The Mystery of Kyoto’s Big Buddha

Like any city with an ancient past, Kyoto is built on its own ruins. Layers of history remain hidden under the modern streets and houses, with many of the most famous structures lost in fires and earthquakes. Locals have their own ideas about what long-lost piece of the city’s architectural history they would wish to be magically restored. Some might pine over the loss of the Jurakudai palace, glittering with elaborate golden decorations and numerous halls of untold opulence. Others may long for a restoration of Honnoji, the temple where (in)famous warlord Nobunaga met his fiery and mysterious death.

However, nothing looms as large over the city’s lost history as the Daibutsu, a massive Buddhist statue that was once the crowning artistic and religious centerpiece of Kyoto. The fact that this grand piece of culture has been lost to time without a trace left behind (almost) is both astonishing and tragic. The story of its construction, destruction, and legacy is just as fascinating today as the statue itself must have been to the first visitors in the 1600s.

The Kyoto Daibutsu (“big Buddha”) actually began out of jealousy. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a wildly successful warlord who had a knack for politics and warfare - as well as being in the right place at the right time - had risen to become a great unifier and regent of the nation by mid 1580s. He launched numerous projects to rebuild Kyoto after a century of civil war, and eventually turned his eye to the older capital city of Nara for inspiration. Nara’s 15 meter tall Daibutsu statue made a huge impact on Hideyoshi, much as it still does on tourists today. He decided that he wanted a big Buddha of his own in Kyoto. When the regent of Japan says “Build it,” you say “How high?” In typical Hideyoshi style, he one-upped Nara and planned his Daibutsu to be exactly one meter taller and covered in gold leaf. Hideyoshi was just that kind of guy.

No matter how much gold Hideyoshi poured into his pet project, various hardships and miscalculations arose during the construction. An ingenious, if not sneaky, scheme was cooked up to gather enough metal to attempt a casting of the statue, but disaster later stuck and the plans were all for nought. Hideyoshi even managed to perform a shocking blasphemy at the feet of the statue that left bystanders speechless and terrified of the wrath of the gods. The eventual construction of the Daibutsu by Hideyoshi’s son in 1612 was the end to a tumultuous saga that is full of exciting twists and turns that makes for an enjoyable tale.

Once complete, the Kyoto Daibutsu (small modern reconstruction pictured above) was the world’s largest freestanding sculpture, and housed inside the world’s largest building (apart from the Great Pyramid). Atop a hill in the eastern foothills, this massive monument was visible from nearly any point in the capital. It was truly a wonder of the ancient world.

Here’s the real kicker: we have no idea what it looked like. Well, we know that it was similar to a lot of other large Buddhist statues, and the Nara Daibutsu is pretty good counterpart to give us some hints. Amazingly, there are no Japanese depictions of the Kyoto Daibutsu itself (unless you count the face peeking out in the drawing on the left, which I don’t). It simply boggles the mind that no contemporary artists, travelers, or pilgrims thought of correcting this oversight. I suppose that the physical existence of the object seemed timeless enough to not need to be captured by brush or pen, or perhaps there were other cultural issues at play.

The few clues that we have about the Kyoto Daibutsu come from some very interesting sources. In Japan’s early modern era, visiting foreigners were a rarity thanks to the rigid rules imposed by the Tokugawa Shogunate in Tokyo. Most of those lucky enough to visit were ambassadors, traders, or the unlucky survivors of shipwrecks. As they traveled the country - always under the watchful eye of their local chaperones - foreigners were allowed (forced) to stop and take in the sights at certain locations. Kyoto, newly rebuilt during Hideyoshi’s reign, was the crown jewel of Japanese culture and the groups from embassies and trading posts would often pass through the capital. See the guys in the funny top hats in the painting of the Daibutsu hall below? Those are foreigners, wearing the typical depictions of western clothing for the time. It’s from their various accounts that we can gain an outline of what it must have been like to visit Hideyoshi’s Daibutsu.

Richard Cocks, a British trader running an outpost in Japan in the early 1600s, traveled between Kyushu and Tokyo a number of times, usually in the company and protection of William Adams (the Englishman that the novel and TV series Shogun was based on). Cocks visited the Daibutsu and was stunned by what he saw.

