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.
For many tourists, visiting Nara is part of a standard trip to Japan, as part of some time in Kyoto or Osaka. The sights of Nara themselves can easily fill a day or two.
But just a short journey away from the ancient capital is another landmark that is a World Heritage Site in itself – the temple complex of Horyuji.
In some ways, Horyuji Temple is 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, including the oldest wooden building in the world.
Why is Horyuji Temple famous?
Dating from as early as the 7th century, the monuments at Horyuji were built as Buddhism reached Japan and show how Chinese designs were adapted in the country. Horyuji was one of the first places in Japan to be listed as a World Heritage Site.
What is the oldest wooden structure in the world?
The oldest wooden structures in the world are in the Horyuji Temple complex near Nara in Japan. The temple’s five-storey pagoda is officially the oldest of them all.
Is Horyuji Temple worth visiting?
It is well worth visiting Horyuji Temple to see the complex of impressive buildings protected here. It is easily accessible from Nara, another World Heritage Site, but represents a different era of the development of Buddhism in Japan.
More than just a single temple, the complex of buildings at Horyuji present a complete religious centre with plenty to explore.
History of Horyuji Temple
The five-storey pagoda and the main hall were both originally built around the year 600 but after a fire were rebuilt around the year 700. 26 other building in the complex were built before 800.
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.
They were able to be built because of the support of a man called Prince Shotoku, who was considered to be a great statesman and a founder of Buddhism in Japan.
The story of how Horyuji Temple came to be is engraved on the back of the halo of the Yakushi Nyorai Buddha statue, which is in the temple’s main hall.
Things to see at Horyuji
Horyuji may not be as famous as the nearby temples in Nara or Kyoto.
It’s strange, in some ways, because it is a much more important site. In fact, Horyuji contains over 2,300 important cultural and historical structures and other items.
It is more than just a collection of temples – it is a library or a gallery of the story of Buddhism in Japan.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Horyuji doesn’t have the same striking views from the top of a mountain, or pink cherry blossom framings, that you can find in Kyoto or Nara.
But there’s a reason this was the first site in Japan to be recognised by UNESCO and included on the World Heritage List. When you visit and see it for yourself, I promise you’ll start to appreciate the significance.
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.
Visiting Horyuji Temple
Although it’s closest to Nara, you can easily also visit Horyuji Temple from Osaka, Kyoto, and other parts of Kansai. It’s well connected by transport and is on the JR Yamatoji Line between Kyoto and Osaka. (Which means you can use the JR Pass.)
If you go to Horyuji by train, it’s just a 15-minute walk to the entrance of the site. Once inside, there are two connected precincts – eastern and western.
The Western Precinct has the most important buildings and I recommend you start there to make sure you see them. You can then move to the Eastern Precinct, which shouldn’t take as long to see.
It’s possible to visit Horyuji by yourself. But, like many sights in Japan, there isn’t a lot of information in English. You’ll learn a lot more on a guided tour.
There aren’t many English tours of Horyuji but I would recommend either this half-day tour (from Nara) or this full-day tour (from Osaka or Kyoto) which are customisable and cover the whole Nara area. So you can include Horyuji Temple AND see some of the other main sights in Nara.
To plan an independent visit to Horyuji Temple, I’ve got a bit more practical information here to help:
Where is Horyuji Temple?
Horyuji Temple is about 12 kilometres southwest of Nara and about 30 kilometre east of Osaka.
How do you get to Horyuji Temple?
It’s very easy to get to Horyuji Temple by public transport. To get to Horyuji station, it’s 13 minutes from Nara station or 30 minutes from Osaka station on the JR Yamatoji Line.
From Horyuji station, it’s an easy 15 minute walk, or the NC bus will take just 5 minutes.
When is Horyuji Temple open?
From February 22 until November 3, Horyuji Temple is open from 8:00 – 17:00.
From November 4 until February 21, it is open from 08:00 – 16:30.
How much does it cost to visit Horyuji Temple?
