The first-time visitor to Japan might not have Buddhist sculpture at the top of his "must see" list. But, to take a tour of the ancient temple sites where these statues are enshrined, is to take a tour through the history of Japanese art and culture. usually, their setting is in tree-lined compounds, away from the urban bustle, which offer a place where one can still imagine what it might have been like one hundred or even one thousand years before. If one takes some time to look carefully, the rewards of discovering some of the most ancient and beautiful statuary in the world will be great. From the naturalistic images of the eighth-century mourners of Hōryū-ji temple's pagoda in Nara to the exquisite elegance of the eleventh-century Heian period Amida Buddha surrounded by a host of bodhisattvas riding on clouds at the Phoenix Hall of Byōdo-in by the River Uji, to the fearsome realism of Unkei's South Gate Guardians of 1203 at Tōdai-ji, the panorama of creative possibilities explored by the master sculptors of Japan is open to view.
This bilingual guide to Buddhist sculpture includes thirty works that have been designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties by the government of Japan. The materials that the artisans used are many, from gilt to bronze, from clay to lacquer, and most frequently, the many fine kinds of wood available in Japan, such as camphor, nutmeg, and Japanese cypress. The craftsmanship is outstanding for its vitality and attention to detail. The Western visitor can admire these works for their aesthetic qualities, but seeing them in their temple setting also conveys the deep religious awe and devotion of the sculptors and the worshippers.