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Great South Gate (Nandai-mon)

National Treasure

Kamakura Period

Great South Gate
PHOTO : AKIHIKO KIMURA

The Great South Gate is the main gate of Tōdai-ji. The original, erected during the Nara period, was destroyed by a typhoon during the Heian period. The present structure, which dates to the Kamakura period, was built using what is known as the “Daibutsu style.” A type of construction based upon Sung Chinese models, it was newly introduced to Japan by Chōgen, the monk responsible for restoring Tōdai-ji, at the end of the twelfth century. The ridgepole was raised in 1199 and the structure was completed in 1203 along with the statues of the guardian dieties, the Two Ni-ō housed in the gate. The gate with its double hip-and-gable roof is five bays wide and two bays deep. Originally there were three pairs of doors. The eighteen giant pillars that support the roof measure twenty-one meters and the entire structure rises 25.46 meters above the stone plinth on which it rests. The Great South Gate is the largest temple entrance gate in Japan, suitable in scale to the Great Buddha Hall.


Kongo Rikishi

National Treasure

Kamakura Period

Kongo RikishiThe two muscular guardians in the Great South Gate, commonly known as the “Ni-ō (Two Kings) of Tōdai-ji,” are monumental works said to have been sculpted in just sixty-nine days under the direction of the sculptors Unkei and Kaikei. Both statues measure just over 8.4 meters in height.

The great temples of Nara were burned in 1180 in the wars between the Taira and Minamoto clans. Subsequently, Chōgen enlisted the support of the victorious military leader, Minamoto no Yoritomo, and the court to assist in the rebuilding of Tōdai-ji. The Great South Gate was about the last structure to have been rebuilt and Chōgen seems to have been personally committed to having these two Kongō Rikishi made and installed in the gate.

From the time of their completion until only recently little restoration had been done to the statues and they were in poor condition. Thus, in 1988 a five-year restoration project was undertaken. During this time a number of documents and sutras (sacred texts) were discovered inside the statues. Of particular importance was a copy of the Hōkyōin darani-kyō inscribed with the names of Chōgen and the sculptors who worked on the project. From these documents it has been determined that work on the statues was begun on the 24th day of the 7th month of 1203 by Unkei, Kaikei, Jōkaku and Unkei’s eldest son Tankei. The statue with the open mouth was erected inside the gate first on the 7th day of the 8th month and on the next day a copy of the Hōkyōin darani-kyō was copied at the eastern end of the Great South Gate and was placed inside the chest of the statue with the closed mouth. Thus, it is possible to conclude that the construction of the two statues proceeded simultaneously. The restoration also confirmed other records indicating that the materials for the images were brought from present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture.