Located in central Nara prefecture, Hôryûji is one of Japan's oldest and most famous Buddhist temples. Horyuji's long history as one of the most important centers of Japanese Buddhism allowed the temple to amass one of the finest collections of early Japanese art in the world, but perhaps its biggest claim to faim is that its main hall and five-story pagoda are believed to be the oldest wooden buildings in the world.
The Horyuji's main buildings are a minimum of 1,300 years old. According to an inscription on the back of the halo of the Yakushi Nyorai Buddha statue on the eastern side of the main hall and an AD 747 document recording the official inventory of Horyuji Temple holdings, the Horyuji was the result of an oath by Emperor Yomei, who vowed to build a temple with an image of the Buddha as a prayer for his own recover from illness. Yomei never did recover from the illness, and died shortly thereafter, but his wife Empress Suiko and his son Prince Shotoku fulfilled his sacred vow by building a temple in 607 which they named "Hôryûji," or "Temple of the Flourishing Law," and enshrined within it the Yakushi Nyorai Buddha (literally, "arriving as a healer Buddha").
Acording to the ancient chronicle Nihon Shoki, the Horyuji burnt to the ground in 670, leaving "not a single building standing," but the main buildings of the temple were reconstructed by 700 although the exact chronology is unknown. In the Kamakura Era, a cult of Prince Shotoku worship achieved great popularity, with Horyuji as its headquarters. Thus the Kamakura Era was probably the height of Horyuji's prestige and power, as it was heavily patronized by all manner of princes and emperors.
Today the main attractions at the Horyuji are the five-story pagoda, which has some interesting Kamakura-era scuptures of the life of the Buddha and allegedly contains one of the Buddha's bones in its foundation, the main hall, which contains some of the oldest wooden statues in Japan, and the Hall of Visions in the eastern precinct of the temple, built in 739 on the site of Prince Shotoku's palace as a temple to Shotoku himself. A statue of Prince Shotoku as Kuse Kannon in the Hall of Visions is never shown to the public, and thus is said to be very well preserved, even to the point of retaining its original 8th century guilding.
The Horyuji is considered one of the major repositories of Japanese culture. The temple contains an astonishing 190 buildings and objects of art that have been deemed Japanese national treasures by the Japanese government. Many of these treasures are displayed in the Dahozoin gallery, including a remarkable, sinuous Kudara Kannon statue, which is unlike any depiction of a buddha that I have ever seen.
Horyuji is an interesting place to visit, but tends to be overrun by hordes of schoolchildren at all times. To get there, take the JR Yamatoji Line and get off at Horyuji station. The temple is a 15 minute walk, but there are plenty of signs.