Introduction to the First Edition

In the very broadest terms, in this book I have attempted to provide a survey of the unique restoration work and new construction presently in progress at the 1,300-year-old Yakushiji temple in Nara, Japan. More specifically, my aim has been to chronicle the building of one new temple within that compound, the Picture Hall in the Sanzō-in subcompound. The entire project is being carried out under the direction of a remarkable eighty-year-old carpenter, Tsunekazu Nishioka. Part of a line of craftsmen extending back over a thousand years, Nishioka is one of the few master temple carpenters, or miya-daiku, remaining in Japan. Such miya-daiku specialize in the construction and repair of Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples, and in the case of Nishioka his attitude toward his work is deeply influenced by the philosophy of Buddhism. Without him, very likely this book would never have been undertaken, let alone the Yakushiji project itself.

The parameters of the book are shaped primarily by my personal observations of the Yakushiji reconstruction project over a three-year period from 1985 to the present, though my interest in temple architecture dates from the late 1970s when I was an undergraduate art student. This is not a history book, although history plays an important role; neither is it a “how-to” book, though I would be pleased if designers or carpenters found some inspiration in its descriptions and illustrations. It is an on the scenes account of a complex process of construction, reworked and digested for a lay audience. Since many readers, particularly those with a background in Western crafts or architecture, may be unfamiliar with the design, development, and atmosphere of Japanese temples, I will begin with a few general comments.

Temples of Buddhism

A Buddhist temple can be considered a physical model of the abstract philosophy of Buddhism. It is an architectural composition intended to provide a physical and sensual experience conducive to the mental and spiritual experience of the Buddhist faith, with virtually every element designed for both sensual and symbolic value. Admittedly, this relationship is by no means unique to Buddhist temples. Cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, Hindu temples, Stonehenge, Mayan pyramids, and the kivas of the American Southwest, for instance, are in each case both extraordinary physical experiences as well as models of a particular cosmology. The uniqueness of Buddhist temples, however, is a function of the way in which the development and spread of Buddhism throughout Asia engendered cumulative architectural change. Thus, one can find Buddhist temples that share the same underlying conceptual basis but are nonetheless distinctly Indian, Thai, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese in form and detail.

What then, one may ask, is a Japanese temple? Let me first state that it should be distinguished from a shrine, that is, a Shintō religious structure, although the two may often look quite similar. Second, Japanese temples are almost invariably made of wood, in contrast to Indian and certain Chinese varieties; and they usually, but not always, consist of more than one building, with major structures being considerably larger than the average house. They can be found in the middle of fields and in the mountains; on islands or hemmed in by skyscrapers; pristine or in ruins; gaudy or severe; deserted or thronged with tourists; and, perhaps lastly, contemporary in appearance or more or less ancient in form. And yet, despite this variety, some might agree with a casual acquaintance of mine who remarked, as our train passed through the outskirts of Nara, “You know, the thing about these temples is that they all look alike.”

Temples may look alike to some degree, but only to the extent that operas or sailboats or plates of pasta look alike. If one is looking for general similarities, they can be found in abundance. If one is alert to differences, there is an unfathomable richness of variety and refinement. It entirely depends on the eye of the observer.

Buddhist architecture came into being as a towerlike tomb in India called a stupa, which was built to enshrine the cremated remains of the historical Buddha, Gautama Shakyamuni, who is said to have lived in the sixth century BC. It set an important precedent. While the objects of worship were actually the relics hidden deep within, the tower itself became the visible object of devotion, a representation of the Buddha. Its structural configuration and decorations were designed to illustrate certain aspects of Buddhist belief, such as “upward development,” “the earth,” “the elements,” “cycles of being,” and others. Buddhist sculpture appeared shortly thereafter, strongly influenced by the arrival of Alexander the Great’s armies in the Gandara region (now in Pakistan) in the fourth century v. Craftsmen traveling with these armies introduced Hellenistic styles of figurative sculpture, particularly the standing pose, which seems to have been modified slightly and adopted in Buddhist images. The recorded teachings of the Buddha, known as sutras, were collected and copied in Sanskrit and Pali, the primary languages of the region, along with monastic rules and commentary. Thus, by about 100 BC, three primary means of dissemination of the Buddhist faith had arisen: architecture, fine art, and writing.

