What was once a sprawling family temple complex of over a hundred and fifty buildings is now a small handful, but that small handful is of impressive historical significance.
Kofukuji was founded in 710, the same time that Nara became Japan’s first ever capital city. The temple of the Fujiwara clan, its fortunes almost mirrored their own. The five-storied pagoda, however, has since become an enduring symbol of Nara itself, long outliving the ill-fated Fujiwara family.
The second-tallest five-storied pagoda in Japan is 50 metres tall, only seven metres shorter than that of Toji in Kyoto. Last rebuilt in 1426, it’s also a genuinely ancient structure, although not as old as the Southern Octagonal Hall, last rebuilt in 1210.
While the grounds are free to enter and stroll around, a few structures require entry fees. The Northern and Southern Octagonal halls are only open to the public a few days a year, but more permanent exhibits are in the Eastern Golden Hall and the National Treasure Museum. Both contain sublime examples of Buddhist art and sculpture.
Kofukuji’s main building, the Central Golden Hall, was destroyed by fire in 1717 and never rebuilt. There is now construction underway on the site to finally rebuild the entire structure, and this should be completed by 2018. The rest of the site remains open during building works.
The temple is a five minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station, and 15 minutes from JR Nara Station. It is clearly signposted from both, but there is also a tourist information booth outside JR Nara Station whose staff are very friendly and helpful, and who can provide you with free maps of the area, as well as directions.
Admission: The temple grounds are free. Entry to the Eastern Golden Hall is 300円. Entry to the National Treasure Museum is 600円. A combined ticket for both buildings is available for 800円.