There are places you visit and objects you see as a traveler in Japan (or anywhere, really) that you will probably never understand. The didactic panels written in perfect English are almost pointless. It is not that they fail to accurately and succinctly explain what you are looking at. They do a fine job. But without a thorough knowledge and understanding of Japanese history and Buddhism these beautiful places and objects you are seeing are only beautiful places and objects. Your intellectual comprehension will never be deeper than that.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it is a better way to appreciate the art and the labor of the artist, like watching a film without subtitles in a language you don't understand. The experience is more visceral. Still, you want to know why this is important to Japan, or indeed the world. It is not simply because it is old and has survived the ages.
As I walked through the main hall of Sanjusangen-do gazing at the perfectly aligned 1,000 gold "Kannon" buddhas, as I read the didactics about the guardian deities in each of the thirty-three bays between the columns I could not escape the question: why? I am not diminishing this impressive sight. But why make 1,000 identical statues of buddha and assemble them in this great wooden hall? But then, why does mankind make anything? Why do we build pyramids or cathedrals or castles, paint pictures or carve figures in stone? Because we can? Is it as simple as that? Or is it a combination of vanity and legacy? I was here.
For me, seeing these ancient structures always invites the question: what has been built in the last 50 or 100 years that will stand a similar test of time? It seems to me we (mankind) are no longer motivated this way. The über rich in the 21st Century - and let's face it, that's who financed these ancient projects, whether in Japan or Greece or Egypt - are less inclined to build in a monumental way. The wealthy today seem content with their swanky townhouses and posh country estates. Large-scale building projects these days are mostly financed by giant corporations and conglomerates which render them almost instantly forgettable. "Oh, that's the International Technology Solutions Consortium building". Huh?
In Kyoto most of the historic temples and shrines have endured at least one, if not several calamities. Because they are built from wood, fire is usually responsible for the destruction. They have however always been rebuilt, some as recently as the 1950s. I think of the King of Swamp Castle in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail":
When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up.
If the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai were to burn to the ground (or sink into a swamp) would anyone bother to rebuild it? The rebuilding of the World Trade Center in New York is a largely symbolic act of defiance. It has nothing to do with the Minoru Yamasaki-designed building; if it did, an exact replica would have been constructed.
Maybe it is the spiritual connection of a building to the people and the land that makes them important and worth preserving, or rebuilding. I've still not answered my question: why make a thousand buddhas? Maybe I should just stop asking so many questions.