Japanese Culture and Traditions: The Design Concept of Old Temples in Japan

The western precinct of Horyuji temple: main hall (left), central gate (center) and five-story pagoda (right)

Horyuji temple, the world’s oldest wooden building

The above image is Horyuji temple in Nara prefecture. Did you know it was the world’s oldest wooden building? It was built in 607 and is registered as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. As many of you know that, Japan is a country of earthquake. As you can imagine, it’s a harsh environment especially for wooden buildings. Actually, the average lifetime of current residential buildings is about 30 years in Japan. That is much shorter than that of US (around 100 years) and UK (around 150 years), for example. Let’s see why Horyuji temple can exceptionally exist for such a long time.

The secrets of old temples in Japan

There are mainly two reasons for that. One is its earthquake-proof structure. The joints of the building frame were designed to be flexible to reduce the shaking force of earthquakes. Many researchers were surprised by the fact that such advanced thinking and technology already existed about 1400 years ago. Another reason is continuous maintenance. It was a kind of social rule that carpenters in charge of daily maintenance lived in the area next to such temples and shrines. In other words, old temples and shrines were built based on the premise that they should be maintained regularly.

The product life of furniture is longer than that of houses

On the other hand, most current residential buildings in Japan were built after WWII. Speed was prioritized for many people who lost their houses at the time. Such quick-build houses are structurally weak, and now, most people come to think a house is only for one generation; nor maintain their houses seriously. Consequently, the lifetime of our furniture sometimes becomes longer than houses. Some people hand over furniture to the next generation. Of course, that is an honor for us. The lesson we can learn from here is daily maintenance is the key to long life for both houses and furniture.

Photo credit: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4104.html

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Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.