Japanese temple architecture, Buildings in Japan & China, Shinto shrines, East Asian construction
Japanese Temple Architecture
post updated 17 February 2024
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Awe Inspiring Japanese Temple Architecture and its History
The study of Japanese temples and their distinctive architecture is a fascinating field. Originally based on Shinto shrines, the unique architectural style of Japan’s temples is a symbol of the country’s storied history and vibrant religious traditions.
Japanese temple architecture, from the traditional wooden structures in Nara to the contemporary Zen temples in Kyoto, is an impressive reflection of the country’s cultural past and present. This article examines the origins and traits that have made Japanese temple buildings so unique and lasting.
Origins & Meaning of Japanese Temple Architecture
Shinto followers, the main belief in Japan, see a “kami” (deity) in everything from rumbling volcanoes and stunning hill peaks to forests, stones, and gushing waterfalls. Shinto shrines or temples are locations of devotion where the spirits of the gods are enshrined. Shrine structures are not arranged in a conventional pattern but rather are placed in natural settings.
Stone lanterns line the path or highway that leads from the shrine’s unique “torii” entrance to the shrine’s main building. Water basins are supplied so that visitors can wash their hands and mouths before entering the shrine itself, helping to maintain the sanctity of the site. Guardians of many shrines are lion-like figures called “Komainu,” which stand in pairs at the entrances to the shrine’s major halls.
The temporary main rooms were built to accommodate the “kami” during rituals and ceremonies. The earliest examples of this architecture date back to around 300 B.C. It is said that the Sumiyoshi Shrine’s main shrine building in Osaka, which is also a contemporary building, preserves the appearance of old religious structures. The main hall’s other prominent style borrows its rectangular plan from ancient Japanese granaries and treasure vaults.
Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture is the finest surviving example of this type of architecture. The solar goddess Amaterasu Omikami is worshiped within its inner shrine. The goddess of grain, Toyouke no Omikami, is honored at the main shrine. The capital building of the Izumo Shrine in Shimane District demonstrates elements of residential architecture, such as columns set straight into the ground with elevated floors.
An overview of the Ise Grand Shrine which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site:
【伊勢神宮】About Ise Jingu ‐Origins of Japan‐ ISE-JINGU
Credit – Ise Jingu
Kami Shinto shrines in Japan are known as Jinja and typically feature a modest temple surrounded by several trees. Keep in mind that while Buddhist temples serve as places of worship, shrines are more intimate settings for private prayer. In contrast to the imposing Gothic cathedrals of Europe, the classical and ancient Japanese temple architecture of Japan was designed to blend in with the landscape rather than to command respect from it.
In modern-day Japan, nearly every neighborhood is home to one of the country’s more than 80,000 shrines. These structures, which are often connected with kami gods, include amenities like water wells and resting benches for their devotees.
But there were no shrines in early Shintoism. Sakaki trees, which are revered by worshippers as holy relics, can be found near every Shinto shrine in Japan today. Shimenawa ropes and gohei strips of white paper are used to denote these areas. Later on, came the widespread use of fences and torii gates.
These buildings are generally constructed of wood and range in size and design, like ancient wooden warehouses. The Ise Shrine is a prime example of what is known as “pure” and authentic Japanese shrine and temple architecture.
There are three primary sacred objects on shrine grounds:
- The main shrine – haiden, a place of worship where people pray, typically situated at the back of the grounds.
- The main sanctuary – honden, a sacred place generally off-limits to laypeople in which the kami of the shrine is believed to reside.
- A hut-like gazebo for purification, where people cleanse their mouths and hands with water taken from a basin called chozuya.
Symbols, rather than images or idols, are used at Shinto temples. In the Japanese style, the main worship space consists of a front porch with a rope, a bell, and a collection box for the faithful to use during prayer and offerings.
Natural wood panels and facades, thatched roofs with eaves, protruding horns called chigi at the peak of the roof, gabled ends, short logs named katsuogi laying horizontally across the ridge of the roof, and free-standing columns at the ends are all hallmarks of shrines sometimes called the “pure” style. Shimenawa ropes are typically hung from the ceiling of the largest temples, denoting their sacred status. Oftentimes, these can be enormous and weigh around 200 kg.
Stone sculptures of Chinese lions or Korean dogs stand watch at the entrances of many sanctuaries. Usually in pairs, these ominous-looking statues make their appearance. On the lucky side of the gate, there is a mouth agape, ready to spit out prosperity. Closed mouths might capture evil in their guard. Foxes, cunning creatures who are considered kami messengers and emblems of fertility, patrol the grounds of rice temples.
Introduction of Buddhism Architecture in Japan
In the 6th century, during the Japanese Asuka period when the Three Kingdoms of Korea ruled, Buddhism was introduced to Japan, and it was at this time that the Shinto architecture of the country began to incorporate Buddhist motifs. This influence starting in this period will bring many new ideas and innovations all over Japan, most popularly seen in the later Samurai sword styles.
