A guide to Japanese architecture

With its post-and-beam construction, Japanese architecture allows flexible use of interior space and dissolves the rigid boundary between indoors and outdoors.
Himeji Castle. Photo: Shutterstock
Himeji Castle. Photo: Shutterstock

What kind of house would one build in Japan if one knew it might be blown apart in a natural disaster? Besides typhoons and earthquakes, Japan also has severe rains, which often cause flooding and landslides. How would one make a palace or temple or hall, a farmhouse or a gate to survive such destructive forces? These questions had to be faced by the designers of buildings in Japan's remote past and are still faced today. 

The fact that Japan has the world's oldest wooden buildings (Horyu-ji, built about AD 607) and the world's largest wooden structure (at Todai-ji, some 50 metres/165ft high and said to have been rebuilt at only two-thirds its original size) suggests that the architectural system adopted by the Japanese was at least partially successful in creating structures that last. The devastation of the 1995 Kobe earthquake suggests otherwise. Indeed, rather than wind, earth or water, it is fire that is the greatest destroyer of buildings in Japan, although few buildings could have withstood the type of tsunami the world witnessed on 11 March 2011 along the devastated Tohoku coastline. 

Nonetheless, Japanese architecture has influenced architectural design throughout the world. Its concepts of fluidity, modularity, making the most of limited space, and use of light and shadow have a great power and appeal, both aesthetically and as solutions to architectural problems in contemporary times. 

Whatever factors determined how buildings were constructed in Japan, survival, tradition, aesthetics, some common characteristics can be found that define the tradition of Japanese architecture. 

The oldest Japanese dwellings are the pit houses of the Neolithic Jomon culture, but the oldest structures to which the term 'architecture' might be applied are the Grand Shrines of Ise. First completed in the 5th century, the shrines have been ritually rebuilt 60 times, every 20 years. Each rebuilding takes years to accomplish, starting with the cutting of special cypress trees deep in the mountains, and involves special carpentry techniques as well as time-honoured rituals. 

Early influences 

The introduction of Buddhism to Japan in AD 552 brought with it a whole raft of cultural and technical features, not least of which was the continental style of architecture. It is said that Korean builders came over to Japan and either built or supervised the building of the Horyu-ji (AD 607). The foundations of the vast temple that was the prototype of Horyu-ji can be seen in Kyongju, South Korea. 

In the 7th century, at the capital in Nara, Chinese architectural influence became quite obvious, not only in the structures themselves, but in the adoption of the north-south grid plan of the streets, based on the layout of the Chinese capital. At this time, secular and sacred architecture were essentially the same, and palaces were often rededicated as temples. Both displayed red-lacquered columns and green roofs with pronounced upswinging curves in the eaves. Roofs were tiled. 

The historical Horyu Ji at Nara: an incredible example of Japanese architectureThe historical Horyu Ji at Nara: an incredible example of Japanese architecture. Photo: Shutterstock

From the Heian Period to the Edo Period 

The mutability of residence and temple held true in the subsequent Heian Period as well, as evidenced by the villa of the nobleman Fujiwara no Yorimichi (992AD-1074), which became the Phoenix Hall of Byodo-in, in Uji near Kyoto. The graceful shinden-zukuri style of this structure, utilised for the residences of Heian court nobles, is characterised by rectangular structures in symmetrical arrangement and linked by long corridors. The layout of Kyoto's Old Imperial Palace is similar, though it is a replica of this style. 

When the imperial court at Kyoto lost the reins of power to the military government of the shogunate, located far to the west in Kamakura, the open and vulnerable shinden style was supplanted by a type of residential building more easily defended. This warrior style (bukke-zukuri) placed a number of rooms under one roof or a series of conjoined roofs and was surrounded by a defensive device such as a fence, wall or moat, with guard towers and gates. Tiled roofs gave way to either shingled or thatched roofs. This period also saw the importation of Chinese Song-dynasty architectural styles for temples, particularly the so-called Zen style, which is characterised by shingled roofs, pillars set on carved stone plinths, and the hidden roof system developed in Japan, among other features. 

In the subsequent Muromachi Period, which saw the purest expression of feudal government and its break-up into the Age of Warring States (15th century), Zen Buddhist influence transformed the warrior style into the shoin style. This at first was little more than the addition of a small reading or waiting room (shoin), with a deep sill that could be used as a desk, and decorative, built-in shelves to hold books or other objects. This room also displayed an alcove, the tokonoma, in which treasured objects could be effectively displayed. This shoin room eventually exerted its influence over the entire structure. Both the Golden Pavilion and the Silver Pavilion of Kyoto are examples of this style. 

