Japanese Patterns of Design

Japanese Architecture: Overview of Wide Varieties of Buildings in History

さざえ堂, Sazaedo by FIND47.JP (//find47.jp)

Japanese Architecture – Japan boasts the wide varieties of architecture from Horyuji Temple, the oldest surviving wooden building in the world, to the cutting edge modern architecture. What makes Japanese architecture different from others? Let’s take a look at its history and explore it!

Overview of Japanese Architecture

What makes the difference between Japanese architecture and others?

The general structure of the modern house is almost always the same: posts and lintels support a large and gently curved roof, while the walls are paper-thin, often movable and never load-bearing. Arches and barrel roofs are completely absent.

When we think about Japanese architecture, we have to consider its climate; high-temperature, humidity, heavy rainfall, earthquake resistance. We will look at the relationship with the climate in the section of Japanese architectural characteristics.

Materials are primarily wood due to the abundance of timber and the relatively good resilience to earthquakes.

The time distinctive architecture appeared was in the 6th century with the introduction of Buddhism. New temples became the center of worship while the previous tomb burial practices quickly became outlawed.

The Five-Storied Pagoda and the Main Hall of Horyu-ji Temple

The most influential Buddhism structure comes from mandalas (diagrams of the spiritual universe) of Shingon Buddhism which was introduced by the famed Buddhist priest, Kukai.

Kukai: Biography of Japanese Buddhist Superstar

Shinto shrines began to be seen at this time as Buddhism temples stimulated the idea of permanent Shinto architecture.

The restoration model of Heijo-kyo displayed at the city office of Nara
The restoration model of Heijo-kyo displayed at the city office of Nara (small-life.com)

The first permanent capital, Heijo-kyo, was constructed in 708. The layout of its checkerboard streets and buildings was modeled after the Chinese capital of Chang’an. The city soon became an important center of Buddhist worship in Japan.

Not long after that, Japanese architecture found its way in the original buildings, that satisfy the needs and wants of natives, and were suitable for each climate and topographies.

Japanese Architecture Characteristics

The very basic stuff we have to consider before we build any buildings in Japan; high-temperature, humidity, heavy rainfall, and earthquakes.

The wood has been the main material due to its abundance and its breathability, that makes building to be well ventilated.

Architects have been designing the house with four seasons in mind, best house should manage the cold of the winter and keep it cool during the hot summer. Keep its openness to connect with nature.

Tatami Mats (straw and rush mats)

Tatami mats
Tatami mats (www.jc-km.net)

One of the most characteristic features of Japanese architecture should be Tatami mats. Made of straw, Tatami keeps the room warm in winter and cool in summer.

It absorbs the moisture when it rains a lot while it releases its moisture in the dry season. The scent of Tatami has a calming effect, especially when it is new.

It’s not cheap, but once you install them, it lasts long years to come.

Fusuma – framed and papered sliding door

Genji-busuma, Framed and Papered Sliding Doors
Framed and Papered Sliding Doors, this particular fusuma called Genji-busuma (google.com)

Fusuma are vertical rectangular panels that can slide from side to side to redefine spaces within a room or act as doors.

Historically, fusuma were painted, often with scenes from nature, such as mountains, forests or animals. Today, many feature fans, autumn leaves, cherry blossoms, trees, or geometric graphics.

Engawa – veranda or open corridor

Traditional style of Engawa (veranda)
Traditional style of Engawa (engawanavi.com)

Engawa is an open corridor where you can sit and look out the garden. It’s like a boundary between the house and nature.

Also, making use of the surrounding landscape as a part of the design of a garden.

People always feel the connection with nature, even from the inside and cherish the sense of nature together with family or friends.


By Shinichi Suzuki, photo from the Tom Burnett Collection (flickr) [Public domain]
By Shinichi Suzuki, photo from the Tom Burnett Collection (flickr) [Public domain] (wired.jp)
There used to be numerous public bath when only a few rich were able to have their own bath at home. Now you can find a bath at almost all houses in Japan.

