Traditional Japanese Architecture | Guidable

Traditional Japanese Architecture

By Daniel Gilbert Sep 19, 2019

For the present article, I was asked to write an article about Shachihoko, which is a statue or adornment on the top of Japanese castles, and indeed, in the current article, I will discuss this at some length. However, I decided to expand the scope of this article considerably, and herein, I plan to discuss some of the architectural characteristics of Japanese castles, Japanese temples (Buddhism), and Japanese shrines (Shinto). Let’s get into it.


Japanese Castles

From antiquity, castles have dotted Japan, but through warfare and fires (lots of lightning strikes, insofar as there were the tallest structures), and through intentional policies set by the Meiji-era government, only four castles remain extant in Japan (many of the others have been rebuilt or restored). The four remaining castles are Hijemi, Hikone, Matsumoto and Inuyama, with Himeji arguably being the most famous.


Architectural Characteristics

While there are many too many discuss, I have decided to limit this discussion to the following:



This is a statue or an adornment on the roof of Japanese castles, and this mythical beast, is half carp and tiger. This was believed to prevent fires, and also to augur well for rain (Japan being heavily dependent on growing rice, this is obviously important). The most important or famous of these remain extant at castles in Nagoya and Osaka.



This is an area provided along the walls on the interior of the moat of the castle, from which defenders could drop rocks on invaders trying to scale said walls (ishiotoshi literally means “rock drop”).



This is the main “keep” or “grounds” of the castle complex. This was the final grounds for retreat in case of attack and where the lord of the castle actually lived.


My favorite castle

When I first came to Japan, I lived in Kanazawa in Ishikawa prefecture. There is a castle in this town, and having actually visited this place many times, this is, by default, my favorite castle. This castle, like many castles in Japan, has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. To be honest, the consensus seems to be that Himeji castle in Hyogo prefecture is the most stunning of all castles in Japan. I’ve never been myself, so I can’t say, but I do have a friend from Himeji, and she maintains that indeed, this castle is the best.


Buddhist Temples (Otera)

Otera, or temples, are Buddhist structures. Buddhism was introduced to Japan via China and Korea in the sixth century or so, and as such, the architecture of Buddhist temples is heavily influenced or affected by the architecture of these countries. According to my research, there are an estimated 70,000 otera in Japan. Also according to my research, there are three main types of Buddhist temples, these categories depending on the time period and the school of Buddhism.


Types of Buddhist Temples

Japanese style (wayo)

This is an architectural style that emphasizes more traditional Japanese-style architecture over Chinese and Korean-style architectural features. Some characteristics of wayo include a beam running between columns for reinforcing the top parts of columns, components called “kaerumata” (curved wood support that looks like spread frog legs) are provided between structures, the columns are thin and there are many examples of having relatively low ceilings, and turtle-shaped structure is often constructed under the floor (kamebara). A notable example of this type is Taimadera in Nara Prefecture.

Great Buddha Style (Toudaiyou)

This is a style largely influenced by China, from which said country a Buddhist scholar returned to Japan, The most famous example of this style is Toudaiji in Nara Prefecture (this is actually an entire complex, but the building (see the following picture) that houses the giant statue of Buddha was, at the time it was originally constructed, one of the largest structures on earth (I’ve been there many times, and I seem to remember reading that in some tourist pamphlet, so please don’t hold me to that; I will say, however, until you actually see this building, it is hard to do justice to how large this structure it is)).

Chinese Style (Karayo)

This style, also known as Zenshuuyou, was heavily influenced by a sect of Buddhism from China. A representative example of this school of architecture is Anraku-ji in Nagano.


Architectural Characteristics of all Buddhist Temples

Regardless of the style, there are certain features that distinguish Japanese Buddhist temples. To begin with, these are actually complexes, consisting of several buildings such as a main hall, a pagoda, dining, prayer, and sleeping facilities and the like. Many are surrounded by a large wall. Temples are often the site for festivals in the summer and, in addition to Shinto shrines (more below), many people visit Buddhist temples for Hatsumode (Hatsumode is the first visit to a Shinto shrine (or temple) of the year; an entire article could be written about this practice). Aside from these times, many Buddhist temples are surprisingly quiet, peaceful places. Many Buddhist temple complexes also have cemeteries located therein. Also, there is almost always a likeness of the Buddha located within the temple complex. Without being an expert myself, some of the more famous Buddhist temples in Japan Sensoji, Kamakura no Daibutsu, Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji in Kyoto. Heck, even in my neighborhood, there are probably several worth listing.


My favorite Buddhist temple

In an effort to shamelessly plug one of my own articles I wrote last year, I will shamelessly do so. My favorite temple is Gotokuji, located here in the Setagaya ward of Tokyo. As a brief summary, I quote myself:


The temple Gotokuji is located about 15 minutes from the station Gotokuji. This is a sprawling complex, consisting of a plurality of structures, monuments, a pagoda, and a graveyard. According to local legend, this temple is the birthplace of the ubiquitous “maneki neko” (more below). Indeed, as you walk around the Gotokuji neighborhood, this maneki neko is EVERYWHERE, and whether or not this character actually originates from Gotokuji, the Gotokuji neighborhood sure as hell makes the argument that this is the birthplace of maneki neko.


