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Kohfukuji Temple's Five-Story Pagoda: Major Repairs to Breathe New Life into National Treasure

Despite facing many trials since it was built in 730, the Five-Story Pagoda at Kohfukuji remains a symbol of resilience, carrying people's prayers across time.



Kohfukuji Temple's Five-Story Pagoda (right) and the Tokon-do Hall on June 12, Nara city. (© Kyodo)

The East Pagoda at Yakushiji Temple, a designated Japanese National Treasure, has recently undergone an extensive 12-year restoration in the historic city of Nara. Now, attention is shifting to the restoration of another significant landmark, the Five-Story Pagoda at Kohfukuji Temple. This project, set to begin in the summer, will be the first major repair it has undergone in nearly 120 years.

The history of Kohfukuji's Five-Story Pagoda, also a National Treasure, has been marked by a cycle of destruction and reconstruction. The present tower is its sixth version, built in the Muromachi period. As a revered Buddhist pagoda, it has overcome countless challenges to carry prayers across time.

A Symbolic Presence

Celebrated author and Naoki Prize recipient, Toko Sawada, beautifully describes the pagoda as "a symbol of the ancient capital of Nara," so much so that it would be the "first to come to mind when Japanese people think of a temple pagoda."

Rising above the picturesque Sarusawa Pond, the pagoda has become synonymous with the ancient city of Nara. It has graced countless postcards as a distinctive landmark of the region. 

Standing at approximately 50 meters (164 feet), it claims the title of the second-tallest wooden pagoda in Japan. It is surpassed only by the five-story pagoda of Kyoto's Toji Temple, also a National Treasure.

Yakushiji Temple's East Pagoda after restoration on April 4, 2023, Nara city. (© Sankei by Toshikazu Iwaguchi)

A Remnant of the Ancient Capital

Kohfukuji Temple was once a thriving family temple of the powerful Fujiwara clan. Empress Komyo, the wife of Emperor Shomu and daughter of Fujiwara no Fuhito, oversaw the construction of its Five-Story Pagoda.

Although the current pagoda is a reconstruction from the Muromachi period, it retains distinct characteristics from the Nara period. This is evident in the scale of the individual components and the intricate joinery supporting its roof. Its majestic presence truly befits its role as a symbol of the ancient capital.

But its appearance is strikingly different from the East Pagoda of Yakushiji Temple, thought to have been constructed during the same period. This pagoda is notable for its harmonious arrangement of varying roof sizes.

Reflecting on ancient times, Sawada remarked, "Yakushiji's East Pagoda has a graceful form, while Kohfukuji's Five-Story Pagoda stands magnificently in the prominent Kasuga area. Undoubtedly, it would have captivated attention even from afar."

Kohfukuji's Five-Story Pagoda on June 7, 2023, Nara city. (© Sankei by Toshikazu Iwaguchi)

Eight Years of Construction Ahead

Kohfukuji's Five-Story Pagoda, cherished as a symbol of the ancient capital, is now facing the challenges of time, especially with its roof. This has called for a large-scale restoration project, the first in almost 120 years since its last major renovation during the Meiji era. According to the Nara Prefectural Office for the Preservation of Cultural Properties, the primary focus of the restoration will be replacing the roof tiles. The entire project is expected to span about eight years.

Chief Abbot Eishun Moriya of Kohfukuji Temple expresses his aspirations, saying, "The Five-Story Pagoda holds immense significance as a sacred site dedicated to Buddha and is a cherished national treasure. With the support of many people, our goal is to complete the restoration without any complications."

Fostering Appreciation for Cultural Property

The preparations for the restoration project will begin in July. By the summer of 2024, a temporary roof will be installed to protect the pagoda from rain and wind. The towering steel structure, standing at approximately 60 meters (197 feet) tall, will cover the pagoda completely. As a result, the iconic landmark will remain hidden from view for nearly seven years until the restoration work is completed.


In light of this situation, Chief Abbot Moriya hopes to collaborate with the prefecture to allow the public to observe the renovation process under the temporary roof. This initiative also aims to deepen public understanding of the preservation of cultural properties and foster appreciation for their significance.

