple complex in Nara Koen encompasses the Great Buddha Hall, the Todaiji Museum, and many other buildings besides. However, rather than the biggest tourist attraction in the area (the great Buddha), it was Hokke-do (the statue hall) which stole my heart and was, in my opinion, the most interesting and unique thing I saw at Todaiji.
Hokke-do actually means ‘Lotus Hall’ – the building earned this name because, during the month of March every year, the Lotus Sutra Ceremony was held in this hall. Prior to that, the hall was known as Kensaku-do. Another name for it is sangatsu-do – the third month hall. It is the oldest building in the Todaiji complex and was built in the 740’s.
The hall is split into two parts – the worship hall and the image hall. The worship hall was rebuilt in 1199, the time when the two structures, which were previously separate, were brought together.
The hall is dark and gloomy – light is carefully monitored and controlled so as to preserve the condition of the statues. Even a slight change in the amount of light which enters the hall could have catastrophic consequences for the artwork. Temperature is also important – at the time of our visit (in early January) the hall was very cold indeed.
There are ten statues in the hall, all of which have been designated National Treasures. The central figure of Fukukenjaku Kannon is the most important, and the other statues crowd around it. Fukukenjaku Kannon is said to be a representation of the compassionate side of the Buddhas, whose personality trait is to stop at nothing in order to relieve the plights of people who are suffering. The statue stands about 362cm tall and shimmers despite the age that shows on its once glittering surface.
All of the statues were made during the Tempyo era (in the 700’s), during the reign of Emperor Shomu (who also left his mark on the Great Buddha, another relic in the Todaiji complex.) However it is not clear if all of the statues were present in Hokke-do from the beginning – it is likely that several of them were moved there at a later date.
Quite different from the serene and composed face of Fukukenjaku Kannon, the two Kongo Rikishi statues have threatening postures and angry expressions on their faces. The world of the Buddhas is protected by the four Divine Kings statues, which have varying expressions.
Aside from what is on show, there is more to see in the Lotus Hall but very few will ever get to see it. The Shukongo-jin statue is hidden in a closed off area behind the main viewing platform and is only available for viewing by the public once a year, on December 16th. Because the statue has been protected in this way, it is said that the colours of the statue, particularly on its flowing robes, are as bright and exquisite as they were in the founding days of Hokke-do. At only 170cm tall, it is the shortest of the statues in the hall. It is also the only statue made of clay – all the others are of dry lacquer with a hollow inside.
The statue is also a protector of the world of the Buddhas; he holds a spear in his raised right arm, ready to strike; the veins stand out, almost pulsing, in the left arm above his violently clenched fist, and his face is wide-eyed, open-mouthed, with teeth bared in an animalistic fashion, lips pulled back to reveal vibrantly pink gums. If you so happen to plan your visit to Hokke-do on the 16th of December, you’re in for a treat. There is also a beautiful hanging lantern in the chamber which can only be seen on that day.
You cannot take photos within the hall, and so the entry price of 500 yen for adults (600 yen from 2018 onwards) and 300 Yen for children (will continue to be 300 yen from 2018 onwards), may seem a little steep for somewhere where you’re unlikely to spend more than 10 minutes. However, as an art lover and an appreciator of historic relics, I found the Lotus Hall to be well worth the money and would highly recommend it. First of all, the building itself is steeped in so much history, and then there are the relics themselves – wonderfully preserved and imbued with such a majestic atmosphere, it truly is a top attraction in Nara Park.