Sento: 7 Public Bath Houses in Tokyo for Authentic Experience

Bathe in a tub for relaxing and wash the body outside the tub is the norm. You can see keeping oneself clean is one of the most important customs of Japanese people.

We can see the influence of Shinto beliefs here as it puts importance on caring for nature and keeping oneself clean.

Shinto Beliefs: Purity, Sincerity, and Harmony

Traditional Japanese Architecture


Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto, Japan
Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto, Japan (google.com)

Temples came along with the introduction of Buddhism from mainland China in the 6th century. Chinese influences were strongly seen in earlier times such as having wide courtyards and symmetrical layouts.

However, temples began to exhibit less symmetrical features and many started to incorporate gardens in their compounds.

Temples were also found in more remote places and in the mountains, which had more varied layouts owing to complex topographies.


Togakushi Shrine Chu-sha in Nagano
Togakushi Shrine Chu-sha in Nagano (travel.chuotaxi.co.jp)

The Japanese native beliefs, Shinto had no scripture, no founder, no permanent facilities. Since the arrival of Buddhism, the situation had changed.

Along with Buddhism teaching, the construction of temples was booming and it encouraged Shinto to have its own facilities, Shinto shrines.

Several major shrines used to follow the unique custom of periodic rebuilding for symbolic purification. Today, the Izumo Taisha Shrine and the Ise Shrines still follow this custom.

Shinto Shrine: History, Architecture, and Shrine Crest


The World Heritage, Himejijo Castle in Himeji, Hyogo, Japan
The World Heritage, Himejijo Castle in Himeji, Hyogo, Japan (www.tabian.com)

The typical Japanese castles began to be built in the 16th century. Initially built for purpose of fortification and defense mainly on the mountains, the castles moved down to the field as it became the center of the government and the status symbols of warlords.

Hundreds of castles used to stand across the country, but most of them destroyed due to wars, natural disasters and the past government’s policies to limit their numbers, only twelve castles survived from the feudal era.

Higher ranking Samurai lived closest to the castle in large houses with spacious tatami rooms and gardens while lower-ranking ones had more humble residences further away from the castle.

Japanese Castle: Layout and Architecture for the Defense


The World Heritage, Shirakawago in Gifu, Japan
The World Heritage, Shirakawago in Gifu, Japan (google.com)

Different farmhouse construction styles developed according to widely varying weather patterns and topographies.

Farmhouses were the most numerous among the old buildings, but were rarely preserved.

The remaining ones that we can see today tend to be the more prestigious ones such as those that belonged to village heads or those in remote locations.

Traditional Architecture Styles – Japanese Architecture

Shinden-zukuri (palatial architecture style of the Heian era) – Japanese Architecture

Shinden-zukuri in the Heian period (www.heianjidai.com)

The architectural style called “Shinden-zukuri” was for the aristocrats, established in the Heian period (794-1185).

The main characteristic of the Shinden-zukuri was the special symmetry of the group of buildings and the undeveloped space between them. Its delicate feature and refined way blend well with nature.

The Phoenix Hall of Byodo-in
The Phoenix Hall of Byodo-in (medium.com)

The increasing size of buildings in the capital led to an architecture reliant on columns regularly spaced in accordance with the ken, a traditional measure of both size and proportion.

The main room of the Shinden, called the Moya, was surrounded by a secondary roofed Hisashi or veranda. The Moya was one big space partitioned by portable screens (byobu).

Guests and residents of the house were seated on mats, and alcoves and gardens were designed to be viewed from a seated position. The culture of making poems was flourishing and the architecture supported it by providing openness.

Konjikido - Golden Hall at Chusonji Temple in Hiraizumi, Iwate
Konjikido – Golden Hall at Chusonji Temple in Hiraizumi, Iwate (google.com)

One of the most famous buildings with Shinden-zukuri at this period is the temple. Especially Konjikido (golden hall) of Chusonji Temple boasts its owner’s power, Fujiwara clan.