Buddhism spread to China in AD 64 by way of central Asia, with important schools being established in Tibet as a sort of midway point. Chinese civilization had already experienced centuries of a high level of development and boasted a sophisticated imperial and bureaucratic architecture. These existing forms were adapted for Buddhist use, usually through the inclusion of Buddhist images and decorative details derived from Indian prototypes. The “stacked umbrellas” which crowned the stupa evolved into the pagoda, a wooden or masonry tower with several roofs, and temple layouts were gradually standardized. Distinctively Chinese sculpture and painting appeared about the same time.

The Korean peninsula in the early centuries AD was divided into several rival kingdoms, all of which maintained varying degrees of contact with and dependence upon the central Chinese authority. One such kingdom, called Koguryo, accepted Buddhism in AD 372, followed by the Paekche kingdom in 384 and Silla in 528. Paekche introduced Buddhism to Japan in 538 (some scholars say 552), when it presented the Japanese ruler with a gilt-bronze statue and a scroll of sutras. The first Korean Buddhist temple carpenter crossed the strait to Japan in AD 577, thereby inaugurating the tradition of Japanese Buddhist architecture.

When thinking about the history and culture of Japan, one must always bear in mind its isolation from the Asian mainland and the unusual cultural relationships that this separation generated, particularly with respect to the Korean peninsula. The strait which divides Japan from the continent often proved a great barrier to migration and the dissemination of ideas, with the result that the technological development occurred at a different pace compared to the rest of Asia or to the Mediterranean basin. Nevertheless, several large waves of migration into Japan during the preliterate period resulted in striking technological leaps.

The inhabitants of Japan during the Paleolithic (Jomon) and Neolithic (Yayoi) periods built homes and other structures out of wood. Jomon people (1000–300 BC) knew only stone tools, did not use what we would consider wooden joints, and did not have much in the way of specialized architecture, although remains of some very large structures have been unearthed. The Yayoi period (300 BC–ad 300) is extremely interesting in that it began with stone technology but witnessed the rapid transition to metal tools introduced from Korea, bronze and iron appearing almost simultaneously. Rice agriculture was also introduced at the beginning of this period, and raised granaries and other building types which required better woodworking tools were built. Nevertheless, stone cutting tools continued to be used in some contexts in Japan until about AD 300.

Unified government, Shintō shrines, and monumental earthwork tombs arose around AD 350, during what was still a preliterate phase that lasted until the arrival of the scroll and statue from Korea in 538. This evolution, of course, did not occur evenly throughout the archipelago, but by the end of the Asuka period in 661 it is estimated that there were some fifty Buddhist sanctuaries in Japan, scattered from northern Kyushu to the central part of the island of Honshu (the western part of present-day Aichi prefecture).

Figure 10 Map of the early Japanese capitals:
1. Naniwa (645–67); 2.Ltsu (667–72);
3. Kiyomihara (672–94); 4. Fujiwara (694–710);
5. Heijō [Nara] (710–84); 6). Nagaoka (784–94);
7. Heian [Kyoto] (794–1868).

The continental architecture introduced along with Buddhism possessed several features that were radically new. The Japanese had until then sunk pillars directly into the ground; Chinese and Korean builders set them atop foundation stones and stone-faced podia. The connections between columns, beams, and rafters, which the Japanese had kept as simple as possible—on smaller structures often merely bound with rope—were replaced by intricate structural bracketing systems. Eaves and other major structural lines, which were usually straight in early Japanese shrines, now took on the typically “Oriental” upswept curve. Roofing tiles made their first appearance, although indigenous thatch and shingle remained in frequent use. And lastly, whereas the Japanese had used only bare wood surfaces, the Koreans and Chinese demonstrated the use of floridly painted wooden members and decorative gilt fittings. We can only imagine how dazzling the new temples must have looked to an average Japanese villager of this period, entering a new Chinese-style capital for the first time and being confronted with the spectacle of polychrome spires and vast tile-covered roofs extending in an uninterrupted vista to the horizon. The experience must have been awe-inducing, an unsettling but intriguing “future shock.”

The building types introduced by the Korean carpenters at the beginning of the ancient period were of two major types: the pagoda, or tower (still housing in its base the nominal relics of the Buddha), and the so-called “golden hall” (housing the temple’s most important paintings and statues of the Buddha). These buildings were surrounded by a roofed corridor or cloister with a prominent gate, and included several other buildings. As mentioned above, the earliest temples were all built in the area of present-day Nara, in or near one of the capital cities (Fig. 10). These earliest temples, which include Asuka-dera and Shitennōji, followed the strict symmetrical layout of their Chinese and Korean prototypes. Although varying in detail, they were all composed to emphasize the soaring pagoda, a means of indicating that the relics of the Buddha in its base were considered more important than his statue housed in the golden hall.

