autumn leaves in Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto Traditional Japanese Architecture

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Travelers come to Kyoto to enjoy the traditional atmosphere of Japan. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto is full of not-so-hidden architectural treasures that will make you feel like you stepped back in time. Of course, Kyoto has been Japan’s Imperial capital city for many centuries which has left its mark, but another reason for the fact that Kyoto is so full of wonderful traditional architecture is that it was spared the bombings of Japan during WW2 by the Allied Forces. It has been said that Mr. Stimson, the US Secretary for War at the time, has personally saved Kyoto from being bombed because he had been in Japan’s ancient capital several times and loved the beautiful city so much that he took it upon himself to dissuade President Truman from bombing Kyoto.

History of Japanese Architecture

Traditional Japanese architecture of the Ginkakuji in Kyoto, Japan

In today’s Kyoto, the structure of the old city is still visible in the layout of the city and the many artisanal neighborhoods. There is an enormous wealth of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines built using traditional designs, that it is hard to choose where to go.

Like so many parts of Japanese ancient historical culture, Japanese architecture has developed under the influence of the Korean Peninsula and China. The Asuka-Nara period was when architectural techniques were introduced from the Korean Peninsula and China. After the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century, temple buildings began to be built in Japan. According to records, in 577, Buddhist builders and temple builders were invited from the area that is now Korea, and after that, the Soga clan built Asuka Temple (Hokokuji) in what is now Nara, and Shitennoji (Tennoji) Temple in what is now Osaka. The original buildings don’t exist anymore, but the temples are still sitting in the same area.

The oldest surviving structures in Japan are the Saiin Garan of Horyuji Temple and the three-story pagoda of Hokkiji Temple (both in Nara Prefecture). The Saiin Garan of Horyuji Temple is thought to have been rebuilt in the late 7th or early 8th century after the fire of 670. The three-story pagoda of Hokkiji Temple was built in the early 8th century. It has been pointed out that the layout of the temple and the techniques used in its construction have some similarities with those of ancient Korea. During the reign of the Sui and Tang envoys, the influence of Chinese architectural styles became stronger.

Development of Architecture in Kyoto in the Heian Period

During the Heian period (794-1185) and the period of the nationalist culture, the architectural style became more Japanese, with thin columns and low ceilings, and a preference for peaceful spaces. From the Heian period onward, this style of architecture developed as a distinctly Japanese style. From the mid-10th century onward, events and ceremonies at the imperial court and at temples and shrines gradually began to be held at night. At the same time, the increased use of nighttime lighting caused fires and eventually led to large-scale construction.

This led to a decline in tax revenues, a deterioration in central and local finances, and the creation of a new financial system such as national and local government finance, as well as the transfer of skills and experience to the craftsmen’s organizations in the field of architecture, mainly through the transfer of skills and experience to the repairers and woodworkers and the large temples such as Todai-ji, which led to the development of a new system that would be used by future generations.

This was the origin of the apprenticeship system for carpenters and craftsmen. In addition, carpenters and craftsmen were mobilized from all over Japan to construct buildings, and they brought back their superior construction techniques from the center of Japan to be used in the construction of their respective regions. On the other hand, however, some people point out that such a succession of buildings led to environmental destruction, such as the destruction of the mountain forests (soma) caused by the felling of timber, and was a factor in the creation of new natural disasters, famine, and social problems such as the worsening of security in the first half of the Kamakura period.

Re-introduction of Chinese-style Architecture

In the Kamakura period (1192-1333), trade with China became more active, and Chinese architectural styles were introduced again. The first style to enter was the one used in the rebuilding of Todaiji Temple. The Great Buddha Hall of Todaiji, built during the Tenpyo Period, was burned down during the Genpei War in the late Heian Period. In 1185, the Daibutsu was rebuilt. The architectural style of the Daibutsuden and other structures rebuilt by Chong Yuan is very unique and is said to be similar to the architectural style of the Fujian province of China (Song Dynasty) at the time.

Its rational structure and bold design were appropriate for the Big Buddha Hall, but it was incompatible with the serene space favored by the Japanese. The craftsmen involved in the rebuilding of the Great Buddha Hall moved to various locations, and the Japanese style, which was influenced by the Great Buddha, was born. Later, as Zen monks came and went, Chinese temple architecture was introduced. This style is often used in Zen Buddhist temples for their Buddha halls (Zen or Tang style).

Reunification of Japan

In the Middle Ages, the so-an, a simple building in which ordained monks and recluses lived in secluded areas, appeared and is depicted in Kamono Chomei’s Hojoki and other scrolls. During the late Heian and Kamakura periods, religious figures used the so-an as a base for their activities.

The Momoyama period in the late 16th-early 17th century was a time of unification, castle architecture was developed and the castle tower, a symbol of power, was built, and the main area where the lord lived was decorated with ornate wall paintings. The tea ceremony that has its roots in the 14th century was popularized, and the tea house genre was born.

The Edo period was an era in which the culture of the common people flourished in general as opposed to the culture of the court and nobility, but the trend toward secularization was also evident in the architecture. Examples include the sukiya-zukuri style, which incorporated tea ceremony rooms into houses, and theatrical and brothel buildings for urban entertainment. Some private homes also incorporated elements of the shoin-zukuri style and gradually developed. Temple buildings, such as Zenkoji and Sensoji, were built to accommodate large numbers of commoner believers.

6th-17th Century Architecture Kyoto Itinerary

Take a tour through Japan’s architectural history by visiting these 8 sites in Kyoto and Nara. The buildings are put in chronological order from the oldest type of architecture to the most modern type.

