Yakushiji temple, one of the original seven major temples of Nara, was first planned by the emperor Temmu in AD 680, at which time the capital of Japan was a city south of present-day Nara called Fujiwara (now known as Asuka). Temmu’s intention was to have the temple dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing, as a means of aiding the recovery of the empress Jitō from a serious illness. As fate would have it, the empress survived but Temmu himself died before the temple was completed. Empress Jitō completed the construction as well as the casting of the primary bronze statuary. Yakushiji was dedicated in 697 and completed in 698.

A little over a decade later, a new capital city called Heijō was built slightly to the north of Fujiwara. This is the site of present-day Nara. Since the jointed wood construction of the day allowed for easy dismantling and transportation of buildings, many major structures, such as palace buildings and temples, were simply moved to the new capital. Yakushiji was relocated to its present site in 718, where it was afforded a large, prominent plot of land, appropriate to its status as a “first-class” temple. Following Chinese precedent, the capital was carefully zoned into blocks, which were awarded to temples, aristocrats, merchants, and others on the basis of both practicality and prestige (Fig. 21).

Figure 20 The Yakushiji West Pagoda (Saitō), whose reconstruction by Nishioka was completed in October 1980. Compare it to the original East Pagoda (Tōtō), Fig. 27.

Figure 21 Map of Heijō (Nara) in the eighth century and a detail of the Yakushiji area.

Figure 22 Side view of the Central Gate (Chumon) of the main Yakushiji complex, completed in 1984. Cloisters (Kairō) were added in 1991. (See also Figs. 23, 29.)

Yakushiji has from the outset been a temple of the Hossō sect, which was founded in China in the seventh century by Hsüantsang (Genjō Sanzō in Japanese) and was the first Buddhist sect to be brought to Japan. The original layout of the temple, which is a complex of several major buildings grouped within and around a large walled enclosure, features twin pagodas, each 34 meters high. Though in fact three stories, the pagodas are designed to appear six-storied through the addition of “false” roofs between the roofs of the actual structural floors (Figs. 20, 27). This design treatment is used in the nearby Golden Hall and other buildings as well. The Golden Hall (Fig. 28) houses the triad of bronze statues cast late in the seventh century representing Yakushi Nyorai and two attendants, Nikko Bosatsu (the Sunlight Bodhisattva) and Gakko Bosatsu (the Moonlight Bodhisattva), all three of which are now designated National Treasures. The design of the main enclosure of Yakushiji centered on the main figure of Yakushi Nyorai, and the other structures were arranged in such a way as to emphasize its centrality (Fig. 24). In its most complete form, the main complex included the two pagodas, the Golden Hall, the Lecture Hall, a massive Southern Gate, a smaller Central Gate, and a surrounding ambulatory corridor. Among lesser edifices were a bell tower, a sutra repository, and residences, offices, and a refectory.

The capital city was moved again in 794 to present-day Kyoto, partly because the powerful Nara temples had become a political nuisance. Yakushiji did not accompany this move, but remained in Nara. In time, rival sects appeared and obtained imperial sponsorship, causing Yakushiji to decline in importance. The temple thereafter fell periodic victim to fire and natural disaster, the worst of which was the torching of the temple during the civil war of 1528. The golden statues were blackened by the flames, and every building but the East Pagoda was destroyed. A temporary Golden Hall was erected in 1600 and a new Lecture Hall in 1852, but by the mid-twentieth century the temple had deteriorated into a scarred veteran surrounded by rice paddies and overgrown with trees, with few remaining hints of its former grandeur.

Perhaps the abbots of Yakushiji had dreamed from time to time of reconstruction. But even assuming that a craftsman could be found who was capable of such a major undertaking, there would always remain the daunting problem of funds. Before the modern era, the national government had little or no interest in the architectural reconstruction of now obscure Buddhist sects, and with the onset of the modern era, what money was available for ecclesiastical construction was poured into building and maintaining Shintō shrines as a means of legitimizing the government’s claims for the emperor’s divinity. Some of the newer Buddhist sects, such as Pure Land and Shingon, had grown quite wealthy on the donations from the faithful, but Yakushiji was not in such a position.

Figure 23 Aerial view of Yakushiji in 2011. The original East Pagoda is on the right, and the reconstructed West Pagoda on the left. The building with the largest roof is the Lecture Hall. The two-story building in front of it is the Golden Hall, and in front of that is the Central Gate. The Cloister (corridor) has been left open at the upper left and right corners. The Sanzō-in can be seen at the top of the image, just right of center. Compare to the plans opposite. Photo courtesy Uzumasa Films.