Even at this early period, however, the Japanese seemed to favor asymmetrical compositions, and before long temples were built to suit this preference. Among the most notable is Hōryūji, established in AD 607 by Prince Shōtoku, the figure credited with unifying the Japanese government under one imperial house, partly by encouraging the universal adoption of Buddhism. The present Hōryūji, whose central precinct contains the oldest wooden buildings in the world, dates from AD 670, when it was rebuilt after a fire. Despite the widespread approval with which the pleasingly dynamic design of Hōryūji was met, Japan did not completely abandon the symmetrical principle of continental temple layout.

Yakushiji temple, the subject of this book, was erected in 718 (Figs. 11, 23, 24). It marked a stunning recurrence of the symmetrical composition of the Chinese prototypes, including two 30-meter-high pagodas that flanked and set off the Golden Hall, an arrangement which may reflect an increase in image worship versus reverence for relics. Only the West Pagoda contained relics, so the East Pagoda seems to have been intended primarily as an aesthetic element. Yakushiji was destroyed by fire during the late middle ages, but the East Pagoda survives to this day intact. In large part, it has served as the basis for the complete restoration and reconstruction of Yakushiji currently in progress.

Figure 11 Yakushiji main compound as seen from the southwest in 1987. The reconstructed West Pagoda is in the center, the 1,300-year-old East Pagoda to the right, and the reconstructed Golden Hall to the left.

From these beginnings, Buddhist architecture in Japan proliferated in a complex evolutionary process, often difficult even for specialists to unravel. New sects, new building sites, shifting patronage, and technological development (as well as occasional regression) have all contributed to the diversity of building types and details, of scale and experience. And yet, in terms of religious experience, certain factors seem to have remained fairly constant.

Regardless of the specific design, a Japanese Buddhist temple essentially provides a setting for contemplation and prayer, usually in the presence of religious paintings or sculpture. “Good deeds” in the form of offerings of money, incense, and food are performed according to prescribed rituals, and there is usually an area set aside for rest and refreshment. Passage through a temple is a kind of ritual in itself, a process of crossing through successive gates, penetrating deeper and deeper into the temple sanctuary. Temple buildings are almost always set apart on raised platforms which require the ascent of several steps before reaching the doorway. Doors are generally massive with a large sill which must be deliberately stepped over; the size of the doors is partly due to the absence of windows to admit light (although this depends on the specific building). A large sand-filled brazier is usually set before the doorway so that visitors may burn a stick of incense before entering, a form of purification. The difference in light levels between inside and outside, one of the most striking features of most temples, is intentional. Due to the broad eaves and relatively small openings for lighting, almost all the light that penetrates the interior is what has been reflected upward from the ground. The effect of this dim light, magnified in effect as it strikes the delicate gilt statuary and fittings, together with the incense-laden air, is moving and mysterious (Fig. 12). When one realizes that this type of atmosphere has survived essentially unchanged from antiquity, the sense of continuity with the past can be profound. This psychological effect arises from an environment that stimulates all of our senses: the coolness of the interior, its dimness and muffled acoustics, the mingled aromas of candle wax and incense, and an almost palpable memory of the tastes of tea, rice cakes, and small temple sweets. That such surroundings are highly evocative of the hope and despair of countless generations and their striving for purity is not incidental. It represents, rather, millennia of refinement and evolution in design, wherein the most profound aspects have been retained and the rest modified slowly over time. It was probably this overall consistency that caused the fellow I encountered on the train in Nara to remark, “They all look the same.”

Figure 12 The quiet harmony of black lacquer, gilt, and fresh flowers in the dimly lit interior of the Yakushiji Golden Hall.

