As you walk east from either the JR or Kintetsu Station, this is the first temple you reach. It was established in 710 as the family temple of the Fujiwaras, the second-most powerful clan after the imperial family from the 8th to 12th centuries. At one time as many as 175 buildings were erected on the Kofukuji Temple grounds, giving it significant religious and political power up until the 16th century; through centuries of civil wars and fires, however, most of the structures were destroyed. Only a handful of buildings remain, but even these were rebuilt after the 13th century.

The five-story pagoda, first erected in 730, was burned down five times. The present pagoda dates from 1426 and is an exact replica of the original; at 50m (164 ft.) tall, it's the second-tallest pagoda in Japan (the tallest is at Toji Temple in Kyoto). Also of historical importance is the Eastern Golden Hall (Tokondo), originally constructed in 726 by Emperor Shomu to speed the recovery of the ailing Empress Gensho. Rebuilt in 1415, it houses several priceless images, including a bronze statue of Yakushi Nyorai, a Buddha believed to cure illnesses, which was installed by Emperor Shomu on behalf of his sick wife; a 12th-century wooden bodhisattva of wisdom, long worshiped by scholar monks and today by pupils hopeful of passing university entrance exams; and the 12 Heavenly Guards, wooden reliefs carved in the 12th century.

But the best thing to see here is the temple's Treasure House (Kokuhokan), which displays many statues and works of art originally contained in the temple's buildings, many of them National Treasures. Most famous are a statue of standing Ashura carved in the 8th century and a bronze head of Yakushi Nyorai, but my favorites are the six 12th-century carved wooden statues representing priests of the Kamakura Period with fascinating facial features that render them strikingly human.