“Yumedono at Jioguoin”, Horyuji, Nara, c. 1910.

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“Yumedono at Jioguoin”, Horiuji, Nara, c. 1910. The octagonal Yumedono [“Hall of Dreams”] is one of Horyuji temple’s most impressive buildings. It was commissioned in 739 as a monument to Prince Shotoku Taishi. The historic structure served as the inspiration for the design of Nippon Budokan [the “Japan Martial Arts Hall”] in Tokyo more than 1,200 years later.

See also:
Nippon Budokan, Tokyo, c. 1965.

“The temple of Horyuji rises from the vast plain a few miles from the old capital of Nara.

“Unlike the many hillside temples of Kyoto that blend into the wooded landscape – Kiyomizudera, Nanzenji, Ginkakuji – there is nothing hidden about Horyuji. It is more like the great monuments of Egypt, proudly exposed, windswept, a beacon in the distance for weary travelers.

“… If you take a walk across the gravel courtyard, with the pagoda and kondo in line behind you, you come to another, larger expanse called the Eastern Precinct of Horyuji. The most striking building is an octagonal pavilion of a single storey, its roof a shell of eight upturned triangles.

“This is the Yumedono, or Hall of Dreams. Here, according to legend, Prince Shotoku – founder of Horyuji, son of the emperor, and the man traditionally thought to be the most responsible for the spread of Buddhism throughout Japan – would meditate on a passage of scripture, and a golden Buddha would appear before him in a dream to explain its meaning.

“During the summer months of 1884, something partaking of dream and legend occurred at the Hall of Dreams. It was a time when Buddhism, no longer the national religion, was under siege in Japan, and priests were torn between hoarding their treasures and selling them off for profit. At the gates of Horyuji, [art historian Ernest] Fenollosa and [scholar and art critic Kakuzo] Okakura, government officials wearing Western-style suits, presented themselves as saviors of the Japanese artistic heritage. Okakura described what happened when he and Fenollosa entered the Hall of Dreams:

‘The priests said that opening the gates would certainly produce a clap of thunder … and when we began to open the gates they were so afraid that they fled. When we opened the shrine gates, the stench of almost one thousand years assailed our nostrils. Brishing aside the cobwebs, we saw a low table of the Higashiyama period. When we cleared this aside, there, directly before us, was the sacred statue which measured some eight or nine feet in height.

‘The statue was wrapped in many layers of cloth … We approached the statue, and when we removed the cloth wrappings there was underneath a covering of white paper … We saw behind the white paper the serene face of the statue. This was truly one of the greatest pleasures of a lifetime. Fortunately, there was no clap of thunder and the priests were greatly reassured.’


“The statue was the Guze Kannon, androgynous god of compassion, carved of camphor wood and gilded from head to feet. The standing figure of slightly superhuman size held a jewel in delicate hands. An oversize crown studded with more jewels and scored with swirling motifs of flame rose above the figure’s hear. A flowing scarf of gold fell to the ground.

“The face, though, was what held Fenollosa’s attention. ‘The finest feature was the profile view of the head, with its sharp Han nose, its straight clear forehead, and its rather large – almost negroid – lips, on which a quiet mysterious smile played, not unlike Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa’s.’

“… The Mona Lisa in the Hall of Dreams is a Mona Lisa of the East, with a mysterious touch of Africa.”

The Great Wave: Gilded and Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan, Christopher Benfey, 2003

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