We can see the influence of Buddhism, specifically Pure Land Buddhism, so there were many gardens which represented the Pure Land Paradise.

Japanese Buddhism #2: End of the World Belief, Pure Land, and Zen

Shoin-zukuri (Living Room and Study Combined Style) – Japanese Architecture

Shoin of Togudo, Tozan Jishoji Temple aka Ginkakuji Temple
Shoin of Togudo, Tozan Jishoji Temple aka Ginkakuji Temple (minkara.carview.co.jp)

As the political power transferred from courtiers to Samurai classes in the middle-age, they value a simple and sturdy architectural style. It used to be called “Buke-zukuri”, Samurai houses literally.

The characteristic of Shoin-zukuri is it puts importance in the reception room. Frequent wars and battles required them to have a large room to discuss matters and battle tactics.

Also, the development of partition made it possible to attach a different function to each room. Making a difference in the level gave a distinctive appearance to recognize who is in the higher rank and who is in the lower.

The buildings were grouped under a single roof, surrounded by narrow moats or stockades in terms of the security reasons.

NIjo Castle, Ni-no-Maru, the reception hall
Nijo Castle, Ni-no-Maru, the reception hall (blog-imgs-34.fc2.com)

The pillars used to be columns, but square ones began to be used for this style. Modern day architecture draws its origin from this architectural style.

Partitions such as Shoji (sheer, translucent paper room dividers) and Fusuma were originated in this period. Engawa, Amado (sliding shutters) and the front door also were developed in this style, too.

Sukiya-zukuri (The Style developed from the Tea Room) – Japanese Architecture

Shoukintei of Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa in Kyoto, Japan
The Tea House “Shoukintei” of Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa in Kyoto, Japan (zuien238.sakura.ne.jp)

Suki means refined and cultivated taste and delight in elegant pursuit, which originally refers to the enjoyment of the exquisitely performed tea ceremony.

Derived from the small rooms of Shoin-zukuri, it developed the style which eliminates formality or fixed style.

Myokian Taian
Taian (tea house) at Myokian Temple in Kyoto, Japan (www.sansyoutei.com)

Found no taste in the ostentatious display, but in the simple and refined presentation with cordial hospitality.

The traditional Sukiya-zukuri layout has rooms that open to a garden through an indirect diagonal or curved path that permits a view of the tea house.

Lafcadio Hearn's old house in Matsue, Japan
Lafcadio Hearn’s old house in Matsue, Japan (Wikipedia)

The beauty of Sukiya-zukuri comes from the delicate sensibility of the slender wood elements and other natural materials used and the simplicity of ornamentation. The sense of Wabi-Sabi was born with this architecture as well as Chado (tea ceremony) and Ikebana.

Chado: “The Way of Tea” Cultivates Hospitality and Zen Spirit
Ikebana: Styles of Japanese Flower Arrangement “Kado”

The Edo Period Architecture – Japanese Architecture

Miniature of reproduction of street in Edo displayed at the Edo Tokyo Museum
Miniature of reproduction of street in Edo displayed at the Edo Tokyo Museum (Wikipedia)

The secular culture flourished in the Edo period in the architectural field as well. Sukiya-zukuri which has tea room included, theater architecture, the construction of the pleasure quarters.

In terms of Buddhist architecture, it began to build large halls which could hold numerous followers such as Zenkouji Temple and Sensouji Temple along with the popularity increased.

Townhouses (Machiya) – Japanese Architecture

Machiya in Edo
Machiya in Edo (Wikipedia)

A typical townhouse had its store in front, the living quarters behind and a storehouse in the back. They were built in an orderly fashion facing the street.

As the economy grew, merchants began to accumulate wealth and it produced the festive and lively mood of the town.

Nagaya – Tenement Houses

Reproduction of Nagaya in an alley in Fukagawa, Edo
Reproduction of Nagaya in an alley in Fukagawa, Edo (Fukagawa Edo Museum) (Wikipedia)

Most of the tenement houses were one-storied houses, you encounter the kitchen when you enter the house and there were two rooms in a house at most.