In the late 1960s, however, noticing what seemed to be a small resurgence in Buddhist faith since the end of the war, a new abbot of Yakushiji, Kōin Takada, conceived a plan to raise the funds for reconstruction. He organized a movement for copying the Heart Sutra, the major scripture of the Hossō sect, whereby worshipers visiting the temple could spend an hour or two transcribing the sutra by hand as an act of devotion, leaving a donation when they departed. Takada considered it of utmost importance that funds for the temple should come not from corporate donations but from ordinary people as an act of spiritual devotion; he intended it to be an eternal movement. By the late 1980s, over 3,500,000 people had contributed in this way.

Because of Master Carpenter Nishioka’s tremendous success with the Hōryūji restoration, he was the obvious first choice for director of the Yakushiji project. It was not easy for Nishioka to make the decision to move from Hōryūji to Yakushiji, but he eventually agreed. He began by making a model of the West Pagoda under the sponsorship of the Kintetsu railroad company, which was building a historical museum within the confines of a train station in Nara. Then, in 1970, Nishioka collaborated with the noted architectural scholars Hirotarō Ōta and Kiyoshi Asano on the conceptual design of the Golden Hall, and produced a preliminary model. Later that year, Nishioka traveled to Taiwan for the first time to look at hinoki, since suitable timbers were not available in Japan.

Since the statues to be housed in the Golden Hall have been designated National Treasures, stringent regulations govern their care. One of these stipulates that they be housed in a fireproof structure. Despite Nishioka’s opposition, the design of the new Golden Hall therefore featured a central core of reinforced concrete, equipped with well-concealed automatic fire shutters and sprinklers. This core is ingeniously mated to the enveloping traditional wooden structure that forms the visible edifice. The approach is quite novel, faithful to the original, and, fortunately, entirely unobtrusive. The groundbreaking ceremony was held in May 1971, that for the column raising in April 1973, and that for the raising of the ridge beam in December of the same year. The Golden Hall was completed in July 1975 and dedicated in April of the following year. It had taken a total of six years from conceptual design to dedication.

Figure 24 Original layout of Yakushiji, with the Sanzō-in added.

Figure 25 and Figure 26 Nishioka based the design of the West Pagoda (right) on careful measurements of the 1,300-year-old East Pagoda (above). Like its predecessor, the new pagoda and all of the reconstructed buildings at Yakushiji were designed to age gracefully.

Figure 27 The East Pagoda (Totō) has survived since AD 730. Compare it with Fig. 20.

Figure 28 The Golden Hall (Kondō) houses important votive statues, and its reconstruction was completed in 1975.

Figure 29 The Central Gate and West Pagoda. At the time this photograph was taken, in 2013, the East Pagoda had been disassembled for regular repairs, and was enclosed in a temporary protective structure just visible at far right.

Figure 30 The Lecture Hall (Daikodō) was completed in 2003. It is the largest building at Yakushiji and was finished after Nishioka’s death by his apprentices. (See also details, Figs. 1, 8.)

The reconstruction of the West Pagoda (Fig. 20) commenced in earnest in June of 1976 when Nishioka and his assistants began measurements of the 1,300-year-old East Pagoda (Fig. 27) to determine every detail of its construction. The foundation stones of the West Pagoda, which remained intact from the time the superstructure was destroyed in the sixteenth century, were excavated by the Nara National Research Institute of Cultural Properties. Nishioka’s design of the new West Pagoda adhered as faithfully to the original as possible, although some minor changes in concealed structural members were necessary in order to compensate for the different structural characteristics of the Taiwanese hinoki.

Another consideration was the uppermost roof of the new pagoda. The roof of the older East Pagoda, which served as a model, was not the original one, but the result of repairs in the Edo period, when it was altered to suit then current preferences. For the new pagoda, it was decided to recreate the original profile. In order to do this with utmost accuracy, Nishioka calculated the ultimate shrinkage of the lumber in the entire structure and the degree of settling it would cause, keeping in mind that the vertical and non-loadbearing central pillar would not settle at all. Thus, when the central pillar was installed, it was raised on wooden wedges a few centimeters above the foundation stone so that the wedges could be withdrawn incrementally over a period of years as the surrounding structure settled around it. After several years, the wood had fully stabilized, the roof angle was correct, and there were no gaps where the central pillar emerged from the roof. In October 1977, the groundbreaking was held for the new pagoda. Relics of the Buddha, obtained from Gandhara in Pakistan, were enshrined under the central pillar in May 1978, and construction work on the pagoda was completed in October 1980.

