by Kentaro Ohno
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Toshodai-ji Temple 唐招提寺

This historically significant temple got its name from the fact that its first abbot, Ganjin, was from Toh, of the Tang Dynasty in China, and that it was founded as a place for Buddhist training under his guidance. This was the first temple in Japan to be dedicated to one of the Chinese Buddhist denominations, the Nanzan school.

Located in the outskirts of Nara, the Tooshodai temple’s location is where central Nara used to be when it was the capital of Japan 1250 years ago. Today, the temple is considered the head temple of Japan’s Ritsu-shu denomination of Buddhist teachings.

Ganjin is revered for his role in the development of Buddhism in Japan. He was the high priest at Daimeiji Temple in China and founded Toshodaiji after he was invited by Emperor Shomu to teach Chinese Budddhist precepts in Japan. It took him 12 years and in the process, the loss of his eyesight, to finally cross the ocean and arrive in Nara in 754. He was ordained at Todaiji, and constructed Toshodaiji Temple after he resigned from the former. A statue of him, built around the time of his death in 763 at the age of 76, is recognized as a national treasure and is open for public viewing a few days a year on May 5-7 and June 5-7 and the days before and after.

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There are two temples in Nara that are not in close proximity to the park that are worth visiting--Horyuji and Toshodaiji--but for different reasons. This temple has a more interesting backstory. Since they're both off the beaten path, try to visit both in succession to compare and contrast two of the oldest temples in Japan.

Toshodai-ji temple is one of the oldest and original temples in Nara city. It was built in 759 AD by a Chinese priest. The emperor wanted to spread Buddhism throughout Japan and this temple had an early role in doing so. Ganjin was the name of the invited priest and the name of the temple actually means “Temple of the one invited from Tang China”.

The main hall features a grand massive roof which will be the first feature you notice as you enter the complex. Another interesting fact is that the temple’s lecture hall was originally an administrative building on the grounds of the Heijo palace but was later moved to Toshodai-ji. This lecture hall is the only original surviving building from the palace.

Moon and Buddha viewing at Toshodai-ji is a unique and special experience that occurs once a year in September. The Buddha in the main hall can only be viewed once a year through the open doors on this night which makes it a magical experience. This temple is located just south of Heijo Palace.

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