All About Japanese Architecture

All about Japanese architecture and examples of Japanese architecture. We will discuss Japanese architecture houses, Japanese architecture Jomon art, and traditional Japanese architecture history. And we will answer questions like where did Japanese architecture originated ?

Architectural Imagery for a Class-Structured State in Japan c.1500 – c.1890

Japan (and its architecture) went through many changes from around 1500 to 1890. Starting in approximately 1550, Japan developed several “units,” each with its own political powers. These units were called domains and were overseen by leaders known as daimyo, the Japanese word for “lords.” Each lord ruled with the help of warriors known as samurai. Many leaders built palaces and other large structures as demonstrations of their power.

The most powerful leader, however, was Tokugawa Ieyasu, who became a daimyo in 1600. He set up his own federal government in Edo, and the time of his rule was known as the “Tokugawa Period.” During this time, Japan was in a peaceful state and kept to itself. That all ended in 1860, however, when national leadership went into effect and thoroughly westernized Japan.

Japanese Architecture: Kyoto Imperial Palace

The Kyoto Imperial Palace was first built in 794, and unfortunately, the version of it that stands today is a mere recreation, having been built in 1855 and restored in 1877. However, the palace does have great historical significance because it was once the ruling palace of Japan’s emperors until 1869. Furthermore, the newer version of the palace was intended to closely resemble the original version, so some lessons about past architecture can definitely be taken from it.

The palace sits in a large enclosure along with the gardens of the Sento Imperial Palace. The area is heavily walled because, at the time, high court nobles tended to live in close proximity to one another, and the walls were designed to provide some degree of privacy.

Many once-important buildings still remain onsite, including the Shishinden, which was the hall once used for important ceremonies, including the enthronements of Emperor Taisho and Emperor Showa. The large hall features a gabled, hipped roof, a long central hallway, a central throne, and, at the exterior, a white gravel garden that was used in the enthronement ceremonies.

The Seiro-den, which was the original residence for the emperor, also remains onsite. This building, like the Shishinden, has a hipped, gabled roof. It is constructed from cypress wood and features a resting area, originally used for the Emperor, two other areas once reserved for dignitaries and aristocrats, and a sleeping chamber once used by the Emperor. Later, the Otsune-goten, which also remains onsite, would be used as the Emperor’s residence.

Yet another notable building is the Ko-gosho. Like the Shishinden, it was used in important ceremonies. It is one of the more unique and noticeable structures on the grounds and blends both shinden zukuri and shoin zukuri architecture.

Japanese Architecture: Katsura Villa

The Katsura Villa, which is also known as the Katsura Imperial Villa and the Katsura Detached Palace, took many years to construct. Construction started in 1620 and would continue through 1663. Apparently, the long construction time was worth the effort because the building is now considered one of Japan’s most important structures, and the many onsite buildings are considered to be some of the country’s greatest architectural achievements. Surrounded by gardens, the villa was once home to the princes of the Hachijō-no-miya family and, architecturally, is typical of other princes’ villas built at that time; however, the Katsura Villa is one of the few remaining villas built for that purpose.

One of the most notable features of the villa is its four (there were five originally) tea houses, which were heavily influenced by the country’s devotion to Zen Buddhism. Tea houses were, at the time of construction, a necessity for almost any building because tea ceremonies were held frequently and were a part of representing detached perfection in Zen Buddhism. Many qualities that are admired by followers of Zen Buddhism and that are incorporated into the tea ceremony, such as purity and isolation, were incorporated into the design of the tea houses. Each tea house is separated from all other structures and is built from natural materials, including bark and wood. Inside, the teahouses feature eye-level windows, built to allow one to commune with nature during the ceremony.

One of the most important buildings on site is the Old Shoin, built by Prince Toshihito. The structure features several rooms, and each room has a ceiling supported by wood boards. One room has a veranda, constructed mainly in the Sukiya style, that features a bamboo stargazing deck.
The Middle Shoin is less open, featuring an L-shaped design, and once served as the prince’s residence. Staggered shelves line one end of the structure, and the entire room is accentuated with ink landscape paintings. This building also features a veranda, which provides a view of the garden.

