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Six kilometres northwest of Hōryū-ji, the Nishinokyō area is home to two great temples that are again famed for their age and wealth of statuary – Yakushi-ji and Tōshōdai-ji.

The older of the pair is southerly Yakushi-ji (薬師寺). Emperor Tenmu first ordered its construction sometime around 680 AD when his wife was seriously ill. Although she recovered, Tenmu himself died eight years later, leaving the empress to dedicate Yakushi-ji herself in 697. Over the centuries, fires have destroyed all but one of the original buildings, though the statues themselves have fared better.

The only building of historical note in Yakushi-ji’s inner compound is the three-storey East Pagoda, which was famously described as “frozen music” by Ernest Fenellosa. He was referring to the rhythmical progression of the smaller double roofs that punctuate the pagoda’s upward flow. It’s the sole surviving remnant of the original temple and contrasts strongly with the spanking red lacquer of the new West Pagoda, the Daikō-do (Great Lecture Hall) and the Kon-dō (Golden Hall), all of which have been rebuilt during the last thirty years. However, inside the Kon-dō the temple’s original seventh-century bronze Yakushi triad sits unperturbed. Past fires have removed most of the gold and given the statues a rich black sheen, but otherwise they are in remarkably fine condition.

Continuing through the outer compound you come to a long, low wooden hall on your left, the Tōin-dō. Rebuilt around 1285, the hall houses a bronze image of Shō-Kannon, an incarnation of the goddess of mercy, which dates from the early Nara period. This graceful, erect statue, framed against a golden aureole, shows distinctly Indian influences in its diaphanous robes, double necklace and strands of hair falling over its shoulders.

The last building, in the compound’s northeast corner, is the Daihōzō-den, a modern treasure hall. It’s only open for three short periods each year, and during two of those periods a rare, Nara-period painting of Kissho-ten, the Buddhist goddess of peace, happiness and beauty, is the prime attraction. She is portrayed as a voluptuous figure with cherry-red, butterfly lips, and dressed in an intricately patterned fabric whose colours are still remarkably clear.

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