Who says size doesn't matter? In Japan, when it comes to showing piety and religious devotion, bigger is definitely better. Indeed, some of Japan's Great Buddhas have iconic status, both in the country and overseas.
"Great Buddha" is the English translation of "daibutsu," the Japanese label for any Buddhist image that is more than life size. But among the greatest of the great are a number of statues that are several times life size.
Todaiji's Great Buddha in the ancient capital of Nara is said to be the world's largest bronze statue of Buddha. It is also the oldest bronze Great Buddha in Japan. Completed in 752, it took nine years to finish the casting of the statue, amazing technology for its time. The head of the statue collapsed in 855, but was soon repaired. The entire statue has been further repaired, reinforced and restored several times since.
The statue is 14.98 meters tall (including its pedestal) and sits inside the Great Buddha Hall on the grounds of Todaiji, a temple founded in the eighth century with imperial sponsorship. The building contains a number of Chinese structural features, typical of temple design in that time period. The building has burned and been rebuilt a number of times, most recently in 1709. Although this most recent structure is somewhat smaller than the original, it remains one of the largest wooden structures in Japan. In spite of the massive size of the building, the Buddha fills it so completely that it feels quite cozy inside.
Todaiji, and its Great Buddha, are part of the "Historical Monuments of Ancient Nara" World Heritage Listing.
Locaged in Nara Park, Todaiji is a 30-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara station. There are also city buses running from JR Nara station or Kintetsu Nara station; get off at Todaiji Daibutsuden.
The other Great Buddha housed inside a temple the Gifu's Great Buddha sits in Shoho-ji in Gifu City. Completed in 1832, this statue is unique in that it is not cast from metal. Rather, it is clay formed over a bamboo lattice frame which was then covered with lacquer and gold leaf. It took 38 years to complete.
This Great Buddha is 13.7 meters tall. Its golden glow casts an air of serenity throughout the temple building. Like Todai-ji, Shoho-ji's temple building is also heavily Chinese influenced in its design, with three sets of gables to give it the needed height. Also, the temple grounds are quite small.
From JR Gifu Station (Bus Platform 11) or Meitetsu Gifu Station (Bus Platform 4), board any bus toward Nagara. Get off the bus at Gifu Koen, Rekishi Hakubutsukan-mae, approximately 15 minutes from either train station.
Interestingly, both the Nara and Gifu Great Buddhas were constructed following large, devastating earthquakes in the belief that the statues would prevent further earthquakes. Some of Japan's other Great Buddhas have other relationships with earthquakes. Read on.
The most venerable of Japan's Great Buddhas that sit outside in the elements is the Great Buddha of Kamakura. Of course, it didn't actually start out that way.
Cast in bronze and completed in 1252, this "daibutsu" was originally housed in a massive temple on the grounds of Kotoku-in, a Jodo sect Buddhist temple. The seated Buddha is 13.2 meters high, including its pedestal. The various parts of the statue were cast from molds created by its wooden predecessor, which were then fused together by further castings in situ. It is believed there were three such fusing castings, with earth piled outside the molds to hold them in place. The end result was a small hill that had to be dug out to reveal the final statue. The doors on the statue's back were left there so that the interior molds could be removed.
The first temple built around the "daibutsu" collapsed during a typhoon in the 14th century, killing a number of warriors sheltering there at the time. The rebuilt temple was washed away in a tsunami in 1495, the result of a massive off-shore earthquake. After that disaster, it was decided to leave the statue sitting outdoors, where it blends happily with its surroundings.
Kotoku-in is a 10-minute walk from Hase Station on the Enoden train line.
Located in Toyama Prefecture, the principal uniqueness of Takaoka's Great Buddha is that it is made of locally-mined copper. The statue, which is 15.85 meters tall, was finished in 1933. It replaced a series of gilded wooden statues that dated to at least 1221, but which had been destroyed by various elements over the years. The statue was moved to its present site in 1980 after the ground beneath its original location sank about 11 meters.
Many visitors find the appearance of this statue a bit "plastic-y", a feature attributed to its relative youth, as well as its color and surface. It's just a bit "unreal." At the same time, it contains a number of unique features besides its building materials, including a halo.
The Takaoka Great Buddha is about a 10-minute walk from JR Takaoka Station.
Jorenji in Itabashi Ward is a temple with a centuries-long history of catering to travellers, including local "daimyo" on hunting excursions. Its Great Buddha, which stands 13 meters tall, including its base, is much newer, competed in 1977 and dedicated to the repose of the souls of those lost in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.
The statue is popular with some tourists as an alternative to Kamakura's Great Buddha, but in fact it is much smaller (it sits on a larger base that can be entered most days for a fee) and not as accessible. Because of its relative youth, its shiny black surface--tarnished gold leaf--is almost too perfect, depriving it of the personality exuded by some of the older Great Buddhas.
The Tokyo Great Buddha is not particularly conveniently located, being a 20-minute walk from either Nishitakashimadaira station on the Toei Mita subway line or Eidan Narimasu station on the Yurakucho or Fukutoshin subway lines.
Located near Ushiku in Ibaraki, the Ushiku Daibutsu is one of Japan's newest and largest Greats. The bronze statue was built by the Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land) sect of Buddhism and was completed in 1995 in commemoration of the birth of Shinran, founder of the sect, who was born in 1173. It is also, unusually for a Japanese Great Buddha, a standing Buddha. Standing 120 meters tall, including its base (taller than New York's Statue of Liberty), the statue was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest standing Buddha in the world until 2002 when it was overtaken by the Spring Temple Buddha of Lushan, China.
Visitors can go inside to visit a four-story museum and ascend by elevator to an observation platform about two-thirds of the way to the top. It is said that one can see Tokyo Skytree from the top on a clear day (unsubstantiated by this author). Open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. (depending on the season).
Most easily accessed by car, there is also bus access from Ushiku station (get off at Ushiku Daibutsu or ARCADIA Ushiku--you literally cannot miss it).
If you have a great urge to stand in the presence of a giant, one of these Great Buddhas most certainly fits the bill.© Japan Today