Similar to many of the structures at the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the Katsura Villa’s “New Palace” has a hipped, gabled roof. Like the other two structures onsite, it also features a veranda, though this one is enclosed with wooden shutters. Other notable architectural features include a coffered ceiling and an alcove, as well as many intricately designed rooms, including a bedroom, a dressing room, a washroom, a pantry, and a wardrobe.

Onsite, there is also a Geppa-rō or “Moon Wave Tower,” which provides a sweeping view of the pond and has a unique exposed ceiling and roof.  The underside of the roof is heavily decorated. A less unique structure, known as the “Pine Lute Pavilion” is situated nearby.

Japanese Architecture: Hideyoshi’s Castle, Osaka

Hideyoshi’s Castle, also known as Osaka Castle, was built in 1583, by Japanese ruler Hideyoshi Toyotomi. The castle’s main tower is situated upon two raised landfill platforms and features sheer walls, which overlook moats. The main castle features multiple stories and has a strong, stone foundation, designed for protection during attacks. The sturdy construction which allowed the castle to withstand all kinds of invasions and attacks is also the reason why the castle and its impressive fifteen acres of land are still standing today.

Originally, the castle was intended to closely mirror the Azuchi Castle, though Hideyoshi wanted to make his own castle better in every possible way. His original plans for the castle were grandiose and included towers featuring gold leaf on their sides.

When Hideyoshi died in 1587, he passed the castle onto his son, Toyotomi Hideyori. Hideyori didn’t keep the castle for long, however, losing it in 1615 to Tokugawa Hidetata. Hidetata had his own plans for Osaka and added the elevated tower and walls made from granite boulders.

Fire damaged the castle twice, but, each time, it was reconstructed and still stands in close to its original form today.

Japanese Architecture: Nikko

Unlike the other sites on our list, Nikko isn’t just one particular place. Rather, it’s an entire city with many architectural landmarks and achievements throughout. The city, located in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, is home to such celebrated architectural structures as the mausoleum of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, the mausoleum of Iemitsu, and the Futarasan Shrine, among others.

Few people realize the full expansiveness of Nikko. It is home to 103 temples, shrines, and other important structures. While each structure is quite remarkable in its own way, some of the notable architectural features used for different buildings include gates, roofed walls, arched bridges, roofed cloisters, storied pagodas, stone walls, and elaborate worship halls.

Also in Nikko is Rinnō-ji, an area that features fifteen Buddhist temples, all of them impressive and some standing since 766. One particular building, known as the “Three Buddha Hall” is especially well known for the gold-leaf sculptures it contains.

The Futarasan Shrine, mentioned above, is probably one of the most stunning sites in Nikko. Many would also consider it one of the most important, since it is home to two of Japan’s certified national treasures—two ancient swords. Architecturally speaking, however, the shrine’s “Sacred Bridge” is even more impressive than the shrine itself. The bridge, which crosses the Daiay River, features a vermillion lacquered design and is 28 meters long. The bridge is considered one of the most beautiful in all of Japan.

While most people wouldn’t consider gardens to be architectural structures, the on-site Shōyō-en Garden certainly qualifies. Having been constructed in the Edo period and restored near the turn of the 19th century, the garden has interesting architectural features, including stone lanterns, a tea house, several brides, a pagoda, and fences made from bamboo.

Japanese Architecture: Toyonaka Field Museum

Nestled in the heart of Toyonaka, the Hattori Ryokuchi Park is home to an architectural museum. The museum, often referred to as the “Field Museum” or the “Open Air Museum of Old Japanese Farmhouses” is exactly what the second name implies. The museum features many farmhouses dating back from ancient times all the way on up to the present day.

Farmhouses on display include a Namub-Magariya house and an Amami-Takakura house, both built in the Edo period. Those who long for more after leaving the museum can visit Osaka’s Museum of Housing and Living. Though not in the park, the museum is impressive, offering a large-scale and historically accurate recreation of what Oska looked like in the Edo period. In fact, both museums provide a quick way for visitors to see just how much Japanese architecture has changed and is still changing today.

More reading about Japanese Architecture: History of Traditional Japanese Architecture


Architecture History: