The Architecture of Japanese Buddhist Temples

Natalie Solari


This exhibition takes a closer look at the main buildings of five Japanese Temple Complexes. Temples are the places of worship in Japanese Buddhism, and are also used to display sacred Buddhist objects. It is believed that Buddhist images could have been brought to Japan as early as 522 (Beguin). Japanese Buddhism has made an abundant impact on Japanese culture and continues to influence society today. The architectural elements of Buddhist temples are meant to embody themes and teachings of Buddhism.

Most Buddhist temples in Japan are designed around four main architectural styles: Wayō, Daibutsuyō, Zenshūyō, and Setchūyō. Temples designed in the wayō style take a minimalistic approach to architecture. Natural timber and generally plain materials are used. Wayō architecture was made during the Heian period, between 794 CE and 1185 CE. Typically these structures feature thin columns and a low ceiling. A beam is run through the columns to reinforce the top parts of  columns. The wayō style emphasizes more Japanese-style architecture than the features of Chinese-style architecture. Inside the structures inner space divisions are fluid, many feature screens and thin. A true connection is meant to be felt between the interior and exterior of the building.

In the late 12th and early 13th century CE, a more monumental style emerged. The daibutsuyō style was based on Song Dynasty architecture. Daibutsuyō style architecture is characterized by thick woodwork and penetrating tie beams. The ends of the penetrating tie beams are decorated with moldings also known as ‘kurigata’. The thick woodwork of the structure is typically left exposed to show its elements. This style takes a grander approach than the wayō style. Daibutsuyō style architecture utilizes horizontal elements.

Zenshūyō is another style that emerged in the late 12th or early 13th century CE. Zenshūyō style temples are based on contemporary Chinese architecture derived from the Song Dynasty. The style is named after the Zen sect of Buddhism that was introduced to Japan. These temples typically incorporate earthen floors, decorative curved pent roofs, pointed windows, and paneled doors. Slim columns and low ceilings are used to create calming spaces for meditating. The complexes have a generally linear layout. Kōzan-ji’s butsuden is the oldest extant building in the Zenshūyō style in Japan.

The last style of temple architecture incorporates a fusion of elements from the three other styles. This style was called setchūyō, and was used during the Muromachi period. By the end of the Muromachi period, Japanese Buddhist architecture and construction methods had been perfected and building types were conventionalized.

Although the temples are designed around a few different styles, there are some key features that distinguish these Japanese Buddhist temples. Characteristics of most Japanese Temples include post and lintel support, a gentle curved roof, and thin walls. The use of a single central pillar or column. embodies the Axis Mundi of Buddhism. Having the cardinal directions reflected through the structure is important. The most prominent examples of the iconic form are represented in Pagodas and Indian Stupas. Many of these temples are incorporated into complexes with several other structures that include a main hall, a pagoda, and other facilities for prayer and meditation. Many of these temple complexes are surrounded by a large wall and gates. Entering the complex is supposed to feel like a journey through meditation. These spaces are intended to evoke feelings of peace. 

Title: Phoenix Hall at Byodoin (998 CE)
Category: Japanese Buddhist Architecture
Architectural style: Wayō
Location: Uji, Japan
Author Name: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
Medium: image/jpeg 
Date of Creation: 15 May 2018
Dimensions: 2,400 × 1,600 pixels
Image Link:,_Japon)_(42809689812).jpg

The Phoenix Hall is the main hall at Byodo-in temple. Phoenix Hall was established in 1053 CE, in the late Heian period. The hall houses the Shrine of  the Buddha Amida. Phoenix Hall is an example of Wayo architecture as well as shinden-zukuri, the style of Japanese nobility’s residences. Phoenix Hall incorporates unique architecture which consists of the main corridor, left and right wing corridors, and a tall corridor. The shape of the building resembles the body and spreading wings of the Phoenix. Its main corridor faces south to bring in sunlight and opens on to the pond of a beautiful garden. A Pure Land style garden is centered around the Ajino-ike Pond, that reflects the architecture of the structure. A true connection is felt between the interior and exterior of the hall.

The central corridor is topped by a hip-and-gable roof and also features a pent roof enclosure. Hip-and-gable roofs are characterized by a rounded hip roof that cascades down on all sides, and a triangular gable at each end. Two phoenix statues are positioned on top of the roof. The stairs leading to the main entrance are made of marble, but the structure of the hall is made of wood. The doors and walls are decorated by richly colored paintings, and the ceiling and pillars are also covered with colorful patterns. The brightly colored exterior clashes with the minimalistic Wayō style, but the gentle lines of the exterior and openness of the interior hold on to its values. 

Title: Great Buddha Hall, Todai-ji temple complex

Category: Japanese Buddhist Architecture

Architectural style: Daibutsuyō

Location: Nara, Japan

Author Name: Felix Filnkössl

Medium: image/jpeg 

Date of Creation: 18 August 2010

Dimensions: 4,000 × 2,248 pixels

Image Link:


The Great Buddha Hall at Todai-ji temple complex displays the grand features of the daibutsuyō architectural style. The Great Buddha hall houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha Vairocana statue. This Buddhist temple complex was once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples. Two towering guardians sit on top of the massive entryway of the temple, protecting the great Buddha. The great architects of Todaiji temple complex developed the Yakushiji axial plan with paired pagodas into one of greater complexity (Ikeuchi 2007). The hall was erected in the early 8th century CE, and later reconstructed in 1709. The Great Buddha hall was built at a very large scale, displaying the power and prestige of the imperial house of Japan. Columns are arrayed throughout the rectangular base to represent universal order. Many horizontal braces are run through vertical posts called Nuki to make the structure solid.