This really is a cool temple, and it is located close enough to Kyodo, Shimokitazawa, and Sangenjaya that you could easily fit a visit to this place into your day if you visit this area. Notable mention also goes to Myouryuu temple in Kanazawa, Ishikawa prefecture. Actually, this is perhaps my favorite temple, but since most people will never go to Kanazawa (which is a shame), I have to give it “honorable-mention” status. This place is known colloquially as “ninja temple.” It is REALLY COOL. The caretakers conduct tours every hour or so (you have to make a reservation). The place is swimming with secret passages, trapdoors, secret rooms, and all kinds of astounding structures. If you ever visit Kanazawa, YOU HAVE to visit this temple. They have all tour-related material in English as well, so you will have no trouble following along with the tour guide (who speaks all in Japanese).


Shinto Shrines

Shinto shrines, or jinja, are related to the religion Shintoism. As with temples, there are tens of thousands of these in Japan, with most neighborhoods having a shrine (there are several within walking distance of where I live). Without being an expert, a basic principle of Shintoism is that gods exist everywhere, in trees, in rocks, and each shrine is for a specific god, and many people will visit a shrine dedicated to studying or academic success if they have a big test, others will visit a shrine dedicated to health and well-being. A very famous Shinto shrine located in Chiyoda ward in Tokyo is Hie Jinja. Aside from being very old and housing priceless artifacts from antiquity, this shrine is also famous for those wanting to get pregnant and have children.


Structural Characteristics of Shinto Shrines


Shinto shrines are often characterized by Torii, or gates at the entrance (see the above picture). These are two pillars with two cross-beams running across the top. My favorite is Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, where a series of these gates (reddish/orange) continue for several kilometers into a nearby mountain. I’ve visited several times, but I have never actually walked all the way to the top.



These are statues of, I suppose you could call them dogs, that guard the entrance to many shrines. Interestingly, I used to live in a city called Komae here in Tokyo, which shares the same Chinese character with Komainu.



There are usually several structures on the grounds of a shrine. The Honden is the main or inner sanctuary, where the god (kami) of said shrine is believed to inhabit, and this place is closed off to the general public. The Haiden is the main prayer place that is open to the public. The Chozuya is small pavilion located near the entrance, where water and ladles are provided because before you enter the shrine, you must wash your hands and rinse out your mouth.



This is a large log that adorns the roof and that is perpendicular to a ridgepole of the shrine.


Stone Lanterns

There are a bunch of these on the grounds of the shrine.



An entire article could easily be written about this, and indeed, I suspect that in the winter, some one here at Guidable will indeed write an article about this. Hatsumode is a tradition in Japan when people visit a shrine (or sometimes a temple) for the first time for the year, usually on the first, second, or third of January. If you go to any famous shrine, or even a medium-sized shrine, you will wait for at least one hour in line. Every year, I do Hatsumode at Yasukuni shrine (more below), and on average, I wait for two hours to actually get to the Haiden. Hatsumode is a wonderful tradition. Usually, there is a festival going on outside the shrine, so after approaching the shrine and praying, you leave the grounds to drink, eat, and be merry. As for praying, once again, although I am no expert, here’s the basic flow: You wash you hands and mouth at the Chozuya, get into line, and wait your turn to get to the Haiden; then, you throw money (usually a few coins) into a donation box; then, you clap, bow, clap, and bow again (insofar as I’m a Christian, and I believe that praying in this manner might bring down umbrage from the man upstairs, I always donate money and then stand respectfully for several seconds to show respect).


My favorite shrine

My favorite shrine is Yasukuni shrine here in Tokyo. This shrine is actually quite notable (and quite controversial). The souls of those who died for the Japanese empire are interned here (millions of them, including some who were ex post facto deemed war criminals). For this reason, whenever a Japanese politician or prime minister visits this shrine, it is seen as tantamount to acknowledging the rightness of the Japanese imperial military regime, and the Chinese and Koreans go crazy. In my humble opinion, this is manufactured outrage on the part of the Chinese and Koreans. In the same way that misguided people in America are currently trying to tear down statues erected for the confederacy, the fact remains that a lot of people died, and denigrating their memories based on the politics of today, to me anyway, seems gross and in poor taste. In addition, on the grounds of this shrine, there is a military history museum that is definitely worth visiting. Also, several times a year, there are massive festivals that take place outside the shrine, and these festivals, with dozens of food booths, are really fun. In addition, this shrine is a short walk from the Imperial Palace, and especially during the cherry blossom season, this area of Tokyo is absolutely beautiful. Honorable mention also goes to Meiji-jingu, also in Tokyo (the station here is the same station (albeit different train lines) as Harajuku). The shrine and its grounds themselves are beautiful, and as an added bonus, this shrine is within walking distance of Yoyogi park, Shibuya, Harajuku, and Omete Sando (and the office of Guidable Japan).


I hope this article has given you, if nothing else, some travel destinations when you come to Japan.