THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
The site in Nara of what is believed to be the original main hall of Shinyakushiji temple (TAKAHARU YAGI/ THE ASAHI SHIMBUN)
NARA--Archaeologists excavating the site of a former Japanese Imperial Army facility here uncovered evidence of what they believe is the long-lost original "golden hall" of a mid-eighth century temple.
Stones used for the foundations of the temple suggest the structure measured 54 by 27 meters, comparable in scale to the Great Buddha Hall of Todaiji temple, also in Nara.
The dig is being conducted at the campus of the Nara University of Education.
Experts say the original kondo (golden, or main hall) of Shinyakushiji temple, now located about 150 meters to the east, likely stood on the site.
The university on Thursday announced the discovery, which is expected to shed light on the temple's history and Tenpyo Buddhist culture of the Nara Period (710-784).
The site will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and again from 10 a.m. to noon on Nov. 22.
Shinyakushiji temple was founded in the ancient capital in 747 by Empress Komyo to pray for the recovery of ailing Emperor Shomu (701-756), who established Todaiji.
The empress was the daughter of political strongman Fujiwara no Fuhito.
Ancient records, both pictorial and written, show Shinyakushiji was of a grand scale, with many structures. According to legend, it had as many as 1,000 priests.
After most wooden structures were lost to lightening strikes and typhoons, the current temple only has a main hall, which is much smaller. No details had been known about the original temple design.
"This will provide a new clue to specifics about the political might of Empress Komyo, who, coming from the powerful Fujiwara family, exerted great influence," said Masaaki Kanehara, an associate professor of environmental archaeology at the university.
He was put in charge of the excavation because the university planned to rebuild structures at the site.
He said he was flabbergasted to stumble across what others call a "treasure" or "first-class discovery."
Earlier this month, his team unearthed base stones extending about 10 meters east-west.
The stones are thought to have formed part of a structural platform and appear to have been fashioned to the highest standards of the period, according to Kanehara.
The team also uncovered four pillar holes near the western tip.
One square hole, measuring 2.7 by 2.9 meters, had more than 10 large stones buried inside, apparently to prop up the cornerstone.
Based on these structures, the researchers estimated the hall measured 54 meters east-west and 27 meters north-south, making it one of the largest built during the Nara Period.
Todaiji's Great Buddha Hall, rebuilt in 1709, measures 57 meters by 50.5 meters.
Minoru Senda, a professor emeritus of historical geography at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, says the structure apparently was built so numerous priests could offer prayers simultaneously.
"In those days, it was believed that the larger the number of priests praying, the greater the power to expel illness," he said.
The discovery was welcomed by Shinyakushiji priests who had yearned to know more of the temple's history.
"It was not just an illusory temple. A huge hall actually existed," said Chief Priest Shokan Nakata, 91.
"This discovery is Buddha's guidance. I'm pleased I have lived this long."(IHT/Asahi: October 25,2008)
Temple treasures worth more than money
I sometimes watch a show on TV in which experts name a price for supposedly valuable items. Works attributed to renowned artists are easy to understand--if they are authentic, they get eye-popping prices. But fakes are valued at next to nothing, drawing laughter.
And items that once belonged to famous people or masterpieces attributed to nameless artists are much harder to appraise. As for things in the first category, even underwear cannot be underestimated.
In July, a pair of bloomers that belonged to Britain's Queen Victoria (1819-1901) were auctioned for 4,500 pounds (about 800,000 yen), nine times higher than the expected price. The bloomers bear the royal crest showing the glory of the British Empire and have an impressive waist measurement of 127 centimeters. It is believed the queen wore them at the end of the 19th century when she was in her 70s.
The second category, which includes items of dubious origin, is the realm of experts. This year, about 30 Buddhist statues disappeared one by one from temples and other places in Shizuoka Prefecture. One missing statue, of the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara deity, was stolen in Shimada and dates back to the late Muromachi Period (1338-1573).
An antiques dealer from Kyoto, unaware the statue was stolen, acquired it for 490,000 yen at an auction held in nearby Fujieda in June.
The man who sold it has been arrested and is under investigation for other crimes. Since it was stolen from a temple that has no resident priests, the statue must have been the temple's principal treasure, protected solely by the local community. In some thefts, the police were notified long after the item was taken because the statues are so rarely put on display that few people knew what they looked like.
Speaking of selling Buddhist images, in March, a statue of the Dainichi Nyorai (great sun Buddha) attributed to the distinguished sculptor Unkei in the 12th-13th century and part of a private collection, was auctioned in the United States.
Initially, the news rattled the Agency for Cultural Affairs, which feared the loss to Japan of a valuable work considered deserving of being named an important cultural asset. In the end, a Japanese religious organization bought the statue for $12.8 million (about 1.3 billion yen).
The images of Buddha stolen in Shizuoka are the sort that look better in temples than in museums. In that sense, the loss of the statues may have upset temple supporters more than the cultural agency.
Still, the value of objects of worship is not set by markets alone. It could be that an old woman prayed before one of the stolen images every morning. Such statues are treasures far different from Queen Victoria's underwear or works by Unkei.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 22(IHT/Asahi: October 23,2008)