Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Japan

Architecture of Buddhist Temples in Japan: An Amalgamation of Chinese Styles and Japanese Variants

Japanese Buddhist temples are famous for their unique architectural style, stunning statues and tranquil grounds. Almost every municipality in Japan has at least one temple, while large cultural centres have hundreds of them. The temples hold and display sacred Buddhist objects.

The architecture of Buddhist temples in Japan is an amalgamation of Chinese architectural styles and locally developed variants. When Buddhism first arrived in Japan in the 6th century via Korea, construction of the temples was such that it faithfully mimicked the original buildings in China. But gradually, local influence led to changes. The architecture was altered both to meet Japanese tastes and to resolve the problems brought on by local weather (which was more rainy and humid than in China.)

Buddhism and its influence on temple architecture

The first Buddhist sects (divisions) were Nara’s six Nanto Rokushū (Nara six sects), which were followed by Kyoto’s Shingon and Tendai during the Heian period. Later, when the Kamakura period arrived, the Jōdo and the native Japanese sect Nichiren-shū were born in Kamakura. It was roughly around the same time that Zen Buddhism arrived from China. It strongly influenced all the other sects in numerous ways, architecture included. Over time, the social composition of the followers of Buddhism evolved too. Initially, it was the elite classes’ religion, then gradually it spread from the nobles to the warriors and samurais, then to the merchants and finally, to the general population. On the technical side, advancements in woodworking tools have also led to new architectural solutions.

Oomatono Tsunoten Shinto Shrine in Inagi, Tokyo
Oomatono Tsunoten Shinto Shrine in Inagi, Tokyo. Credit@ Wikimedia commons

Basic characteristics exist between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and only differ in minor details that only a specialist can identify. This is because the sharp division between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples came into existence only around two centuries back. During the Meiji period, a policy came to be in 1868 that separated Buddhism and Shinto. Before the Meiji Restoration, Buddhist temples were commonly built inside or next to shrines or shrines to have Buddhist sub-temples. Shrines housing Buddhist temples were called jingū-Ji (shrine temple). Temples in Japan used to adopt a tutelary kami (patron spirit that protects a given area) and construct shrines within their grounds to house the spirit. When the policy came to separate the two religions, it officially severed the connection between the two religions and all the temples and shrines were separated.

The architecture of Buddhist temples in Japan is a result of incorporating the best available natural and human resources. This is especially seen during the period between the 8th and 16th centuries when new structural and ornamental features were developed.

General features of Japanese Buddhist temples

As mentioned before, the initial architecture of Japanese Buddhist temples isn’t native. It came from China and other Asian cultures over the course of hundreds of years. The styles that arrived so were faithfully mimicked, thus representing the building styles of all the six dynasties. Thus, the history of architecture is dominated by Chinese and other Asian styles on one hand and Japanese original variants on the other.

The Main Hall at Kongochoji Temple
The Main Hall at Kongochoji Temple. credit@ Japan visitor

The other two factors that influenced Japanese architecture were the variety of climates in the country and the cultures that were born over the years. As a result, temple structures and architecture became extremely heterogeneous, but many universal features remained in the temples. The choice of materials was always wood in its various forms (such as straw, tree bark, planks) for almost all the structures. The use of stone is avoided as much as possible, except for specific uses like the temple podia and pagoda foundations. The general structure remains the same- pillars and beams support a huge and gently curved roof, the walls are paper-thin and often movable, with the absence of arches or barrel roofs.

The roof is always the most impressive component of the building. It often constitutes half the size of the whole structure. The curved eaves always extend beyond the walls and cover the verandas. Therefore, the weight of the eaves must be supported by an elaborate bracket system called tokyō. Inside the temple, there is usually a single room in the middle (called moya) and from which other less prominent spaces depart, like the corridors (called Hisashi.) Inner space divisions and room sizes are changeable through the use of movable paper walls or screens. Therefore, the huge single space of the main hall can be modified according to the need. Since entire walls can be removed, there is no clear distinction or separation between the interior and exterior of the temple. For an outsider, the verandas seem like they are part of the building, but they seem to be part of an external structure for someone who’s inside the temple. The proportions between different parts of the temple are kept constant, thus preserving an overall harmony.



Buddhism arrived in Japan in the wake of the Battle of Shigisan in 587 and temples began to be constructed afterwards. However, when Buddhism was first introduced to the country, it faced hostility from the supporters of the local kami beliefs. As a result, no Buddhist temple that was built during that period survived, so the exact structure of the temple remains unknown. However, details in the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan; the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history) show that an architect, an image-maker from Paekche (one of the three kingdoms Korea was divided into before 660) and six Buddhist priests came to the country to advise the Japanese on the organization of monastic buildings.

