The world’s oldest wooden building

horyuji, japan, world's oldest wooden building, near nara, temple, history, world heritage, pagoda

The world’s oldest wooden building

  |   24 Comments

Horyuji, Japan

While in the area, you might consider this guided tour of Kyoto and Nara

Have you ever wondered where the oldest wooden building in the world is? I know it’s a question that has kept me awake many a night. But don’t fear, today I have the answer.

Not from the Japanese city of Nara, in the Kansai region, is a temple complex called Horyuji. In some ways, it’s in the middle of nowhere – the town around it is nothing to speak of, just an uninspiring mix of shops, homes and vending machines. But the jewel in this town is the temple complex which holds inside it some of Japan’s most important national treasures.

horyuji, japan, world's oldest wooden building, near nara, temple, history, world heritage, pagoda

horyuji, japan, world's oldest wooden building, near nara, temple, history, world heritage, pagoda

The five-storey pagoda and the main hall were both originally built around the year 600AD but after a fire were rebuilt around the year 700AD. 26 other building in the complex were built before 800AD. All of them together are undisputed as the oldest wooden buildings in the world – the pagoda, being the first built, would take out the title for the absolute oldest.

horyuji, japan, world's oldest wooden building, near nara, temple, history, world heritage, pagoda

horyuji, japan, world's oldest wooden building, near nara, temple, history, world heritage, pagoda

You have to remember that this is all happening during a period of the world’s history that is hard to imagine for us today. Mohammed is walking the earth; the Mayan civilisation is flourishing in South America; and the Anglo-Saxons are taking control of Britain after the fall of the Roman empire. Meanwhile the Japanese are building wooden temples that are still standing more than 1300 years later!

horyuji, japan, world's oldest wooden building, near nara, temple, history, world heritage, pagoda

horyuji, japan, world's oldest wooden building, near nara, temple, history, world heritage, pagoda

While Islam is spreading across the Middle East and North Africa, and Christianity is battling for supremacy in Europe, Buddhism makes its way from China to Japan. These buildings at Horyuji are also considered to be the first Buddhist monuments in Japan and had a huge influence on religious architecture for the centuries to come.

horyuji, japan, world's oldest wooden building, near nara, temple, history, world heritage, pagoda

horyuji, japan, world's oldest wooden building, near nara, temple, history, world heritage, pagoda

Horyuji may not be as famous as the nearby temples in Nara or Kyoto. It may not have their same striking views from the top of a mountain or pink cherry blossom framings but there’s a reason this was the first site in Japan to be recognised by UNESCO and included on the World Heritage List. It is an extremely important place that it the closest thing there is to preserving the moment of an introduction of a religion to a country.

horyuji, japan, world's oldest wooden building, near nara, temple, history, world heritage, pagoda

horyuji, japan, world's oldest wooden building, near nara, temple, history, world heritage, pagoda

On the day I visit, there are more Japanese school groups than foreign tourists here. Perhaps it’s not that well-known internationally It’s not normally on the front page of the cultural brochures but, without what it represents, those pages might be empty.

I would recommend this guided tour to see the sights of Nara and Kyoto

UNESCO world heritage siteThis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here.
You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.

24 Comments
  • Rease | May 4, 2013 at 1:26 am

    You are always good for a history lesson. Great photos!
    Rease recently posted..Alcapurria in Puerto RicoMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 11, 2013 at 3:03 am

      Thanks, Rease. I’ve never been much of a history buff previously but I’m loving learning this kind of thing and being able to share it.

  • T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries | May 4, 2013 at 9:30 am

    Good deal about getting there on a day when it was more about students than tourists…I think it’s always a better exploration when you aren’t surrounded by too many others who are there for photos/etc. More private.

    Great stuff, as always….love the structures….can’t wait to get to Japan!
    T.W. Anderson @ Marginal Boundaries recently posted..Comment on Tipping Etiquette Around The World by KTMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 11, 2013 at 3:06 am

      The structures are beautiful, aren’t they? Japan’s got so many gorgeous places like this to discover.

  • Bama | May 10, 2013 at 12:31 am

    Absolutely amazing how a wooden structure more than 13 centuries old still stand elegantly. I know that there are a lot of old wooden structures in Japan, but I never thought that some are that old.
    Bama recently posted..Orchid Island: Taiwan’s Tropical ParadiseMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 11, 2013 at 3:45 am

      I know – I was astounded when I saw the date. Could hardly believe it, in fact.

