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 far 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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.