To better understand traditional architecture in Japan, I direct the curious to the great Ise Jingu Shrine, Horyu-ji Temple, and Minka Farmhouses and Urban Machiya Townhouses. All four examples of architecture are not only iconic in terms of their physical presence in the landscape, but clearly reflect the cultural needs of the Japanese people in their daily lives.
Jingu - The Shrine

The great Shinto shrine of Ise is simply known as Jingu or The Shrine. Dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, Ise Shrine is Shinto's holiest and most important site. Located in Uji-tachi just south of Uji City proper in Mie Prefecture, Ise Shrine complex is a series of structures comprised of two main shrines called Naiku and Geku. The Inner Shrine or Naiku is dedicated exclusively to the workship of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu and the Outer Shrine or Geku is for the deity of agriculture and industry - Toyouke. Both shrines are considered the most sacred of all Shinto sites and access is severely restricted with the public given only a glimpse of the rooftops over the tall wooden fences surrounding the shrines. The responsibility for watching over this sacred place is exclusively given to a member of the Imperial Family.

The actual structure of Ise is elegant and simple with its steep pitched roof line with its signature forked finials pointing to the sky and elevated floor and verandas. This style of architecture is known as Shinmeizukuri and may not be used at any other Shinto shrine.

What is most remarkable about Ise Shrine is the planned destruction and rebuilding of the Naiku and Geku Shrines every 20 years. Shinto philosophy revolves around a central tenet that with the destruction and death of nature comes birth and renewal. The impermanence of the universe offers an opportunity and responsibility for one generation to pass the history and culture of Ise Shrine to future generations. The next such rebuilding is scheduled for 2013.




Courtyard Gardens & Kyoto's Merchant Houses

by Katsuhiko Mizuno
The Oldest Wooden Buildings on Earth from the Asuka Period (552-710)

While studying at Berkeley as an Asian Studies major, I enrolled in my first Japanese art history course with Professor Maribeth Graybill and fell in love with the subject matter from the moment I received the reading list. Not only was I going to study the art of Japan, but also the magnificent temples that serve as the repositories for most of the great sculptures and paintings of Japan. My passion for architecture would lead me on a journey of discovery from China to Korea and finally to Japan as I followed the influences over history. 

We can trace the early origins of Horyu-ji to 587 AD when Emperor Yomei ordered the construction of a Buddhist temple to help with the cure of his ailing health. A number of skilled craftsmen, carpenters, monks and designers came from Korea to the Yamato Court to help in the creation of the temple and to establish Buddhism as a new religion in Japan. 

In 1993 Horyu-ji Temple and the surrounding landscape was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple structures are some of the oldest extant wooden buildings in the world, dating from the 7th to 8th centuries. Many of the monuments are also National Treasures of Japan, and reflect an important age of Buddhist influence in Japan.

MINKA: Houses of the People
Farmhouses and Urban Machiya Townhouses

Minka come in all shapes and sizes depending on the plot of land, surrounding natural environment and the lifestyle of the residents, but there are two major classifications. The first is the farmhouse or noka which served as residences and meeting places for farmers and their rural family. Most farmers did not have the resources to import building materials, so the core noka structure was comprised of cheap and readily available materials like bamboo, wood, clay and a variety of local grasses. The second classification of minka is machiya or urban townhouse. Machiya residences were mainly built in downtown areas between the Edo Period (1603-1868) and the end of World War II (1945).  Most machiya residents also used their homes as places of business with a welcoming storefront and elevated reception area which served an integral part in the cultural fabric of the city. Most machiya were built exclusively of wood using a traditional Japanese building technique known as mokuzo jikugumi koho (wooden post-and-beam construction). Unlike noka, most machiya also had a second story which was used by the family for living and also for additional business storage. 

Japan is home to several "open air" museums showcasing Japanese architecture throughout history. For more information regarding these special destinations, I have provided what I consider to be the finest examples in Japan.

Open air museum for preserving and exhibiting Japanese architecture of the Meiji Period (1868-1912). This is the home of the former Imperial Hotel Tokyo Lobby designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Shikoku Mura (Takamatsu)
This lovely hillside park features numerous farmhouses and commercial buildings from the Edo to Taisho periods.
Nihon Minka-en (Kawasaki)
The museum just outside of Tokyo features 25 buildings from all over Japan from the 17th to 19th centuries.
Hida Folk Museum (Takayama)
The museum features the beautiful gassho-zukuri minka houses unique to this mountainous region of Japan.
Kakunodate, located in northern Japan near Akita, is home to one of the best preserved samurai residence neighborhoods in all of Japan. The city also boasts some of the most spectacular cherry blossoms during the spring season.
The old postal road Nakasendo is home to two historic towns - Tsumago and Magome. This is a walker/hiker paradise.

Photo Gassho-zukuri Farmhouse © Bernard Gagnon. All rights reserved. 2008
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