Hōryū-ji was founded in 607 by Prince Shōtoku, considered by many to be the patron saint of Japanese Buddhism. It's a veritable shrine to Shōtoku, renowned not only as the oldest temple in Japan, but also as a repository for some of the country’s rarest treasures. Several of the temple’s wooden buildings have survived earthquakes and fires to become the oldest of their kind in the world. There's an entire gallery of Hōryū-ji treasures at the Tokyo National Museum.
The temple is divided into two parts: Sai-in (West Temple) and Tō-in (East Temple); pick up a detailed map and guidebook in English.
The main approach proceeds from the south along a tree-lined avenue and through the Nandai-mon and Chū-mon gates before entering the Sai-in precinct. As you enter, you'll see the Kondō (Main Hall) on your right and a pagoda on your left.
The Kondō houses several treasures, including the triad of the Buddha Sakyamuni with two attendant bodhisattvas. One of Japan's great Buddhist treasures, it's dimly lit and barely visible – you will need a torch (flashlight) to see it. Likewise, the pagoda contains clay images depicting scenes from the life of Buddha, which are barely visible without a torch.
East of Sai-in are the two concrete buildings of the Daihōzō-in (Great Treasure Hall), containing numerous treasures from Hōryū-ji's long history. Continue east through the Tōdai-mon to Tō-in, where Prince Shōtoku is believed to have meditated and received help with problem sutras from a kindly, golden apparition in the Yumedono (Hall of Dreams).
Given the cost of admission and the time it takes to get here from central Nara, we recommend that you give careful thought to committing at least half a day to visiting this temple. Take the JR Kansai line from JR Nara Station to Hōryū-ji Station (¥220, 11 minutes). From here, bus 72 shuttles the short distance between the station and the bus stop Hōryū-ji Monmae (¥180, eight minutes). Alternatively, take bus 52 or 97 from either JR Nara Station (stop 10) or Kintetsu Nara Station (stop 8) and get off at the Hōryū-ji-mae stop (¥760, one hour). Walk west about 50m, cross the road and you will see the tree-lined approach to the temple.