They were inhabited by craftsmen and merchants, further down the social ladder in the past. It’s one of traditional Japanese architecture as well. Many townhouses had relatively narrow facades, but extended wide into the back because taxation was often based on road access.

They shared a bathroom on an alley and no bathing facility at the time. There used to be a water inlet on an alley, people got together and interacted with the other until the water filled up the bucket.

The Edo period brought back a lot of classic architectural techniques. Due to the fact that fire’s struck in the Edo region quite often, houses made to be able to be rebuilt easily. Structures were simple and classy and like the Hein period, their respect for nature took a great deal in the architectural way of constructing.

Nikko Toshogu – Japanese Architecture

Five-Storied Pagoda of Nikko Toshogu in Tochigi, Japan
Five-Storied Pagoda of Nikko Toshogu in Tochigi, Japan (hk.skygate-global.com)

Toshogu Shrine is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. Shrines became increasingly ornate at this period just as Toshogu shows.

The lavishly decorated shrine complex consists of more than a dozen buildings set in a beautiful forest. Countless wood carvings and large amounts of gold leaf were used to decorate the buildings in a way not seen elsewhere in Japan, where simplicity has been traditionally stressed in shrine architecture.

Also, we can see the strong influence of Onmyodo (way of Yin and Yang; an occult divination system based on the Tao). The locations of the building were carefully designed to align with the Pole Star.

Modern Japanese Architecture and Architects

After WWII, most buildings were no longer made of wood, which caught fire so easily during earthquakes and bombing raids, internal steel construction began to be used instead.

Post-war buildings adopted an efficient unadorned box style in general. One of the greatest architectural challenges was to create tall buildings that were resistant to Japan’s frequent earthquakes. Japanese engineers and architects pioneered the techniques that are now used all over the world.

However, those architects, we see below represents us the new style of architecture which

Shigeru Ban

Nine Bridges Country Club by Shigeru Ban
Nine Bridges Country Club by Shigeru Ban in Yeoju, Republic of Korea (www.hiwo.tv)

Shigeru Ban is best known for his work with paper and his innovative use of recycled cardboard.

In 2014, Ban received the prestigious Pritzker prize. His work is based on the theme of the “invisible structure”.

Toyo Ito

Sendai Mediatheque by Toyo Ito, PHOTO BY Kevin McKitrick
Sendai Mediatheque by Toyo Ito,which came away from the disaster of the 3/11 earthquake practically unscathed PHOTO BY Kevin McKitrick (kmckitrick.wordpress.com)

Toyo Ito was born in 1941 and is known for creating conceptual architecture that seeks to express both physical and virtual worlds.

He has been named as one of the world’s most innovative and influential architects and was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2013.

Tadao Ando

Church on the Water in Hokkaido, Japan by Tadao Ando
Church on the Water by Tadao Ando (livelifeelectric.files.wordpress.com)

Tadao Ando is one of the best Japanese architects and creators of some of the most memorable buildings in the country.

He has received almost every conceivable prize of architecture and is regarded as one of the Great Fathers of contemporary architecture.

Kenzo Tange

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park by Kenzo Tange
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park by Kenzo Tange (www.mapsofworld.com)

Kenzo Tange was one of the most significant architects of the 20th century, combining traditional Japanese styles with modernism, and designed major buildings on five continents.

Influenced from an early age by the Swiss modernist, Le Corbusier, Tange’s work influenced a generation of architects across the world.

Kengo Kuma

Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum by Kengo Kuma in Takaoka-gun, Kochi, Japan
Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum by Kengo Kuma in Takaoka-gun, Kochi, Japan (inhabitat.com)

Kengo Kuma is an architect and professor at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Tokyo.

He manages to give stone, for example, the same sense of lightness and softness as glass or wood.