  • Illumi | Jun 19, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Never thought there are wooden building that’s old.
    Illumi recently posted..[Project ( 7 ) Seven #15] Lampu | LampMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Jun 23, 2013 at 1:19 am

      It’s hard to believe that it’s survived, isn’t it?

  • Kevin | Jan 31, 2014 at 1:24 am

    The 3 storied pagoda of Hokki-ji, about 15/20 min. walk north of Horyu-ji, is a bit older than any of the structures at Horyu-ji. The difference is that it has never burned down, so it has been standing since the temple was first built in the Asuka period.

    • Michael Turtle | Feb 10, 2014 at 4:11 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Kevin. I had a look into this and most of the things I’ve read say the pagoda at Horyu-ji was founded first. But, you’re right, they were both built at pretty much the same time (within a few decades of each other) and I guess it’s hard for people to be certain exactly – especially when there were fires and reconstructions.

  • mantu ghosh | Mar 21, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    The heritage building is beautiful and i want to know which wood is made for building the wooden heritage building

    • Michael Turtle | Apr 12, 2015 at 12:51 pm

      A good question – and also a complicated one because there isn’t one simple answer. However, it’s beleived the main timber used is cypress.

  • Alexander | Jun 13, 2015 at 11:56 am

    Amazing i’m in love with Japan i don’t know even why and i want to visit there next year (i’m live in Israel) and you giving a good advices for me thank you 🙂
    Alexander recently posted..The prettiest street in HanoiMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Jun 13, 2015 at 2:11 pm

      There’s lots to see in Japan. Try to give yourself as long as possible and get to some of the areas outside of Tokyo and Osaka. Hokkaido would be really interesting, for instance.

  • Ruinenlust—Taking pleasure in ruins | The Sound | Sep 5, 2015 at 7:08 am

    […] or abuse. Several centuries-old temples built of wood, with no aspiration toward permanence, still exist in Japan. I think that speaks to a valuing of place, buildings, and materials, a valuing that has preserved […]

  • Tōdai-ji Temple Complex in Nara, Japan | Comedy Travel Writing | Feb 9, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    […] Nara is Horyuji Temple, which contains the oldest wooden building in the world. Its main pagoda was built around 600AD, […]

  • archer | Apr 10, 2016 at 10:27 pm

    i think there is a common misunderstanding, Horu-ji is one of oldest wooden structure around, but certainly not the oldest. it is not fully constructed in wood, yet with clay and others. but pagoda of fogong temple in Shanxi, China was of wood structure through the whole building. it has a fine line to this categorization. hope this comment would help to clarify. Thanks.

  • Diversity In Art | hscarlile | Jul 31, 2016 at 8:59 am

    […] this structure was inspired by Yumedono, which is the “Temple of Dreams” in the Horuji Buddhist monastery built in 739 AD near Nara, Japan. Again, this work of art displays the metamorphosis that occurred […]

  • CSU Graduate | Sep 6, 2016 at 7:43 am

    Michael you didn’t go to Charles Sturt Bathurst around 2001-ish did you?

  • Krishan | Sep 6, 2016 at 8:42 am

    * Not far from
    2nd paragraph, 1st line.

  • 25 Kickass Random Facts List #280 | KickassFacts.com | Sep 7, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    […] 1. The Pagoda at Horyuji is the oldest wooden building on the planet, it contains some timbers that came from trees felled around 600AD – Source […]

  • Ron Tully | Jun 28, 2017 at 8:50 pm

    I love japan. Japanese architecture is a mixture of amazing precision and skills to do the building properly. It withstands earthquakes and so that is amazing because it is still standing for how many years. That building doesn’t use nails but still it is one of the oldest and strongest type of building. Their genius and capability to that amazing art is phenomenal

  • Earthquake-Resistant Buildings | Sahba Naderi | Professional Overview | Jul 3, 2017 at 10:27 pm

    […] amazing example of a structural feat capable of enduring numerous earthquakes is Japan’s Horyu-Ji Temple. Its remarkable ability to survive several earthquakes is due to the huge central pole inside the […]

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