A full admission ticket is ￥1500 (US$13.30) and a concession ticket is ￥750 (US$6.65).
For more information, you can visit the temple’s official website.
Even if you visit Horyuji Temple by yourself, you might be interested in a guide for other parts of Nara.
If so, this tour is a great choice to explore the city with a local. Or have a look at these options too:
I think Nara is one of the best places to visit in Japan, full of incredible history (but without the crowds and transport issues of somewhere like Kyoto).
Making this short trip out of Nara to Horyuji Temple just adds to your time in this ancient capital. It’s different enough to the Nara temples that it doesn’t feel boring, and lets you boast to people that you’ve visited the world’s oldest wooden building!!
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN NARA
When visiting Horyuji, it makes sense to stay in Nara, where the city’s heritage can be found in the many authentic accommodation options.
For a budget option, Nara Guesthouse Kamunabi has comfortable beds and a lovely common area.
An affordable hotel option is NARA Visitor Center and Inn in the centre of town.
For something a bit special, Onyado Nono Nara Natural Hot Spring has an onsen in the hotel.
And if you’re looking for a luxury option, the Nara Hotel is probably the best in the city!
35 thoughts on “Horyuji: The world’s oldest wooden building”
You are always good for a history lesson. Great photos!
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.
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!
The structures are beautiful, aren’t they? Japan’s got so many gorgeous places like this to discover.
Great and interesting read. Do you have more information on the buildings builders and architecture design? Thanks
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.
I know – I was astounded when I saw the date. Could hardly believe it, in fact.
Never thought there are wooden building that’s old.
It’s hard to believe that it’s survived, isn’t it?
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.
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.
The heritage building is beautiful and i want to know which wood is made for building the wooden heritage building
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
Thanks for the extra info, Archer. I think, like many of these things, you can find a justification for whichever place you want. It’s rarely a simple answer to things like ‘the oldest’ or the ‘most authentic’ or anything like that. I’ll have to try to get to Shanxi to see this other temple, though!
Michael you didn’t go to Charles Sturt Bathurst around 2001-ish did you?
Yes, I did!
* Not far from
2nd paragraph, 1st line.
Thanks very much. Fixed that typo now! 🙂
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
It’s really impressive, isn’t it? You wonder how they were able to make such stable structures so long ago!
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Do you know what timber the temple is built with, a species of pine perhaps? Obviously very durable, must be one of the reasons for the longevity of the building, I guess the climate is also suitable.
Went out on my bike this morning to Koryu-ji, to see Kyoto oldest building, apparently the second oldest in Japan. Back home I searched for the world’s oldest, and found your enthusiastic and informative post. Thanks! I
love seeing and touching all the old wooden buildings around Kyoto. Incredible that they survived fires and wats and all else in hundreds of years of history. As you say, hard to imagine the context in which these things were built.
Love the placement in history- in worldwide context.
Thanks for the comment, Suzanne! One of the nice things about seeing so many historical buildings around the world is that I am able to try to give a little but of context.
very good good info
Model of world’s oldest wooden craft!Japan is showing the world that development and historical preservation can go together. If you dont believe have a trip to japan and see the example,Horyuji!
Thanks for the infoLove hearing about these sorts of places that are not on the tour circuit We are going in Oct Thanks from Australia
Timbers that grow in the northern slopes of a mountain were used on the northern side of a building and timbers grew on the south sides were used on the south side. This made the wood more “immune” to the impacts of the direction they were growing in.
Hi Mr. Turtle:
What kind of wood is it made of, and what are its dimemnsions?
I’m surprised it’s not more popular but maybe that will help preserve it for another 1300 years!
Japanese use of timber is truly remarkable, I really look forward to exploring this site and as many other traditional buildings as I can when I make it there.
The temple is exemplary but the Midas Tomb in Turkey (Yassihoyuk…near ancient Gordion) is a timber tomb constructed c. 700 BC and is the oldest known intact timber structure. Basically a log cabin structure built for King Midas’ father. See https://www.livius.org/articles/place/gordium/gordium-tomb-of-midas/