Kondo (left), and Pagoda (right).
Kondo (left), and Pagoda (right). Credit@ Wikipedia

During the period, the layout for the temple was strictly prescribed according to the mainland styles. The main gate faced south, while the most sacred area was surrounded by a semi-enclosed roofed corridor (called kairō) which could be accessed through a middle gate (called chūmon). The sacred area consisted of the main hall (kon-dō) and a pagoda, which served the function of a reliquary for holding sacred objects. The complex may have other extensions, like a lecture hall (kō-dō), a sūtra repository or kyōzō (A building in which sutras and other Buddhist scriptures are stored), a belfry (shōrō) and the priests and monks’ quarters. The temple is composed of seven halls known as shichidō garan or ‘seven hall temple.’ In Japan, the first Buddhist temple, Hōkō-Ji, was built by Soga no Umako between 588 and 596. Later, it was renamed as Asuka-dera after the name of the capital of Japan during the Asuka period.

Chinese principles

Buddhism and the construction of temples started in the capital of the country and then spread to the outlying areas during the Hakuhō period from 645 to 710. Many of the temples were constructed in locations that were favoured by the principles of Chinese geomancy. All the natural elements surrounding the area played an important role, like the groups of trees, ponds, mountains and other geographic features. The Chinese school of thought grouped many natural phenomena into five categories and this principle was important for the building of temples. The five elements principle also serves as the basis for the gorintō, a common stone stupa. The gorintō is made of five sections (a sphere, a cube, a pyramid, a crescent and a lotus-shaped cusp) and they stand for each of the five elements.

The five-storeyed pagoda of the Kohfukuji temple
The five-storeyed pagoda of the Kohfukuji temple. credit@

Apart from the five elements theory, Chinese numerology also played a vital role. Principles of the Ying-Yang school were applied. Yang represented the sun, warmth, odd numbers and maleness, while Yin represented the opposites. In the case of buildings, halls were built in odd numbers because they were believed to be Yang. Due to Yang, odd numbers were believed to be lucky and Buddhism itself shows a preference for odd numbers. If the pagoda has several storeys, the number of storeys is almost always odd. Pagodas can be made of either stone or wood, and practically all wooden ones have both three or five storeys.

Few of these temples built during the ancient period survived. Fire, earthquakes, wars and typhoons wiped out most of them. The only temple from the 7th century is Hōryū-Ji, rebuilt after a fire in 670. It is one of the oldest extant wooden structures in the world.

Buddhism and kami worship

While the early shrines of kami worship were simple, the early Buddhist temples were extremely ornamental and symmetrical. By the late 7th century, this was slowly being replaced by irregular ground plans, an asymmetric arrangement of the buildings, increased use of natural materials like cypress bark in the place of roof tiles and a greater awareness of the natural environment by placing the buildings among the trees. This change was fuelled when kami worship and Buddhism were syncretised. Traditional Japanese nature worship also influenced Buddhism to pay greater attention to the natural environment.

The first half of the 8th century saw an increase in the number of temples. Emperor Shōmu ordered that temples and nunneries had to be built in every province and Tōdai-ji be the headquarters for the huge temple network. The head temple was opened in 752 and was of staggering dimensions- two pagodas of seven stories, each 100 m tall, and a Great Buddha Hall.

Nara period (710–784)

Buddhism during the Nara period was characterised by the Nanto Shichi Daiji, or the seven great Buddhist temples located in Nara. It was during this period that octagonal structures like the Hall of Dreams were built as memorial houses and storehouses were erected. Temple structures like the main halls and pagodas increased significantly in size. The roofs grew larger and heavier, the complexity of the roof bracketing system increased and the placement of the pagoda was moved to a more peripheral location.

Great Buddha at Todaiji Temple.
Great Buddha at Todaiji Temple. credit@ Tale of Genji

During the early 8th century, there was an attempt to reconcile Buddhism and kami worship with the founding of the ‘shrine temples.’ The use of Buddhist religious objects in a Shinto shrine was deemed necessary since the kami (spirits) were lost beings who needed to be liberated through the Buddha’s power. The kami were believed to be reincarnated and subjected to karma like human beings. Early Buddhist stories narrated how suffering kami were helped by wandering monks. Monks often had dreams where the kami appeared and asked them to help. The monk would improve the kami’s karma by building a temple next to the kami’s shrine and performing rites and reading the sutras (scriptures.) Such joint temples and shrines were already being built in the 7th century.

The second stage of the amalgamation came towards the end of the century when the kami Hachiman (god of war) was proclaimed to be the protector and deity of Dharma (dharma is the doctrine or the universal truth of Buddhism.) Shrines dedicated to him were built at temples. When the great Buddha was built at Tōdai-Ji in Nara, a shrine for Hachiman was built within the temple grounds. According to legend, the kami himself expressed this wish. Thus, Buddhism and kami worship in religion and architecture continued in harmony until the Separation Order of 1868.

