chrispy thoughts

-the world as I see it

Timber in Japan’s religious architecture

As part of my current research work, I am studying timber and its use in construction.  In my opinion, among the countries that use timber as a building material, Japan is the most interesting of the lot, from a timber engineering point of view.  The abundance of forests made wood a natural choice for building material in this country since ancient times. Timber is well-suited to the moist and warm climate of Japan and can withstand the cold as well- keeping its inhabitants warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Most importantly, being a country which is highly vulnerable to earthquakes, Japan was quick to realize that timber structures performed very well under earthquakes due to their flexibility.

Like in most other countries, religion has deeply influenced and shaped Japanese architecture over the ages. In a previous assignment, along with two of my friends Ali and Lindsay, I did a study on the influence of Shinto and Buddhism on Japanese architecture. We identified two structures – the Grand Shrine at Ise (Shinto) and the Todaiji temple (Buddhist) and looked at the principles involved in their construction, the structure, materials and building typology. So let me tell you what we learnt.

Shinto, a religion that originated in ancient Japan was based on the reverence of nature. Its followers considered wood to be sacred and looked upon it as a symbol of life. Because renewal is the quintessence of this religion, the Shinto shrines are rebuilt every twenty years.  The periodic destruction and rebuilding of the shrine symbolizes the life and death cycle with periodic renewal. It was also done with the view that the art and science of building these temples would not die out and the workmanship and technology would not be forgotten.  Buddhism was not an indigenous religion and came in to Japan from other South Asian countries. This new religion was first accepted only by the noble families and in order to promote it, they built impressive temples, which were much more imposing in comparison to the simple and austere Shinto shrines. Shinto shrines generally commemorate the beginning of life and mark certain auspicious events whereas Buddhist temples usually tend to fulfill needs that deal with the completion of life, or death. My guess is that one of the reasons why the Japanese did away with the traditional practice of demolishing and rebuilding was because they became aware of the problem of deforestation and from then on, decided to construct temples keeping in mind that they had to last for long periods.

A map of Japan showing the subject sites

Among the religious monuments of the Shinto religion, the Grand Shrine at Ise is the most revered and is built amidst a dense forest of giant cryptomeria trees next to the Isuzu River in southern Honshu, Japan. It was originally built somewhere around the 7th century. When wood was used from a felled tree in the sacred forests, this sacred quality was believed to follow it into the building. The Ise Grand Shrine is not just a single structure, but a complex of more than a hundred shrines and sanctuaries. Of these, the two main ones are the inner shrine (Naikū) dedicated to the sun goddess (Amaterasu-ōmikami) and the outer shrine (Gekū) dedicated to the god of agriculture and industry (Toyouke no ōmikami).  The fundamental structural system employed at Ise, and almost all other historic timber structures in Japan, is the post-and-beam system. In simple terms, the post-and-beam system is a framework of horizontal and vertical members – beams resting on posts.

The materials used for the construction are very limited in range and the structure is left bare and simple. The main structural elements of the building, including the pillars, ridge-boards and handrails are made of plain unpainted Japanese cypress (Hinoki) logs. Japanese cedar (Sugi) is used for flooring and the straight gable roofs are thatched with the bark of Japanese Nutmeg-yew (kaya).

Perspective and inner view of the Shoden(most sacred place) at the Naiku

The last rebuilding process of the Ise jingu was carried out in 1993 and yes, the next one is hardly a year away. It is said that this process of reconstruction (shikinensengu) which usually spans aound 8 years, results in ‘a structure that is both old and new at the same time’. Next to each of the major shrines at Ise, lie empty plots that are covered with white pebbles which is where the main buildings will be erected during the next reconstruction of the shrine. The small wooden hut that you see at the centre of the vacant plot is where the shoden of the new shrine will be raised in the next rebuilding. The shoden is the most sacred part of the shrine and is considered to be the place where the spirits reside.

The vacant plot for the reconstructed Naiku beside the existing one
(Taken from “What is Japanese Architecture?” by Nishi & Hozumi)

Among the prominent Buddhist temples in Japan, the Todaiji temple at Nara occupies a prime position. The Todaiji temple at Nara was commissioned to be built by Emperor Shomu (724-749). The original structure was set afire during a war and was rebuilt in the Indian style in the 12th century.It held the position of the tallest wooden building in the world until the year 1998.  The Indian style was markedly different from the traditional Japanese architecture used in Shinto shrine construction, but over time Japanese elements were incorporated into the Indian style. The Japanese Buddhist temples also differed from their Chinese counterparts.

The Todaiji Temple is constructed of timber, tiles and stone. Japanese cypress was mainly used as the  building material for the Todaiji Temple. These trees grew in abundance in Japan but due to their overuse in construction, it became difficult to find trees that were large enough to be used for the reconstruction of the Todaiji and this is why the Todaiji Temple is 33% smaller than it originally was. The main worship space in the temple complex, called the Daibutsuden, houses the famous bronze Buddha statue. In the figure below, you can see the plan of the Todaiji complex with the main gate, the Daibutsuden, the west and east pagodas, and other structures.

Layout of the Todaiji complex
Taken from John M.Rosenfield et al., “The Great Eastern Temples: Treasures of Japanese Buddhist Art from Todai-ji”

Japanese cypress was used as the main building material for the Todaiji Temple because it was readily available, had favourable mechanical properties and was weather-resistant. The roofs were mainly constructed of timber and were covered with grey tiles which were waterproof and prevented water from entering the building. The Todaiji gateway stands on a stone platform and pillar bases, which provide a more permanent foundation for the structure. The Buddhist temples built in the Indian style were meant to last and thus included stone as a foundation construction material.

A model of the Todaiji complex

The Ise Grand Shrine and the Todaiji Temple in Japan are very different structures despite their similar building material. Timber was used for both structures due to its abundance and beneficial mechanical properties. However, the Todaiji Temple also used tiles and stone in its construction. The Buddhist temples in Japan were meant to be permanent structures and therefore the structures were built with materials that would last. The Shinto religion focuses on renewing and life cycles. The Shinto shrines are rebuilt every twenty years and therefore only timber is used to construct the shrines.  Shinto shrines forbid materialization of beliefs and hence have no idols or statues, which is in total contrast to Buddhist temples, where the statue of Buddha has a central significance. The layout and construction of the Ise Grand Shrine and the Todaiji Temple were also very different. The Shinto shrine is a very simple design whereas the Buddhist temple is very complex. Due to the vastly different religious philosophies, the Ise Grand Shrine and the Todaiji Temple are very different structures even though similar building materials were used for their construction.

This post might have been a little technical and many of you readers may not share my interest in it. For those of you who do, let me tell you that is article just skims through the details of these two different architectural styles, for further reading, you could try

  • The Evolution of Buddhist Architecture in Japan – Alexander Coburn Soper
  • Japan’s Ise Shrine and Selected Norwegian Stave Churches: An Examination of the Definition of Vernacular Architecture – H.G. Gillespie
  • Architecture and Authority in Japan –  W. H. Coaldrake
  • Japan – Culture of Wood: Buildings, Objects, Techniques – C. Henrichsen



5 comments on “Timber in Japan’s religious architecture

  1. vmichael
    October 29, 2012


    • C.
      October 29, 2012

      Thank you. You have a great blog 🙂

  2. very helpful! thank you

  3. tarun jangid
    November 16, 2017

    Could you please tell the source of the imge “Perspective and inner view of the Shoden(most sacred place) at the Naiku”

    • C.
      November 16, 2017

      We made it for our report. I do not remember the source it was adapted from though.

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This entry was posted on October 19, 2012 by in Architecture, Civil Engineering and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

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