National Treasure of Nara

Discovering Fujiwara-kyo, Japan's first permanent capital - a glimpse into the Asuka period's heritage

Nara Prefecture is one of the regions with a wealth of National Treasures.

A National Treasure is the highest accolade given to significant cultural properties recognized by the Japanese government. It is equivalent to the American "National Register of Historic Places", the British "Listed Building", the French "Monuments Historiques", and the Chinese "Key Cultural Relics Protection Units Nationwide".

Of the 1132 National Treasures, 206 are located in Nara Prefecture. Kyoto possesses 237 National Treasures, outnumbering Nara's 206. However, as Kyoto became the capital after Nara, you can see cultural properties from an older era in Nara.

The capital was established in Nara in 694 AD, but the imperial residence has been in Nara even before that. For example, Horyu-ji temple (in Ikaruga Town, Nara Prefecture), considered the world's oldest wooden architecture, was built in 607 AD. The capital moved to Kyoto in 794 AD, and Kyoto's National Treasures belong to the period thereafter.

Yoshino Town has been a place frequented by the imperial family from ancient times, so many cultural properties have been preserved.

Kimpsen-ji Temple

Among them, Kimpusen-ji Temple on Mt. Yoshino is a National Treasure in its own right. The temple was founded in the late 7th century, but the Zao-do Hall, which has been designated as a National Treasure, was built in 1590 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the highest authority in Japan at that time.

Although it is not in Yoshino Town, there is a temple called "Shorin-ji" about a 15-minute drive from my house, and the statue of the Eleven-Faced Kannon in this temple is famous for its extreme beauty.

Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908)

This Buddhist statue was hidden in the temple as a secret Buddha for a long time, but it was discovered in 1887 by Ernest Fenollosa, an American who was teaching philosophy at the University of Tokyo.

When Fenollosa saw this statue, he was reportedly amazed by its extreme beauty.

Japanese Temples and their Treasures, Vol.2, 1910 (Shimbi Shoin) PD


Fenollosa recognized the importance of this Eleven-Faced Kannon statue, positioned it as "the most worthy of preservation in Japan," and actively engaged in preservation efforts.

From these efforts, the Ancient Shrines and Temples Preservation Law was born, the term "National Treasure" was created, and this Eleven-Faced Kannon statue became one of the first to be designated as a National Treasure, as number 24 in the National Treasure Sculptures category.

If you ever come to Nara, please make sure to visit the statue of the Eleven-Faced Kannon at Shorin-ji, which is often compared to the Venus de Milo and considered one of the finest examples of Japanese Buddhist sculpture.

Tanzan jinjya Shrine

If you come by car, you can also visit the nearby Tanzan Shrine. This shrine also has a long history, said to have been founded in 678 AD, and it is so beautiful it is referred to as the "Nikko of the West". While there are no National Treasures, it is home to a large number of important cultural properties.

From our house, both Kimpusen-ji Temple and Shorin-ji are about the same distance away.

Nara is a place filled with so much charm that no matter how long you stay, it's never enough.