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.
You can see it on a map here.
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!