The construction of Buddhist architecture in Japan followed styles developed in Korea, India, and, most importantly, the Chinese style. Taking into account the local climate and the frequency of earthquakes in Japan, Japanese Buddhist architecture over time will differentiate from the typical Asian or Chinese styles seen all over China, although it will leave its mark.
Some buildings were even transformed into Buddhist temples, such as the Horyu-Ji palace in Ikaruga, as well as large ones founded like the Todai-Ji temple during the Nara period, which lasted until the 8th century. This strong temple architecture will start to branch out, especially with the end of the Heian period, which saw the weakening of Korean and Chinese influence.
Japanese Buddhist Temple Architecture & Features
A fantastic blend of Japanese shrine and Buddhist temple architecture – Credit – The Japan FAQ:
Sanjusangendo, Kyoto in 4K – 三十三間堂 京都 – Japan As It Truly Is
Credit – The Japan FAQ
Japan is home to 70,000 Buddhist temples. On the whole, temples are peaceful places that see enormous crowds only during festivals or when they are associated with a renowned person. Most acts of devotion and worship take place in front of a domestic altar, and those locations are generally sought out for their peacefulness and serenity for the sake of meditation.
A Japanese Buddhist temple complex consists of multiple buildings, the number and size of which are proportional to the importance of the temple and connected with veranda wooden platforms. Several prayer rooms and monks’ dormitories are standard fare in big temples. The smallest ones often only consist of a single hall, a monk’s quarters, and a bell and graveyards in some places.
Pagodas, the original form of Buddhist temples in early Japan, were inspired by their Chinese counterparts, which were in turn based on Indian stupas. Over time, these pagodas merged into larger temple complexes. Each floor of a Japanese pagoda has a roof that is tiled in the style of Chinese architecture, and the entire structure is topped by a spire.
A Japanese Buddhist temple might be one of three distinct varieties: 1) Chinese – karayo, 2) Great Buddha – wayo, and 3) Japanese – daibutsu styles. They, in turn, differ depending on the specific Buddhist sect and era in question. Many of these temples are actually made of concrete that has been skillfully disguised to look like wood in order to resemble the Japanese style.
Summary of Japanese Temple Architectural Style
Shrines and Temples and their similarities in Japan – [Credit – Moonlight Lisa]
Here are the terms and types of objects and buildings that are most commonly found in Japanese temple architecture today. The most important thing to know today is that there are Japanese shrines with temples in them, and temples with shrines in them.
- Tori – called bird gate or the main entrance to a spiritual Japanese place whether it is a shrine or a temple
- Sando – the road with lanterns and decorations unique to the kami or great Buddha belief filled with Japanese art which is supposed to calm one’s spirit
- Temizuya – a water well for purification before entering whether a shrine or a Japanese Buddhist temple
- Toro – stone lanterns that reference to the Buddhist concept of natural and worldly elements that represent earth, wind, fire, water, and spirit
- Kagura–Den – a place for sacred and ritual dances or ceremonial celebrations. This is most usually found in shrines and not in temples
- Ema – wooden buildings with plaques inside so that the believers can write their wishes and praises for the temple or the shrine
- Sessha & Massha – shrines to further deepen the bond with the shrine or temple but are most usually to worship a specific type of object linked with their beliefs
- Komainu – creatures that guard evil spirits warding them away from the shrine or temple which dogs and lions are the most common
- Haiden – a hall of worship or oratory building for the kami deity
- Tamagaki – the fence which is all around the building of the kami
- Honden – the building of the kami and the most sacred place of the shrine or temple. In Buddhist temples, an image of a Buddhist deity is placed inside
- Main Hall – the sacred place of worship depending on the Buddhist sects with statues and objects
- Lecture Hall & Kodo or Kondo – where meetings and lectures take place in the temples
- Pagoda – a structure most commonly found in Buddhist temples that has evolved from the Indian stupa which comes with 3 or 5 floors. They most usually store some remains of Buddha (tooth for example)
- Gates – a gate or gates that are the entrance to the temple just like the tori
- Bell – Japanese temples have bells that are rang according to Buddhist beliefs, such as 108 times on New Year’s Eve
- Cemetery – most temples will often have cemeteries where the dead can be buried
- Anesaki, M. (2012, December 18). History of Japanese Religion.
- Cali, J., & Dougill, J. (2012, November 30). Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan’s Ancient Religion. Latitude 20.
- McCallum, D. F. (2008, October 1). The Four Great Temples: Buddhist Archaeology, Architecture, and Icons of Seventh-Century Japan.
- Skilton, A. (1996, August 1). A Concise History of Buddhism.
- Nishi, K., & Hozumi, K. (1996, April 15). What Is Japanese Architecture?: A Survey of Traditional Japanese Architecture.
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