I went to see the monuments of the town, specifically the temple of Daibutsu, with the huge colossus or brass image in it, being of a wonderful bigness, the head of it reaching to the top of the temple, although he sat crosslegged, it being gilded all over with gold... The temple itself is the hugest piece of building that ever I saw... The truth is, all of it is to be admired.
— Diary of Richard Cocks, November 2, 1616

Another description comes from Rodrigo de Vivero, the Spanish governor of the Phillipines who was shipwrecked in Japan for nine months in 1609. Despite his open contempt for the local customs and religion, Rodrigo made the most of his time here, touring the country and meeting with officials (he saw it as an unexpectedly convenient intelligence gathering expedition). Even this well-traveled European couldn’t hide his astonishment when confronting the Daibutsu, and admitted that he struggled with “wondering how [he] could depict it [in words].” Rodrigo visited three years before the temple was complete, but still managed to find wonder in the massive structure. In regards to the craftsmanship of the statue and the temple it was housed in:

[The building was] so big and unbelievably tall that, however much it may be glorified, and they certainly glorified to me, it was quite impossible to imagine what I was about to see [inside]... This metal idol can well be considered one of the seven wonders of the world; indeed it may well compare with the finest of them... If a famous artist attempted to depict the feet, hands, mouth, eyes, and all the other parts of the face with the greatest perfection, I doubt whether he could attain what I saw there.”
— Rodrigo de Vivero, An Account and Report of the Kingdom of Japan, 1609

And this coming from a man who called Buddhism “false and deceitful” and openly professed the “scant respect” he felt for the priests and worshipers! Rodrigo judged the world through a very strict Catholic viewpoint, yet here he is praising a Buddhist temple as a beautiful object surpassing anything in the west. The Kyoto Daibutsu must have been a powerful piece of art indeed.

The only visual representation that exits of Hideyoshi’s Buddha is a crude sketch (below) by Engelbert Kaempfer who visited in 1691. (He clearly was no artist) The statue he saw, however, was not the original. It had fallen apart in an earthquake and been replaced with a smaller wooden Buddha lacquered in fine gold. This was nonetheless impressive, and Kaempfer account gives us important details about the dimensions of the still-huge Buddha:

The idol was gilt all over, and incredibly large... It had long ears, a crown on the head... The shoulders were naked, the breast and body covered with a loose piece of cloth. It was sitting after the Indian manner, crosslegged, on a [lotus] flower, which was supported by another flower... The idol itself was so broad that it reached with the shoulder from one pillar to another, though they were a full [30 feet] distant.
— Kaempfer, History of Japan, 1617

Despite being destroyed and rebuilt several times, each time more magnificent than the last, the story of the beautiful golden Buddha of Kyoto has a depressing end. After lightning burned down the lacquered figure Kaempfer had seen, an unfortunate replica was constructed in 1801. No longer a full-body representation, this final version of the Daibutsu was reduced to a three-story head and shoulders bust made from crude wooden planks. A visitor in 1877 described the poor craftsmanship as “so coarse as to be almost horrid.” Another dismayed onlooker reduced the monstrosity to simply a “hideous deformity.” A particularly scathing passage from 1902 is vicious in its takedown of the statue:

In a rickety, dusty building is the Daibutsu. The present figure is certainly unlovely enough to escape the envy of the gods. Colossal, lumpish, not spirited enough to be even grotesque in its tawdry surroundings... this wretched travesty.
— Anna G. Hartshorne, Japan and Her People, 1902

The glittering Buddha was no more. The city did its best to ignore the embarrassing mistake that had been assembled where once a masterpiece had stood. Ironically, it was this version of the Daibutsu that stood the longest, until 1973 when the building was burned down. Police suspected arson. Everyone suspected arson. Despite losing yet another piece of its history to fire, the city no doubt breathed a quiet sight of relief that the misshapen reminder of Hideoyshi’s former glory was no longer present to elicit laughter and groans.

What remains of the Daibutsu now? Not much. Several metal rings from the columns of the temple and a few twisted metal frames are all that’s left of what was once the world’s largest building. A gargantuan bronze bell hangs silently in its tower, truly an impressive sight but often ignored by visitors. If you circle behind the current Shinto shrine dedicated to Hideyoshi, a small park has been set up directly on the spot where the Daibutsu once stood. A mound of earth marks the seat of the once-mighty Buddha, now home only to a swarm of red dragonflies circling in the late summer sun. Apparently there are a few marble paving stones from the interior of the temple in the ground still, but good luck finding them among the tall grass and bushes. And good luck finding anyone who frequents this wholly unremarkable park. I would venture that the vast majority of Kyoto residents don’t even know about the monumental history of this forgotten piece of land. Thankfully, we have the timeless words of fellow visitors from abroad to remind us of what has been lost.

(Some historical quotes in this article have been edited and modernized for clarity)