Aerial view of Kohfukuji on March 30, 2022. (© Sankei)

A Tale of Fire and Rebirth

The history of Kohfukuji's Five-Story Pagoda, standing tall in the ancient capital, is marked by a cycle of destruction and reconstruction. Since it was first built in 730, the pagoda has endured many trials and tribulations. 

First, it suffered a fire caused by lightning in 1017, leading to its reconstruction in 1031. However, after only about 15 years, it was devastated by another fire and was rebuilt in 1078. Then, in 1180, the pagoda fell victim to the destructive Siege of Nara led by the Taira clan. Nevertheless, it rose from the ashes once again around 1206. Throughout the Nanbokucho and Muromachi periods, the pagoda experienced additional fires, each time requiring subsequent reconstructions.

In addition to fire damage, Kohfukuji Temple faced many adversities beyond its control. The government's Shinto-Buddhist separation policy during the Meiji era led to its neglect. There are even accounts suggesting that the five-story pagoda was almost put up for sale.

Staying True to its Origins

Despite these challenging circumstances, Kohfukuji has consistently strived to restore the original architectural style of its founding, aiming for a "return to the Tenpyo period." 

Chief Abbot Moriya says, "The Five-Story Pagoda has survived to this day thanks to the collective efforts of many individuals. It embodies the cultural essence of the Tenpyo period, and I hope to spare no effort in passing it down to future generations."

Kohfukuji's Five-Story Pagoda viewed from Sarusawa Pond on May 25, 2023. (© Sankei by Toshikazu Iwaguchi)

The Thriving Capital of Heijo-kyo

The Five-Story Pagoda was erected 1,300 years ago in Heijo-kyo, the ancient city of Nara. But it wasn't the only pagoda built during that time.

Kazuhisa Hakozaki, the Director of the Excavation Survey Division at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, explains how Heijo-kyo's famed pagodas could even be admired from afar.

"Their impressive presence could even be seen from Fujiwara-kyo, the old capital located about 20 kilometers to the north in Kashihara city and Asuka village. The sight would have conveyed the flourishing prosperity of the new capital," he says.

During the transition from the Nara period to the Heian period, several tall wooden pagodas were erected in the temples of Heijo-kyo. About 15 pagodas are estimated to have existed in prominent temples like Yakushiji, Kohfukuji, Daianji, Todaiji, Gangoji, and Saidaiji, showcasing the architectural magnificence of that era.

Hakozaki explains, "After the stone foundations were laid, buildings with tiled roofs were constructed one after another. Among them, the towering pagodas symbolized the prosperity of the capital. It is believed that Heijo-kyo drew inspiration from the landscape of Tang Dynasty's Chang'an."

The construction of an access route on the western side of Kohfukuji's Five-Story Pagoda on July 25, 2023, Nara city. (© Sankei by Toshikazu Iwaguchi)

A Feat of Architectural Engineering

Yakushiji Temple, Daianji Temple, and Todaiji Temple featured "twin towers" in the form of both an East Pagoda and a West Pagoda. The East and West Pagodas of Daianji and Todaiji Temple, which no longer exist, had seven stories. The twin pagodas of Todaiji Temple were positioned southeast and southwest of the Great Buddha Hall, with the East Pagoda estimated to have stood between 70 to 100 meters (230-328 feet) tall.

Unfortunately, all these pagodas eventually succumbed to fires. But there are no clear records indicating destruction from earthquakes, suggesting that they had high seismic resistance.


"The ancient pagodas had a robust structural integrity with 16 pillars, excluding the central pillar, arranged in a narrow space. The supporting structures for the roofs were also robust," explains Director Hakozaki. 

Indeed, the pagodas represented the technological advancements of the era, even though specific construction processes remain a mystery.

About Kohfukuji's Five-Story Pagoda

To facilitate the extensive repair work, the pagoda's illuminations will be suspended after its final display on August 20 at 10:00 pm. Within the Kohfukuji Temple complex, which also serves as the Hosso sect headquarters, there are other significant structures alongside the Five-Story Pagoda. These include the recently reconstructed Chukon-do Hall, completed in 2018, and the National Treasure Hall, where the revered Asura statue is enshrined.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Toshikazu Iwaguchi

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