Asuka and Nara Periods Architecture
Asuka (538-645) and Nara (645-710): Horyuji and Todaiji Buddhist Temples
Asuka Period (538-645)
Japan’s oldest Buddhist monasteries are located in the city of Nara and its outskirts. Asuka period was named after the Asuka valley where the temporary capital located at this time, and one of the outstanding architectural monuments of that era is associated with the activities of Shotoku Taishi (574-622), Prince Regent of Japan, of promoting Buddhism and strengthening the government power over the country.
By his order, construction works began in Ikaruga town. The original name of the temple complex was Ikaruga-dera, and later it was named Horyuji, Temple of the Flourishing Law. Despite numerous fires – the earliest one burned down the temple in 670, some buildings are the oldest surviving wooden structures in the world. The most ancient buildings include the Kondo (Golden Hall) and an elegant five-storied pagoda, standing at 32 meters from its base in the western part of the complex – the Sai-in, or the Western Precinct.
The idea of the pagoda can be traced back to the ancient Indian stupa – a dome-shaped building that houses sacred relics or other sacred objects of Buddhism. In Nepal, Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan, a stupa has a lighter shape and turns into an exquisite multi-story structure with a distinctive curved roof and overhanging eaves.
A pagoda is a Portuguese term derived from the Sanskrit ‘bhagavat’, which means ‘blessed, sacred’. Five stories of the Horyuji’s pagoda represent five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal, and water; the engineering solutions for constructing such a high building included certain innovations that were applied in Japan for the first time. All wooden structures supporting the horizontal elements are attached to the central post made of a large pine trunk; the connections are not rigid, so they have a certain freedom in movement. Therefore, the architects designed a building capable of withstanding soil vibrations during frequent earthquakes.
The To-in, the Eastern Precinct, adjoins the Sai-in from the east. It is probably located on the site of Prince Shotoku’s residence. In its center stands an octagonal building named Yumedono, ‘the Hall of Visions’ – a place for prayers and meditation.
Nara Period (645-710)
The next historic period, Nara, is also named after the capital city. Todaiji Temple, the most prominent architectural building of this period, was conceived as the main religious center of the country and the guarantee of the emperor’s safety during the unrest.
During one of the rebellions led by an aristocratic Fujiwara family in 743, Emperor Shomu made a vow to cast a colossal bronze statue of Vairocana Buddha – its final height reached almost 15 meters. It was modeled after a giant Buddha statue near Luoyang in China, and the works started in 745. The Daibutsuden, the Great Buddha Hall, constructed around the statue is the biggest wooden building in the world – it is 57 meters long, 50 meters wide and 48 meters tall. The temple is listed as the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The sheer immensity of the construction is emphasized by the lean horizontal division of the wall. Wooden elements look laconic against a neat white background but maintain an overall atmosphere of solemnity: this method highlights the beauty of the natural material and creates a feeling of simplicity and purity, a distinctive style of Japanese architecture. An enormous roof is topped with two gilded fish. Architectural and sculptural monuments of this size haven’t been built in Japan after the Nara period. Nowadays it remains a monument of Chinese architecture adaptation and Buddhist teachings flourishing over the country.