Next to be rebuilt was the Central Gate (Figs. 22, 29), with construction beginning in 1982 and ending in 1984. Though considerably smaller than either the pagodas or the Golden Hall, it is still quite large by contemporary wooden construction standards. Each side of the gate contains a niche for a guardian statue. These sculptures, standing over five meters in height and originally made of clay, were reproduced in wood by Kannya Tsujimoto, a renowned carver and restorer of antique Japanese sculpture.

Prior to the completion of the Central Gate, Nishioka had produced basic designs for the remainder of the main complex, including the surrounding corridor, new lecture hall, refectory, bell tower, and sutra repository. The entire reconstruction project, barring any major interruptions, was expected to be completed in the year 2030. Because Nishioka was already in his late eighties, he concentrated on finishing the basic design work for the entire project and on ensuring that his apprentices were trained to complete the project when he was no longer able to participate. The work would thus continue posthumously in his name.

The ultimate aim of the Yakushiji project, however, was not restricted to the historical restoration of the temple to its eighth-century appearance. The final goal was to upgrade Yakushiji to the status of head temple of the Hossō sect, a position held by a Chinese temple until the Communist Revolution. The relics of one of the sect’s founders, the Chinese monk Hsüan-tsang (Genjō Sanzō), were brought to Japan in the 1940s. In 1979, Nishioka, Professor Ōta, and Abbot Takada took the first step toward the creation of a new complex to house these relics. The construction of this complex, properly known as the Genjō Sanzō-in, but referred to simply as the Sanzō-in, was decided upon at the end of 1979, prior to the completion of the new pagoda. In 1981, Nishioka once more traveled to Taiwan to select the trees.

Figure 31 Yakushiji in the late afternoon.

The Sanzō-in (Fig. 24, also Chapter 4) reproduces many of the features of the main complex in miniature. There is a Central Gate (Fig. 34), a surrounding corridor (Figs. 6, 42), and, in the center, the most important structure, an octagonal hall (hakkakudo), called the Genjō-dō at Yakushiji (Figs. 32, 39), which houses the founder’s relics under a life-sized wood and lacquer image (Fig. 40). The other major building, which will be discussed in detail below, is of a type known as a “picture hall” (e-den) (Fig. 33), so named because the interior walls, and sometimes the ceiling, are decorated with educational or spiritually evocative paintings. In this instance, the pictures depict scenes from the Silk Road, a trade route that indirectly linked Japan with the Middle East through China and India and played a vital role in the flowering of Japanese culture during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. Hsüan-tsang himself had passed over this road in order to bring back sutras from India for the monasteries of China, and so it was deemed fitting that his Picture Hall should celebrate his travels. The ceiling has been painted with a design of the heavens.

The construction of the Picture Hall was begun following the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sanzō-in in November 1984, and was completed in 1987, except for the extensive religious murals, which were not finished until 2001. The Octagonal Hall was completed in late 1987, and the Central Gate in early 1988. A pair of Sutra Repositories (housing one million small wooden towers, each containing a copy of the Heart Sutra made by a worshiper), were completed in 1989, and the entire Sanzō-in complex dedicated in 1990.

Architectural work then recommenced on the main Yakushiji complex, in 1991. Nishioka lived to see the dedication and partial completion of the corridor surrounding the halls and pagodas of the main compound, but the largest structure, the Great Lecture Hall, was finished only in 2003, after Nishioka’s death, under the guidance of his chief apprentice, Mitsuo Ogawa.


“Don’t try to join wood based on measurement alone, but utilize the wood’s personality as well.”

Every tree is an individual, though influenced strongly by its growing environment. Each tree develops a unique set of characteristics, idiosyncrasies that can be called its “habits” or “personality.” A particular tree may be prone to twist clockwise because it was subjected to strong winds from the east while growing, while another may tend to bend as it releases tension caused by having heavier branches on one side as a result of how the sunlight reached it. If wood like this is mated with others that have opposing tendencies, the result will be structurally more secure and the finished building less prone to distortion. Accurate measurement cannot be overlooked, of course, but in itself it is not sufficient for good work.


“The hearts of the carpenters should be matched in the same way the personality of wood is.”

Building a temple requires the effort of many people. Craftsmen have habits and idiosyncrasies just as wood does, and in order to build a unified team that works with one mind it is essential to recognize each carpenter’s individual tendencies and assign tasks that utilize them to best advantage. Not only is it impossible to make each worker identical in ability, it is undesirable.