During the sixth and seventh centuries, Japan acquired a large part of a new culture through the introduction of Buddhism. But her power was becoming dispersed. Each Emperor established his own court at a different place in or near the province of Yamato. However, by the beginning of the eighth century Japan had accumulated spiritual as well as material culture, and established a more permanent and vigorous court and government, which concentrated all power under an immovable sovereignty. It was in the reign of the Empress Gemmyo that a permanent capital was established for the first time at Nara, a city, planned to some extent on the model of the Chinese capital, Chang-an.
All institutions, governmental functions, etiquette and court costumes, music and dancing, interior decoration and writing, were similar in nearly every way to those found in the capital of China.
The capital of China was then an international city. Intercourse between India and China was frequent. Chinese monks went to India and brought back several thousands of Buddhist scriptures to China. All the Chinese translations were soon brought to Japan by Japanese priests who crossed over to China, and thousands of manuscript copies were made of them in Japan, of which there still remains a great number in the Shoso-in treasury and the Buddhist monasteries of Nara. These copies are remarkable for the accuracy of their text and the beauty of their calligraphy.
They are of great value today, as they serve for correcting the popular printed tripitaka (collections of Buddhist sacred writings).
Among the rare relics from those days are some blocks of incense wood brought from certain districts of Asia Minor. Two large blocks of such scented wood remain in the Shoso-in treasury and several small pieces in the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum. One of the Museum pieces bears curious carvings which seem to be ancient Syriac syllables, according to the late Prof. Sayce, the eminent Assyriologist of Oxford University. Another rare object in the Shoso-in treasury is a colored glass cup with designs of the Eastern Rome on its gilt metal fitting. A number of textile fabrics in the same treasury and in the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum, have designs which originated in Persia. Those designs and weaving techniques look very similar to ancient textiles found in Antioch and Persia.
Japan was then captivated by the foreign arts brought from China. The pre-eminent figure in their adaptation to the Japanese scene was the Emperor Shomu (724-756), equal to Prince Shotoku in the preceding century. The greatest of all the monasteries built by him was the Todai-ji, dedicated to the Buddha Vairochana in 752 ; which dedication ceremony was epoch-making in the history of Japanese Buddhism. Thousands of priests participated in it. The Emperor Shomu was present with his whole court and all the civil and military officers. All kinds of music and dances, introduced from India, Annam, China and Korea, were performed. The richness and splendor of the ceremony can be imagined from the things used on the occasion, which are preserved to this day in the Shoso-in treasury. However, the famous colossal figure of gilt bronze installed in the Great Buddha Hall was several times burnt, and has thus undergone many repairs. Its head, entirely lost in 1567, was restored by Doan Yamada. The only original parts remaining are some parts of the knee and the lotus throne on which are engraved Buddhist figures. This makes it difficult to imagine its original magnificence.
The Great Buddha Hall seen standing today was reconstructed in 1708 in the Tenjuku-yo style of architecture, introduced from China in the late 12th century. Its distinguishing characteristics were inserted bracket elbows, a certain irregularity in the arrangement of the bracket groups, and the peculiar shape of their ends. The present Great Buddha Hall is a third reconstruction ; its facade is about 188 ft. long, and the side, about 166 ft., 30 per cent. less in dimension than in the original plan. But the height measures about 157 ft., as in the original building.
In front of the Great Buddha Hall is a large octagonal bronze lantern, produced in the eighth century at the time the Daibutsu was first cast. On its metal panels are wonderful examples of Buddhist angels whose graceful pose and delicate lines of body and drapery show the excellence of the sculptor’s modelling art and of the founder’s work.
To the east of the Great Buddha Hall stands the Hokkedo or Sangwatsu-do chapel the original building built in 733, but with slight modifications. Inside are installed a number of masterpieces of eighth century sculpture in clay and dry-lacquer. The most artistic examples among them are two clay figures standing on either side of the main figure, and which represent Nikko (the Sun) and Gwakko (the Moon). Their expression is sublime and superhuman. However, the spirit and flesh are harmoniously united in the human form.
