Five-Storied Pagodas, c. 1910-30.

1910sArchitectureHistoric DistrictNotable LandmarkReligious
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“The Yasakanoto Pagoda” in the heart of the Gion District, Kyoto, c. 1920.

See also:
Sankeiyen, Yokohama, c. 1920.

“Pagodas in Japan are called (sometimes buttō, lit. Buddhist pagoda) or tōba and are historically derived from the Chinese pagoda, itself an interpretation of the Indian stupa, representing the five elements of the Universe: land, water, fire, wind and sky. Like the stupa, pagodas were originally used as reliquaries but in many cases they ended up losing this function.

An artistic rendition of the five-storied pagoda Yasaka Pagoda (aka “Tower of Yasaka”), Kyoto, c. 1950. This postcard-size print is a “key block” impression (the block from which the process of color print making begins, as a guide for the disposition of any other colors to be added) by woodblock artist Nenjiro Inagaki (1902-1963), also known as Toshijiro Inagaki, known primarily for designing textiles but who also became an important figure in the sōsaku-hanga (literally “creative prints”) movement of post-war years in Japan of which this is an example.

“In Japan, pagodas are quintessentially Buddhist and an important component of Buddhist temple compounds. But, until the ‘Kami and Buddhas Separation Act of 1868’ (making Shinto the State religion of Japan) prohibited the practice, a Shinto shrine could also be considered a Buddhist temple and vice-versa so it was not uncommon to see Buddhist pagodas erected at Shinto shrine sites or Shinto religious elements (e.g. inari kitsune [rice fox guardian] statues) located within temple precincts.

“Five-storied pagodas are earthquake-resistant (there has never been any record of the collapse of the five-storied tower due to an earthquake) because of the use of jyu-kozo in their construction o absorb the energy of an earthquake. Five-storied pagodas make use of five layers which act like overlapping blocks. But the inside structure is hollow; there are no stairs but only a central column or pillar that runs from the top to bottom called shinbashira (heart pillar). Each of the bottom four layers have no point of contact with this core pillar. Only the sourin, the spire that tops a Japanese pagoda, comes in contact with the shinbashira.

“Nowadays the jyu-kozo principle is also applied to modern skyscraper construction. The 2000+ ft. tall Tokyo Skytree broadcasting and observation tower in Sumida, Tokyo, the tallest tower in the world (and third tallest structure in the world), was erected using the jyu-kozo principle.”


Hōryū-ji, Nara

Hōryū-ji five-storied pagoda, Nara, c. 1910. The oldest extant five-storied pagoda in Japan is the Hōryū-ji pagoda at Nara, and was built some time during the Asuka period (538-710 CE).

“Hōryū-ji (法隆寺, Temple of the Flourishing Dharma) is a Buddhist temple that was once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples, in Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture, Japan. Its full name is Hōryū Gakumonji (法隆学問寺), or Learning Temple of the Flourishing Law, the complex serving as both a seminary and monastery.

“The temple was founded by Prince Shōtoku in 607, but according to the Nihon Shoki, in 670 all buildings were burned down by lightning. However, reconstructed at least 1,300 years ago, the Kondō (main hall) is widely recognized as the world’s oldest wooden building.

“Conservation work at the site began in 1895, but culminated in 1934, when a massive restoration project at Hōryū-ji began. The project was interrupted during the Second World War, when large portions of the temple itself were dismantled and hidden in the hills surrounding Nara. However, due to the policy of the United States of America regarding the preservation of cultural sites in Nara and Kyoto, the entire site was spared from bombings during the war. The restoration project resumed after the war and concluded in 1985. Much of the temple complex was repaired from centuries of environmental damage.

“A fire that broke out during the dismantling and repair of the Kondō on January 26, 1949 destroyed a mural of the Asuka period, a national treasure, and shocked the Japanese. Based on this accident, the day when the fire broke out is now fire prevention day for cultural properties.”


Five-Storied Pagoda, Asakusa (Tokyo)

Five-Storied Pagoda at Asakusa Park, c. 1910. First raised in the late 10th century, the pagoda – devoted to Kannon Bosatsu, the Goddess of Mercy – in this image was constructed ca. 1650 and reached 105 feet in height. Along with the other buildings in the Asakusa vicinity, the Five-Storied Pagoda was repeatedly lost to fire and subsequently rebuilt throughout the centuries. In 1911, it was declared a national treasure.

“Aside from Asakusa Senso-ji, the second-most prominent structure in the Asakusa temple area area is the 5-Storied Pagoda, originally located in the southeast corner of the temple grounds.

“The original pagoda is said to have been built in 942 A.D. In the Edo period under the Tokugawa shoguns the Five-story pagoda was regarded as one of the ‘Four Edo Pagodas’, along with the pagodas of Kan-eiji, Ikegami Honmonji, and Shiba Zojoji.

“Asakusa amusement center”, c. 1960. Illustrating the contrasting “pious and profane” nature of Asakusa district, a Theater Street cabaret is crowned by a likeness of the nearby five-storied pagoda at Asakusa Park.

“The Five-storied pagoda was destroyed in an air raid during World War II, and then rebuilt at a slightly location on the temple grounds. There is a stone monument now standing at the original site.

“The interior of the pagoda is off-limits to most people. But, three times a year, those who have applied for Eitai kuyo [a service to have a grave attended to by the temple, in perpetuity] and their families can enter the pagoda.

“At the bottom of the pagoda, there are rooms with the statue of the Buddhist deity of mercy, Kanzeon Bosatu. Buddha’s ashes, officially inherited from the Isurumuniya temple in Sri Lanka, are stored on the top floor of the pagoda.”


Five-Storied Pagoda, Nikko

Five-Storied Pagoda, Nikko, c. 1920. The unique spire atop a five-storied pagoda is called a sourin. It’s said that the origin was an umbrella placed on the top of the relics of Buddha protecting Buddha’s remains in the hot Indian climate. Each level of decoration represents a relic: hoju (sacred Buddhist shape), ryusha (dragon vehicle), suien (water flame), futaku (wind bell), kurin (nine rings), ukebana (receiving flower), fukubachi (inverted bowl), and the roban (external bowl). (Gift of J. Harper Brady Sr.)

“One of the best known pagodas from Japan is the five-storied pagoda located at the entrance of the Tōshōgū Shrine from Nikkō. The shrine was established in 1617 and the pagoda was built 33 years later as a donation of Tadakatsu Sakai, the governor of the city Obama (Fukui prefecture). However, the first pagoda burned in 1815 and the one we see today was rebuilt in 1818 by one of Tadakatsu Sakai’s descendants.

“With a height of 36 meters, the pagoda has no floors inside, having a pillar suspended from the 4th floor to 10 centimeters above the ground, an original anti-earthquake technique.”


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