  1. Nara Period Architecture: Todaiji Temple. Built during the Nara period, the Hokkedo is the oldest building at Todaiji, and is said to be the remains of Geumjosa Temple, the predecessor to Todaiji. It is also known as the Sangatsudo Hall. The main hall in front of the temple was added during the Kamakura period (1192-1333), and the two halls are beautifully harmonized to create a uniform appearance. Inside the hall is a treasure trove of Tenpyo sculptures, including a standing statue of the Amapasa Kannon (a national treasure), a statue of Brahma and Teishakuten (a national treasure) standing on either side of the Sumida platform, and a standing statue of the Four Heavenly Kings (a national treasure) protecting the main deity at the four corners of the inner sanctuary. Among them, the standing statue of the Vajra God is famous as the most secret of the hidden Buddhas because the door is opened only on December 16.
  2. Heian Period Architecture: Daigoji 5-story pagoda. Daigoji Temple is located in Daigo-yama (Mt. Daigo) and the temple is located at the foot of the mountain.  Daigoji is a huge temple complex, and the pagoda was the brainchild of Emperor Suzaku. It was built for his father, Emperor Daigo. Construction started in 935, and it took 17 years to perfect. There have been many fires in Daigoji Temple, during the Onin War a large part of the complex was burnt to ashes, but only the five-story pagoda survived. The pagoda is the oldest surviving wooden structure.
  3. Medieval Architecture: Silver Pavilion. Officially called Jishoji Temple, the Silver Pavillion (or Ginkakuji) is the head temple of the Rinzai sect’s Shokokuji School. The Kannon-den (Ginkaku) building, a national treasure, still retains the elegant appearance of the temple’s original construction. Tonguidou’s Dojinsai is the oldest surviving room of its kind in the shoin-zukuri style. The garden, with its white sand called Ginsadan and trapezoidal Kogetsudai, is famous for its moonlight garden and has been designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty and Special Historic Site by the government. The interiors of the main hall, Dongku-do, and Floating Pavilion are open to the public in spring and autumn. It has been registered as a World Cultural Heritage Site.
  4. Late Medieval Architecture: Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa Shokin-tei. Katsura Rikyu is a typical mountain villa from the early Edo period, and its foundation was laid by Prince Toshihito (1579 – 1629), the first of the Hachijo family. After WW2, it was administered by the Imperial Household Agency. The Katsura Rikyu Garden and its architecture from the early Edo period (1603-1868) is a reminder of the dynastic culture of that time. In 1933, the architect Bruno Taut, who defected from Germany, “rediscovered” the beauty of the Katsura Rikyu. The strolling garden, which Taut praised as “so beautiful it makes me want to cry,” features a pond fed by Katsura River, teahouses, a tsukiyama (artificial hill), a small beach, a bridge, and stone lanterns. There are four teahouses as well as a Buddhist temple, Ondorindo. It was awarded three stars in the tourist guidebook published by Michelin.

17th-19th Century Architecture Kyoto Itinerary

  1. Late Medieval Architecture Castle: Nijo Castle. Constructed in 1603 by Tokugawa Ieyasu, Nijo Castle has been the setting for many historical events and was enlarged by third shogun Iemitsu to its present size in 1626. The castle is surrounded by a moat with a fortress extending about 600 meters east to west and 400 meters north to south. There are many highlights, including the massive East Ote-mon Gate (Important Cultural Property), the Kara-mon Gate (Important Cultural Property) with colorful carvings such as “Pine, Bamboo, and Plum Cranes” and “Chinese Lion”, the Ninomaru Garden (Special Cultural Property) and the Honmaru Palace (Important Cultural Property, currently under repair). At the Ninomaru Palace (a national treasure), where the restoration of the Imperial rule took place, the greenish-backed corridor and the wall paintings by the Kano School painters are a must-see.
  2. Edo Period Architecture Temple: Kiyomizu-dera. Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Higashiyama, famous for the veranda with the beautiful view, is the head temple of the Hokuso sect of Buddhism. It is said that Sei Shonagon once paid a visit to this temple. The grounds of the temple are spread out along the foothills of Mount Otowa, with beautiful cherry blossoms in the spring and red leaves in the fall. The main hall, in which the stage is located, is a national treasure and is built on a rare cliff protruding from the edge of the mountain. The statue of the eleven-faced, thousand-armed, thousand-eyed goddess of mercy, which is the main deity of the temple, is only opened to the public once every 33 years. Starting with the Otoha Waterfall, there are many highlights in the mountain, such as the Niomon Gate, horse parking, the three-storied pagoda, and the Kaizando. The temple has been registered as a world cultural heritage site.
  3. Edo Period Architecture House: Nijo-Jinya. This house was used as a camp for feudal lords who went to Nijo Castle and Kyoto, as well as an official residence for the magistrate’s office. This means that it was not just a house, but also had a special structure and equipment, and was designed to prevent fires. The building was built in a sukiya style with very delicate and elegant design and is considered to be of great architectural value. In 1944, it was designated as a National Treasure under the National Treasure Preservation Act for three reasons: as a fireproof building, as a Jinya-style building, and as a sukiya building.
  4. Edo Period Architecture Machiya: Machiya Kamiumeya. A little different from the other architectural gems listed above, this structure is currently used as a hotel. Machiya are traditional Kyoto townhouses that mainly used to house artisans and merchants, and are currently used as regular housing, small-scale hotels, shops, and restaurants. They tend to be long and narrow in design, as they used to often feature a shop front, a back area where artisans did their work or merchants stored their wares, and a living quarter. Where Tokyo lost nearly all of its wooden machiya during WW2, many more in Kyoto have survived and are still there today. Machiya Kamiumeya is a beautiful combination of the original architecture with modern elements.

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