At the end of the Age of Warring States, firearms became common in warfare, and in response to this, massive castles were built. Few original structures remain today. Himeji Castle, with white walls and soaring roof, is the finest example. Political change brought the country into the Edo Period, and architecture saw a melding of the shoin style and teahouse concepts to produce the sukiya style, the grandest example of which is the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto. This residential architecture displays an overall lightness of members, a simplified roof and restrained, subtle ornamentation. Visit the historic buildings of Kyoto on Insight Guides' Kyoto Culture trip.   

Fortified architecture 

Feudal-era castle towns were highly schematised. Revolving around the central fortress were merchant and shopkeepers quarters. The temple district was positioned in the southeast, close to the elegant villas and attached gardens of the samurai. In small rural cities like Hikone, Inuyama and Matsue, this architectural paradigm remains largely intact. A shift in castle design took place in 1579, when the warrior Oda Nobunaga chose a low hill with commanding views of the surrounding plains to build his towering, many-tiered donjon. Of the 12 original Japanese fortresses still in existence, and the countless replicas that have sprung up in the last century, most follow this template. 

To make wooden structures more durable, castles were built on top of colossal, cut boulders. Each level was reinforced with plaster and clay to defend it against fire and artillery. Overhanging gables lend elegant curves to the design, colourful pendants were hung from the eaves, and symbolic dolphin statues were placed on the roof to act as talismans against fire. 

Few Edo Period castles were destroyed in battle. Instead it took a more enlightened age to dismantle Japan's martial architecture. The new Meiji government, coming to power in 1868, demolished all but a handful of its citadels. Others were pulled down by local patriots, who saw them as symbols of feudalism. 

Byodo-in Buddhist templeByodo-in Buddhist temple. Photo: Shutterstock

A box with a hat 

The favoured material of building construction is wood. Walls, foundations of castles, the podia of some structures, and a few novel experiments saw stone in limited use, usually without mortar. Yet, undoubtedly because it was plentiful, wood remained the material of preference, particularly the wood of conifers. This is reflected in the reforestation laws of the shogunate and various feudal lords. The disappearance of certain types of large tree due to lumbering is reflected in certain historical changes in temple and shrine buildings. 

This preference for wood is directly related to the fact that the basic structural system in Japanese architecture is post and beam. The structure is basically a box upon which a hat, the roof, rests. This system allows great freedom in the design of the roof, and the Japanese seemed to prefer large ones, sometimes exceeding half the total height of a structure. Roofs also became elaborate, with generous eaves, and often very heavy. 

Straight lines dominate Japanese architecture, seemingly a natural result of using wood and the post-and-beam system. There are few curves and no arches. Post-and-beam boxes can also be combined and strung together in many ways to create fine aesthetic effects. The Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto represents the height of such architecture. Since posts or columns bear the weight of the roof, walls could be, and were, thin and non-supporting. This lightness was developed to the point that walls often ceased to be walls and became more like movable partitions instead. 

This is the origin of fluidity or modularity, perhaps the single most noteworthy aspect of Japanese buildings. Interior spaces were partitioned so that rooms could become more versatile, to be combined or contracted. The former was accomplished through the use of sliding and removable door panels. A room could be divided by decorative standing screens, especially ones with gold backgrounds to act as a reflective surface and bring light into gloomy castle or palace interiors. Corridor width was the necessary width for two people with serving trays to pass one another. 

Inside is outside 

The distinction between wall and door often disappears. This applies to outside walls, the 'boundary' between interior and exterior, as well. External walls are often nothing more than a series of sliding wooden panels that can be easily removed, thus eliminating the solid border between inside and outside, a feature very much welcomed in Japan's humid summer. The veranda thus becomes a transitional space, connecting interior with exterior. 

Since the floors of traditional Japanese buildings are generally raised, house floor and ground surface are not contiguous (except in the case of the packed-earth doma, the work and implement storage area of a farmhouse). In effect, this means that the indoor, outdoor fluidity is mainly visual and for circulation of air, not for movement of people. 

