Horyuji Temple (法隆寺, Hōryūji) was founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, who is credited with the early promotion of Buddhism in Japan. Horyuji is one of the country's oldest temples and contains the world's oldest surviving wooden structures. It was designated a world heritage site in 1993. Horyuji's temple grounds are spacious and separated into two main precincts, the Western Precinct (Saiin Garan) and the Eastern Precinct (Toin Garan).
Enclosed by roofed corridors, the Western Precinct is home to the world's oldest surviving wooden structures: the central gate (Chumon), the main hall (Kondo) and a five-story pagoda. They were built sometime in the Asuka Period (538-710) and have not suffered destruction ever since, although they have undergone renovations multiple times over the centuries.
The central gate is guarded by Japan's two oldest statues of Kongo Rikishi, the pair of muscular deities often seen flanking large temple gates. The main hall houses some of Japan's oldest statues of Buddha, rare creations surviving from the Asuka Period. Visitors can witness the evolution of Japanese Buddha statues by visiting the nearby great lecture hall (Daikodo) which exhibits statues from the Heian Period (794-1185) and have lost the more Indian appearance of earlier creations.
The Eastern Precinct can be found on the eastern side of the temple grounds, a five minute walk from the Western Precinct. In its center stands the octagonally-shaped Yumedono (Hall of Visions), which is dedicated to Prince Shotoku and houses a life-sized statue of the prince surrounded by statues of Buddha and various monks.
Between the two precincts stands the Gallery of Temple Treasures, which was built in 1998 to exhibit a part of the temple's huge art collection. Various statues of Buddha as well as Buddhist relics, artwork and paintings are on display inside. The entrance to the treasure hall is located towards the back of the complex near the Eastern Precinct.
Chuguji Temple (中宮寺, Chūgūji) is a separate temple located just behind Horyuji's Eastern Precinct. Chuguji is worth a visit for its celebrated main object of worship, a beautifully carved statue of a sitting Buddha who puts his right leg on his left and smiles gently. Note that a separate ticket is required for entry to Chuguji Temple.
Those who are unable to visit Horyuji in person may be interested to see a collection of the temple's religious objects that is on permanent display in Tokyo at the Horyuji Homotsukan building of the Tokyo National Museum.
Horyuji is located about 12 kilometers outside of central Nara.
From JR Nara Station, take the frequently departing Yamatoji Line to Horyuji Station (12 minutes, 220 yen). From there it is a 20 minute walk or short bus ride by bus number 72 to the temple (190 yen one way, departures every 20 minutes). Get off at the Horyujisando bus stop.
From JR or Kintetsu Nara Station, take bus number 98 to Horyuji-mae. The one way ride takes about one hour and costs 770 yen. There is one bus per hour. The bus line from Horyuji back to central Nara is numbered 97.