Pagodas, whose roots can be found in the stūpas of ancient India, are architectural structures that ultimately derive from burial mounds. They are used to enshrine the relics of the historical Buddha, Shaka Nyorai, and serve as reminders of the continued presence of the Buddha’s teaching in this world.
Kohfukuji’s Five-storied Pagoda was originally erected in 730 by Empress Kōmyō (701–760), the daughter of Kohfukuji’s founding patron, Fujiwara no Fuhito (659–720). Over its long history, the pagoda burned down a total of five times, with the current reconstruction dating to 1426. At 50.1 meters, it is the second-tallest wooden pagoda in Japan today. Famous for its deep eaves, the structure successfully blends references to the architecture of the Nara Period (710–794) with the dynamic architectural style of the Muromachi Period (1136–1573) during which it was last rebuilt.
The pagoda houses sculptures of the Four Buddhas of the Four Directions, each flanked by two attendant Bodhisattvas. This layout represents a Mahayana Buddhist conception of time and space. The north-south axis represents the progression of time, and the east-west axis represents space. The Buddha of the past, Shaka (Skt. Śākyamuni), is in the south, and Miroku (Skt. Maitreya), the Buddha of the future, is in the north. Amida, the Buddha of the Western Realm of Ultimate Bliss is in the west, and Yakushi, lord of the Eastern Pure Beryl Radiance Realm, is in the east. The location where these two axes intersect is here and now in this world. This spot is occupied by the central pillar, which rests on a stone foundation in which a vessel holding relics of the Buddha is said to be interred.