In rural areas, the veranda, when open, becomes a meeting place, to sit and talk with a neighbour. 

he Katsura Imperial Villa displays an example of Japanese interior deisng and architectureThe Katsura Imperial Villa displays an example of Japanese interior deisng and architecture. Photo: Shutterstock

Traditional materials 

The materials used in traditional Japanese room interiors are few and limited, reflecting an ambivalence between interior and exterior, or perhaps a pleasure in harmonising rather than sharply demarking interior and exterior. Sliding door panels are either translucent shoji or the heavier, opaque fusuma paper screens, or of wood. Floors are of thick, resilient straw mats surfaced with woven reed (tatami mats), or of plain wood. 

Supportive wooden posts remain exposed, and ceilings are generally of wood or of woven materials of various kinds. With the exception of lacquered surfaces, wood remains unpainted. 

Because of the generous eaves of Japanese buildings, interiors tend to be dark and often enough may be gloomy. The use of translucent paper shoji screens to diffuse soft light helps, but the soft, natural colours of the room materials generally absorb rather than reflect light. The colours, lighting and textures of traditional Japanese rooms influenced the qualities of all objects to be used in them, including clothing. 

Design principles 

The artistic unity or harmony of a building extends to its properties as well. Master carpenters, who were both the architects and the builders of traditional buildings, developed aesthetic proportions that applied to all elements of a single structure, as well as to individual buildings in a complex. There are special and sophisticated carpenter's measures that apply this system of aesthetic proportion to construction.

Teahouses show an awesome skill in building. Their lack of surface ornament, as seen in the rustic simplicity of unpainted wood, is itself a design statement, the signature of the skilled artisan. Visit Tokyo's teahouses on Insight Guides' Completely Japan trip. Historically, Japanese architecture shows a dialectic between imported and adapted continental styles (mainly from China, but some also from the Korean Peninsula) and native Japanese styles. 

Preservation ethic 

In Japan, natural disasters, an erosive climate, and a weak preservation ethic militate against architectural heritage. As Japan architecture scholar Mira Locher has written, 'Buildings were understood to be part of the changing environment rather than permanent fixtures'. Development is still taking its toll on Japan's architectural legacy, though an awakening preservation ethic is beginning to take root among citizen groups with an affection for older structures and a sense of the importance of visible history. 

The Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum in Musashi-Koganei is a collection of buildings and structures that have been saved from the wrecker's ball and collected inside a sympathetic setting in Koganei Park. 

Exhibits include the former homes of the Mitsui family, the important Meiji Period economist Korekiyo Takahashi, a Taisho-era bungalow from the garden suburb of Denenchofu, and a home designed in 1925 by the modernist architect Sutemi Horiguchi. Visitors can enter these homes and explore the rooms. Supplementing private residences are a photo studio, soy sauce and cosmetic shop, dry food store, and a number of intriguing urban features of the city, such as a fire observation tower, and even a Meiji-era police box that once stood at the entrance to Mansei Bridge. 

The museum is a fitting introduction to the historical architecture of the capital and to the design aspirations of two very different ages. 

The Abeno Harukas building in Osaka depicts the change in Japanese architecture from traditional to modern. The Abeno Harukas building in Osaka depicts the change in Japanese architecture from traditional to modern. Photo: Shutterstock

Into the future 

From the humble capsule hotel, a uniquely Japanese design that was not only based on space shuttle accommodation for astronauts but also the humble rental container, city architecture today is more ambitious. New structures like Tokyo Midtown, Design Sight 21_21, the Iceberg Tokyo Building, Keyaki Omotesando Building, Tokyo Sky Tree (the highest structure in the country, completed in 2012), Toranomon Hills, and Abeno Harukas in Osaka (the tallest skyscraper in Japan, opened in 2014), are the results of this experimentation. Marvel at the modern architecture in Tokyo on Insight Guides' Japan Cultural Discovery trip. The modern anti-earthquake technology that provides shock absorbers and floating plates for cutting edge projects like these and for the more utilitarian new office blocks and upmarket condominiums is only available to the very affluent, however. 

For the modernist, this is clearly a good time to be an architect in Japan. The country has the highest number of professional architects per capita in the world. After periods of hubris, showmanship and unlimited budgets, serious designers are in the ascendancy. Many of today's building projects are stand-out structures, designs of almost transcendental beauty and managed semantics in the midst of unconsidered construction sprawls. No ordinary structures, these are experiments by a distinguished group of designers to promote discourse on architecture. 

A prime example is the De Beers Ginza Building, where the undulating facade appears to be experiencing a dramatic mutation, not unlike the self-regenerating surfaces of Shinjuku buildings in William Gibson's science fiction novel Idoru, or the folding structures in the film Inception.

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