An Unlikely Apprentice

It is not often that a new temple building—to say nothing of a large complex—is built in the “old way” in Japan today. I feel truly fortunate to have had the opportunity to observe such an undertaking close at hand, something which would have been impossible without the permission of master carpenter Nishioka. At the outset, there was no book planned. I approached Nishioka—after a long, labyrinthine process of leads, dead ends, and introductions to people who might obtain introductions to others who might be able to get me an appointment with the master himself—as an awkward American youth with an interest in Japanese carpentry, clutching a handful of slides of my own timber framing work in New England. On learning of my hope to return later to Japan to study more about its wooden architecture, Nishioka offered to take me on as an apprentice. I was shocked, to put it mildly; more shocked, in fact, than flattered, for I knew even then that an apprenticeship, if it was to be worthwhile, should last at least seven years. I doubted I could afford to spend so long in Nara. Besides, absolute obedience is not one of my stronger points.

Despite my refusal of his generous offer, Nishioka helped me receive a grant from the Japanese Ministry of Education for study and research as a graduate student in the architecture department of the University of Tokyo. In addition, he gave me carte blanche to roam around the workshops and construction sites and take photographs. Most significantly, he frequently took time out to answer my questions (which, I fear, served primarily to reveal the true dimensions of my ignorance). I say “answer” my questions, which is perhaps true of the simpler ones about names, dates, terms, and so on, but for the more probing questions—those concerning the “whys” of his motivation and the “hows” of his work—while I usually received something by way of reply, I never got “answers.” His responses were almost invariably in the form of subtle hints that I was not being observant enough.

Learning to Observe

In order to know what should be built, Nishioka seemed to say, it was first necessary to observe what already existed. What was worth preserving? What sense, what atmosphere, should be duplicated in a new construction? It is possible for a code or formula to be followed to the letter and yet result in a work devoid of life, inert. This is the crucible of tradition: not formulae, but innate sense; not “design,” but patterns of action and use. Only these can lead to the preservation of those fragile constructs we call “culture.”

In this light, then, what is a temple? Going beyond the religious symbolism that the form and layout represent, in a diagrammatic sense a temple must above all be a familiar and evocative part of an ancient continuum that includes the labor and intentions of those who built it. This is what Nishioka and those who share his goals are attempting: to extend that continuum another generation through their sincerest efforts, guided by a sure awareness of what has gone before.

Watching this work for the first time is mystifying and perplexing: every action contains an implicit connection with other, unseen actions, a fact which is reflected in the actual configuration of the components. Some have slots, others tenons, and yet others indescribable curves, baffling even to an analytical mind. In fact, every part, if not itself curved, is part of some greater curve, and fits neatly into, onto, or around one, if not several other parts. And yet the carpenter’s sole guide, as he negotiates his way through his assigned tasks, is the information provided him in the form of templates and shop drawings. Only one person possesses all the information about the temple being built, including future stages of the work, and that person is the master temple builder, Tsunekazu Nishioka. The carpenters working under him must concentrate solely on the job at hand, following instructions. Observation is vital, but wagging one’s tongue with “whys” and “whens” is considered not only bad form but a waste of time as well.

When this particular building, the Yakushiji Sanzō-in Picture Hall, was finally erected, mostly within a six-month period, most of my questions were graphically and demonstrably answered. The parts literally fell into place. A building, especially a wooden one, is primarily a skeletal framework that illustrates structural forces, which is generated by desired patterns of human use and occupation. The placement of columns, for instance, depends upon where people need shelter for standing, sitting, or moving, and the size of the parts depends primarily upon how large the whole is desired to be: big buildings almost always require big parts. In a temple, size, or scale, may be considered a “symbolic function,” as can many details of its configuration. The nature of the materials must also be taken into account: their properties and limitations, their grain and cellular structure. These factors, along with the physical and mental abilities of the builders, as well as cultural influence, dictate how the components will be joined to one another. The physical form of a temple like Yakushiji is the result of the interaction of a myriad patterns, some physical, some abstract, but all connected, a vast, emotionally laden webwork of decisions.

The fabrication of the parts of the temple is often enigmatic, and raises dozens of questions that can only be answered by closely observing the construction process itself. But this brings its own frustrations, for many components are combined into beautiful new structures only to be obscured by successive additions, and often totally concealed in the end. The wood joints, for instance, are very beautiful in their naked, unassembled state, but once “activated” by being put together, they often become invisible, leaving only a subtle line showing on the surface which fails to suggest the topological complexity of what is hidden inside. The roof structure, also remarkable in its layers and interconnections, is largely concealed, in deference to an aesthetic tradition which calls for an illusion of effortless structural support. And yet, it is all very satisfying in the end: intricate conformations ultimately fulfill themselves, pieces slip into allotted slots, craftsmen accomplish their appointed tasks, and move on.