Fumihiko Maki

The Golgi Structure by Fumihiko Maki 1968
The Golgi Structure by Fumihiko Maki 1968 (archeyes.com)

Fumihiko Maki studied with Kenzo Tange in the University of Tokyo, where he received his Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1952. He received the Pritzker Prize for his work in 1993.

He has maintained a consistent interest in new technology as part of his design language, quite often taking advantage of modular systems in construction and fuses the cultures of east and west.

Atsushi Kitagawara

EXPO Milano 2015 JAPAN PAVILION by Atsushi Kitagawara
EXPO Milano 2015 JAPAN PAVILION by Atsushi Kitagawara (www.kitagawara.co.jp)

Atsushi Kitagawara’s concepts and methods draw on fields including poetry, music and contemporary arts. He has won a number of awards, including the Architectural Institute of Japan Award in 2002, the first prize in the Innovative Architecture International Award (Italy) in 2006.

He is a protagonist of an artistically shaped and expressionistic architectural style, which celebrates the experience of space, without losing sight of the functional requirements.

Famous Japanese Architecture

Dougo Onsen Honkan – Dougo Hot Spring Main Inn

Dougo Onsen front view
Dougo Onsen front view (image.rakuten.co.jp)

Dougo Onsen Honkan is the symbol and the main attraction of Dougo Onsen. This famous hot spring in Matsuyama which is one of the oldest in Japan draws people all around Japan.

Completed in 1894, the interior of this wooden public bathhouse is a maze of stairways, passages, and rooms. It is said to have served as inspiration for Miyazaki’s popular animated film Spirited Away.


Ribbon Chapel by Hiroshi Nakamura in Hiroshima, Japan
Ribbon Chapel by Hiroshi Nakamura in Hiroshima, Japan (chuoko-step.jp)chuoko-step.jp)

This is a wedding chapel on a hill you can enjoy a panoramic view of the Inland Sea of Japan.

Designed by Hiroshi Nakamura has been configured as a double spiral, formed of two separate stairway. In a reference to the union of marriage, the building’s dual stairways start at different locations before spiraling together to form one singular structure.

Below, we will see the so-called original double spiral building.


Sazae-do in Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima, Japan
Sazae-do by Yamagishi Kiuemon, Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima, Japan (algoneet.com)

Aizu Sazaedo is a three-storied, hexagonal Buddhist pagoda located in Aizu-Wakamatsu.

Ikudo, the abbot of the Zen temple Jissoji in Wakamatsu, decided to construct a pagoda to house 33 images of Kannon Bodhisattva and selected the Miya Daiku (shrine carpenter) Yamagishi Kiuemon, to carry out his plan.

The inside of Sazaedo, Aizu, Japan
The inside of Sazaedo, Aizu, Japan (www.ana-cooljapan.com)

With an interior double-spiral structure of slope ways, you enter the Sazaedo, walk up to the top floor and down to the exit without seeing anyone.

OK, so how do people deal with Japanese architecture in real life?

Chairs and tables were not widely used until the 20h century, now and then, Japanese people feel comfortable sitting on a cushion or on the floor.

It’s the country with the most architects per capita in the world. Despite the shrinking population due to low birth rate, construction jobs are on the stable ground since the Japanese don’t buy used homes to live in it.

The vast majority of people who buy a home are building a new house from scratch, which is unusual while only 11-34% of the Western counterparts who buy brand-new houses.

It’s in proportion with a high metabolism, especially in major cities. It’s rare your hometown remains the same after the ten years.

Japanese architecture has influenced Western architecture with its emphasis on simplicity, horizontal lines, and flexible spaces. We can find its origin in Shinto beliefs and Zen through its spatial arrangements and the concept of interpenetrating exterior and interior space.

The new architect will find the way to fit the new era’s needs while connecting with nature as it is in their DNA.


日本建築、寝殿造り、書院造りなどから学ぶ日本の文化 (百計ONLINE)
日本住宅の変遷 (www.moiss.jp)
HOKI COLLECTIONとしての建築 (www.nikken.co.jp)

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Hiroko Matsuyama

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