The pagoda has been one of the most recognizable forms of Japanese architecture throughout history. These unique temples have stood the test of time and are often used as tourist attractions today.
A Japanese pagoda is a square tower that is usually part of a monastery used by Buddhist monks. It served as a temple and housed sacred relics. Each of its levels, ascending, is slightly smaller than the last, resulting in a pyramid-like structure that is topped by a spire.
- Japanese pagodas are typically constructed from wood with interlocking beams and posts and a central column. The buildings are tall and slender and consist of five stories. The roofs boast wide overhangs, with clay tiles. Pagodas are extremely sturdy and are designed to absorb the movements of the earth, making them resistant to earthquakes and typhoons.
- Kyoto's Toji pagoda is one of the most famous in Japan. Kyoto's Hoshoji was an octagonal pagoda, and was the tallest structure in Japan at 83 meters (272.3 feet) until destroyed by fire in the 15th century during the Onin War.
- The pagoda was introduced to Japan from China, and was influenced by the Indian stupa. The Horyu-ji pagoda, near Nara, dates back to the late seventh century.
- The square shape symbolizes the earth. The center column is considered the "axle of the world" and the spire on top of the structure represents Buddha as master of the universe. Each level represents one of the five elements: wind, water, earth, fire and sky.
At 55 meters in height, the pagoda of Toji is the tallest such structure in Japan. It is far from the tallest pagoda ever built, however. The octagonal nine-story pagoda of Kyoto's Hoshoji was 83 meters tall, and the seven-story pagoda of Shokokuji, also in Kyoto, is said to have risen a full 108 meters. These towering structures, along with many other wooden pagodas built over the centuries, were destroyed by fire--generally either struck by lightning or caught in the crossfire of civil war.
Because of their wood construction, Japan's pagodas have always been extremely vulnerable to fire. At the same time, these tall, slender towers, built of interlocking posts and beams, are so resistant to earthquakes and typhoons that Japan's long architectural history records only a very few instances of their collapsing. Some 1,300 years after it was built, the five-story pagoda of Horyuji in Nara, recently added to UNESCO's "world heritage" list of cultural assets, shows not the slightest sign of instability.
Although built primarily of wood, pagodas are by no means lightweight structures. Like most traditional wood-frame architecture in Japan, they display wide eaves, giving considerable prominence to the tiled roof. If we compare the charming octagonal Yumedono, or "Dream Hall" of Horyuji with the octagonal pagoda of Fogongsi temple in China's Shansi Province, the difference is instructive: The eaves overhang of the Yumedono is 3 meters, more than one-fourth the building's total diameter of 11 meters. The pagoda of Fogongsi, which measures 29 meters across, has an overhang of only 2.5 meters--less than one-tenth the building's diameter.
The jutting eaves of Japan's wooden pagodas lend a powerful rhythm to their silhouette, but their purpose is by no means solely aesthetic.
A wide overhang means a larger roof relative to the rest of the structure. The large roof, consisting of clay and tiles laid on top of wood rafters, is extremely heavy. A heavy roof relative to the size of the building is one of the main characteristics of traditional Japanese wood architecture. With five such overhanging roofs, a five-story pagoda is a heavy structure indeed.
Why such pagodas, despite their height and weight, have remained upright and intact through numerous earthquakes and typhoons is something that no one has been able to explain satisfactorily from the standpoint of modern architectonics. This is because building science evolved in the West as a discipline dealing with the structural mechanics of rigid bodies, that is, buildings of stone, brick, or concrete. In the article that follows, architect Ueda Atsushi elucidates the ingenious techniques by which the Japanese of earlier times built their pagodas to withstand even the strongest winds and earthquakes.
Of course, high towers have been built in the West ever since the Middle Ages. In all cases, however, the material is masonry--stones or bricks joined to form a single mass of wall capable of withstanding this or that impact from without. In the case of Japan's wooden pagodas, however, each story is structurally independent.
Each story of the pagoda is basically a square box with no bottom, built around twelve outer pillars, or gawabashira. The pagoda as a whole is, in essence, five stacked boxes. Since each story is smaller than the one beneath it, the placement of the gawabashira moves inward as one proceeds up the pagoda, meaning that horizontal beams are needed to support the gawabashira of each story above the first. In fact, these pillars rest on horizontal bases, which in turn are supported by taruki--slanting beams that run from the inside of the structure diagonally downward to the outside, where they support the eaves.
The weight of the upper story, pushing down on the inner ends of the taruki, would cause the outer ends to rise if there were no counterweight. The heavy tiled roof of the eaves performs precisely this function. In short, the taruki functions as a lever arm, while the top of the gawabashira serves as the fulcrum.
The story above bears down on the inner end of the lever, and the overhanging roof balances this load at the outer end.Or, to put it another way, the heavy eaves are in effect supported by the story above. When one reaches the uppermost level, of course, there is no story above to counterbalance the overhang. Here, however, the tall copper or iron spire, or finial, performs that function. The finial of the Horyuji pagoda, we are told, weighs a full three tons.
Ueda explains in detail how this lever construction ensures that, during typhoons and earthquakes, pagodas swing and sway but almost never collapse. Built not to resist the forces of nature head-on but to accept and absorb their impact, pagodas epitomize the ingenuity of traditional Japanese wood architecture. This solution to the problem of structural stability could be said to manifest the Japanese approach to nature--not only to observe it carefully but also to learn from it and coexist harmoniously with it.