Heian period (794 to 1185)

During the Heian period, Buddhism became all the more infused with traditional Japanese elements. It became assimilated with local beliefs (concerning spirits and ghosts) and developed characteristics close to sorcery and magic. These new characteristics allowed Buddhism to penetrate a variety of the Japanese social classes. Indigenous religious beliefs merged with Buddhism and local religious beliefs, so much so that many claimed that kami spirits and the Buddha were the same gods under different names. It was under such an environment that the retired Emperor Shirakawa and Fujiwara no Michinaga (the most influential person in the Japanese imperial court from the late 10th to the early 11th century) competed in the construction of new temples. The competition led to the birth of the Jōdo-kyō architecture and the new wayō architectural style.

During the early Heian period, architectural styles evolved based on the esoteric sects Shingon and Tendai. In the plains, the two sects faithfully followed the Nanto Rokushū tradition, but in the mountainous regions, a more original style was developed. The fusion of foreign Buddhism and local mountain worship cults only fuelled this development. It was called wayō (Japanese style) and was characterised by simplicity, avoidance of ornamentation, use of natural timber and, in general, plain materials. Its structure was distinguished by the main hall (divided into two parts), an outer and inner area for novices and initiates respectively, a hip and gable roof that covered both the areas, a raised wooden floor in place of the stone or tile floor in earlier temples, eaves that were extended to cover the front steps, bark or shingles instead of tile roofs and a general unsymmetrical layout.

Jōruri-Ji Temple.
Jōruri-Ji Temple. credit@ Japan Travel

A two-storied tower known as the tahōtō which resembled Indian stupas was also introduced during the Heian period.  An ancient Buddhist prophecy claimed that the world would enter a dark period known as Mappō in 1051. During this period, the Tendai believed that enlightenment was possible only through the worship of Amida Buddha. As a consequence, many so-called Amida or Paradise Halls were built by the royal family or aristocratic members to recreate the paradise of Amida on earth. The nine statues of Amida were enshrined within the halls. The Main Hall of Jōruri-Ji is the only example of such a hall that still survives.

Kamakura and Muromachi periods

During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), the warrior class rose to power and this was seen in religious architecture. Zen Buddhism arrived in the country from China. Architecture during this period is marked by the birth of fresh, rational designs.

Towards the late 12th and early 13th centuries, the Daibutsu style and the Zen style emerged. The first was introduced by Chōgen, a priest, and was based on the architecture of the Song Dynasty. It represented the antithesis of the traditional and simple wayō style. Examples of this architecture are the Nandaimon at Tōdai-Ji and the Amida Hall at Jōdo-Ji.

The Eiho-Ji temple.
The Eiho-Ji temple. credit@

The Zen style, originally called karayō, was characterised by earthen floors, gently curved pent roofs and more pronouncedly curved main roofs, panelled doors and cusped windows. Examples of this design are the belfry at Tōdai-Ji, the Founder’s Hall at Eihō-Ji and the Shariden at Engaku-Ji.

During the Muromachi period (1336–1573), all three styles (wayō, daibutsu and zen) were combined, thus giving birth to the Eclectic Style. Towards the end of the Muromachi period, Japanese Buddhist architecture has reached its peak.

Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods


The Edo period saw an increase in the number of worshippers coming for pilgrimage or prayer. Hence, the designs changed to accommodate them and it led to an increase in the building fervour of religious architecture. Extra efforts were made to impress the sight. While the old sects stuck to old styles and ideas, the new built huge complex designs and spaces. Despite having differences, both had common characteristics in splendour and excess. Pre-modern temples had elaborate structural details and were of colossal size. Structural design gradually became more rational and efficient, the surface of religious buildings became the opposite.

After the middle Edo period, religious architecture kept repeating old ideas and lost its innovative spirit, thus marking the beginning of its decline.

Meiji period

In 1868, the separation of Buddhism and kami worship was enacted. This was a catastrophic move for the architecture of temples and shrines. Until the policy, the fusion of kami worship and Buddhism posed very little problem. It brought a certain extent of harmony between the two religions and many practices were born that are still in practice. The policy claimed that many of the structures were illegal, such as Buddhist pagodas within the grounds of Shinto shrines. Thus, most of the structures were destroyed as demanded by the law. It is estimated that 30,000 Buddhist structures were destroyed between 1868 and 1874. Eventually, Buddhism made a recovery in several parts of the country and yet, in other parts, there is almost a complete absence of Buddhist structures.


Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are the most famous, numerous and religious buildings in Japan. It is not merely the religious beliefs of the country that we see when looking at the temples, but also the different periods and the rulers who left their mark on architecture.

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