To the northwest of the Great Buddha Hall stands the Shoso-in treasury, a wooden storehouse built in the eighth century, like the treasury of the Todai-ji monastery. It contains many precious objects which belonged to the Emperor Shomu and were given to the monastery by the Empress when he died in 756. Together with a great number of other important art objects, there are about three thou-sand pieces in the treasury. Among these priceless art objects are different kind of furniture, pottery, wooden and leather boxes, lacquered or inlaid with gold, silver, ivory and different colored woods, masks, musical instruments, medicine and textiles. In some of the decorative motives and in the workmanship of these objects, Byzantine, Persian and Indian influences can be recognized. Some might have been imported, but most of them were produced in Japan, as the original documents in the same treasury prove. At present the collection is visible during a limited time in November and to a small number of people owing to lack of space and in order to ensure better preservation of the treasures.
In Nara Park, where roam a number of deer there rises high a five-storied stupa near Sarusawa Pond. The stupa tells of the existence of the Kofuku-ji monastery, which was originally founded at another place by Fujiwara Kamatari, the ancestor of the Fujiwara family, that prayers might be offered for the success of the famous Taikwa- Re-form (645-649). When the Imperial Court was removed to Nara in 710, the monastery was transferred here as the tutelary monastery of the Fujiwaras. With the prosperity of the family many sacred buildings were added to the monastery. But these no longer exist today. The stupa itself was reerected in the early 15th century after the original plan. Near the stupa stand the East Golden Hall, the West Golden Hall, and the Nan-en-do. The architectural importance of these buildings is not great, but they contain a number of fine examples of sculpture in different periods. Besides these many more excellent figures are exhibited in the Imperial Household Museum in the park.
On the edge of Mount Kasuga, the eastern boundary of the park, is the famous Shinto shrine called Kasuga-jinsha. The deer in the park were believed from olden times to be the messengers of this shrine, and consequently have always been treated as sacred and never injured by the people. The shrine was founded in 768 by the Fujiwara family, and under them prospered for several centuries, as well as the Kofuku-ji Buddhist monastery. It is interesting to note that Buddhism and Shinto, one the native and the other a foreign religion, were harmoniously blended by the erection of the monastery and the shrine by the same family for their prosperity. This spiritual blending of two religious ideas has expressed -itself in the style and the coloring of the shrine, which is known as Kasuga-zukuri architecture. This was the first remarkable influence of Buddhist architecture upon that of the Shinto shrine. It is quite different from the plain style of native Shinto buildings, because in the Kasuga-zukuri the major part of the building is painted in red, the warmest of colors, and partly relieved by quiet green. But enveloped in the evergreen wood the red color of the sacred buildings never suggests vulgarity.
In the middle of the park stands the Nara Imperial Household Museum. Here are placed on view a great number of excellent examples of wooden sculpture of different ages from various Buddhist temples. All students of art would do well to visit it. (See the ” Handbook of Japanese Art ” by Noritake Tsuda.)
In the south-eastern suburbs of Nara is an important Buddhist monastery called Shinyakushi-ji, the main temple of which was built in the eighth century. It now contains excellent examples of clay Buddhist figures produced during the same period.
In the western suburbs stand two important Buddhist monasteries which no student of art should miss. They are the Yakushi-ji and Toshodai-ji. In the Yakushi-ji monastery stands the famous three-storied stupa erected in the late eighth century ; and in the main temple is enshrined the famous Yakushi triad, cast in bronze, one of the greatest masterpieces of the Tempyo era (729-748).
In the Toshodai-ji monastery stand two unique buildings built in the eighth century, the Golden Hall and the Lecture Hall. The Golden Hall is the most magnificent of all eighth century buildings. The eight columns in the open space of the facade form an impressive row that remind one of the classical orders of Greek architecture. In this architecture Buddhist spirituality is harmoniously blended in its constructive boldness and interior decoration. When one carefully observes this building, he will understand how realistic Buddhism was in the eighth century in trying to bring down heavenly beatitude upon earth. In this hall are installed a number of excellent examples of eighth century sculpture.
The Lecture Hall behind the Golden Hall, and which was given to the monastery at the time of its foundation, is a unique example of palace buildings in the eighth century.