As a daibutsuyō style hall, structural elements are left exposed without the covering of a ceiling as decoration. The vast structure is made entirely of wood, commonly seen in Japanese architecture. Building structures out of wood was seen as a way to celebrate life. A gently sloping roof was used to help blend in the large structure to its natural surroundings. The roof tiles were carefully crafted to channel water to prevent erosion.

Title: Kondô, Fudôin Hiroshima

Category: Japanese Buddhist Architecture

Architectural style: Zenshūyō

Location: Hiroshima, Japan

Author Name: Fraxinus2

Medium: image/jpeg 

Date of Creation: 11 October 2012

Dimensions: 1,771 × 1,240 pixels

Image Link:


Kondô Hall is the main hall of Fudôin Temple. This hall was built in the Zenshūyō architectural style. Kondô at Fudôin is an Important Cultural Property, as one of the few remaining historic structures in Hiroshima. After careful studies of historic documents and writing found on the ceilings, it is believed that Kondô Hall was originally built in Yamaguchi in 1540 at the site of Koshakuji Temple. The Kondô Hall was later relocated to its current location in Hiroshima when Ekei expanded the temple. The structure miraculously survived the atomic bomb drop in 1945 on the city. Kondô Hall is the only National Treasure in Hiroshima City. The structure features massive beams, the longest being over 7 meters (Davies). Kondô Hall has a irimoya, a unique combination of gable and hip roof with a mokoshi (an extra roof). The grand roof casts shadows on the ground below, adding to the sacred atmosphere. Oversized eaves give the interior a characteristic dimness, which contributes to the temple’s sacred atmosphere. Paintings of angels and dragons fill the ceilings. This structure appears less conspicuous and more meditative than the other styles of architecture. This structure houses the statue of Yakushi Nyorai, also known as the Medicine Buddha. The statue was carved by the pioneer sculptor Jocho, who was a famous Japanese sculptor in the early 11th century.

Title: Temple of Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji
Category: Japanese Buddhist Architecture
Architectural style: Setchūyō
Location: Kyoto, Japan
Author Name: Ondraness
Medium: image/jpeg 
Date of Creation: 9 September 2019
Dimensions: 5,312 × 2,988 pixels
Image Link:,_Kinkakuji.jpg

Kinkaku-ji is located on the Rokuon-ji temple complex. This Japanese Buddhist temple exhibits the Setchūyō architectural style used to design Japanese Buddhist temples. Setchūyō emerged in Japan during the Muromachi period, characterized by the fusion of elements from preceding styles. Buddhist temples in Japan follow a general structure of columns and lintels that support a large and gently curved roof. Kinkaku-ji is known for its gold leaf exteriors of the upper two floors. In Pure Land Buddhism gold represents spiritual purity which is reflected through the structure.

Each level of the temple incorporates a different style of architecture. Shiden style is displayed on the first floor, an open space decorated with natural wood pillars and white plaster. This floor emphasises the surrounding landscape and garden design. The second floor of the temple embodies the style used in samurai residences. Paintings of birds, clouds, and instruments cover the ceilings and walls. The third and final floor is built in the style of a Chinese Zen Hall, with lavish decoration. The sacred relics of the Buddha are kept in this sacred space. A large thatched pyramid roof covers the structure. The temple is topped with a bronze phoenix ornament.

Title: Kakurin-ji Temple Main hall

Category: Japanese Buddhist Architecture

Architectural style: Setchūyō

Location: Kakogawa, Japan

Author Name: 663highland

Medium: image/jpeg 

Date of Creation:  7 December 2008

Dimensions: 4,592 × 3,056 pixels

Image Link:


Kakurin-ji Temple is the 20th temple of the Shikoku Ohenro Pilgrimage. Kakurin-ji is incredibly difficult to reach due to its location at the top of a steep mountain. Sitting at 550 meters elevation, the temple is the 5th highest structure on the pilgrimage route. The Main Hall at Kakurin-ji Temple embodies the Setchūyō architectural style used to design Japanese Buddhist temples. The Main Hall, which was named a National Treasure of Japan, was built in 1397. The Main Hall was designed with the East Asian hip-and-gable roof, the structure stands tall off the ground and appears to float. The roof is a bold feature of the structure. With the location high on a mountain and the unique architecture a sacred Buddhist space is created. A beautiful three-storey pagoda sits to the right of the Main Hall. 



Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall), Todai-ji temple complex

(4,000 × 2,248 pixels, file size: 5.91 MB, MIME type: image/jpeg)

Image Author: Felix Filnkössl

Date: 18 August 2010

Fudôin Hiroshima Kondô

‎(1,771 × 1,240 pixels, file size: 521 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)

Image Author: Fraxinus2

Date: 11 October 2012

Kakurinji Buddhist temple in Kakogawa

(4,592 × 3,056 pixels, file size: 10.49 MB, MIME type: image/jpeg)

Image Author: 663highland

Date: 7 December 2008,_Kinkakuji.jpg

Temple of Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto

(5,312 × 2,988 pixels, file size: 4.89 MB, MIME type: image/jpeg)

Image Author : Ondraness

Date: 9 September 2019,_Japon)_(42809689812).jpg

Temple Byōdō-in (Uji, Japan)

(2,400 × 1,600 pixels, file size: 3.53 MB, MIME type: image/jpeg)

Image Source: Le temple Byodo-in (Uji, Japon)

Image Author: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Date: 15 May 2018


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Author: Natalie Solari

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