Japan has an interesting variety of buildings that exhibit different architectural forms from humble farm houses to grand imperial palaces. Architectural styles have evolved from pre-historic to modern times. Early native designs were exposed to strong influences from the Asian mainland, imported styles were subsequently adapted to suit local tastes, and recent history saw the introduction of Western architecture into Japan.
Buildings were traditionally built in wood – in part because of the abundance of timber and due to the material’s relatively good resistance to earthquakes. Unfortunately, many buildings were lost through the years to natural disasters, the humid climate, fires and wars. Efforts have been made to preserve some monumental buildings including temples, shrines, palaces and castles, of which many are very old and require periodic renovations. Furthermore, efforts are ongoing across the country to reconstruct some lost buildings of importance.
Many structures exhibiting past architectural styles are nowadays popular tourist sites. They are spread across the country, some surviving in entire preserved districts or towns, while others were moved to open air museums. The following is an introduction to the general architectural building types in Japan:
In ancient times, Shinto ceremonies were held outdoors at temporarily demarcated sites without buildings. Later, temporary structures were used which eventually got replaced by permanent shrine buildings housing the deity. Early shrine buildings predate the introduction of Buddhism and reflect native Japanese architecture styles.
Over the centuries, many shrine buildings were lost to fire or other disasters. Thus, even though many shrines may have been founded more than a millennium ago, the oldest extant shrine buildings are about a thousand years old, while the majority of them are just a few centuries old. Furthermore, several major shrines used to follow a unique custom of periodic rebuilding for symbolic purification. Today, the Ise Shrines still follow this custom every twenty years, while some other major shrines undergo periodic renovations instead.
As time passed, temples were increasingly designed to suit local tastes. Newly introduced sects from the mainland contributed to new temple architecture styles. Temples began to exhibit less symmetrical features, and many started to incorporate gardens in their compounds. Temples were also founded in more remote places and in the mountains, which had more varied layouts owing to complex topographies. Like shrines, temples buildings were also lost over time, and the ones that exist across the country today are mostly a few centuries old.
Imperial palaces are the seat of the Emperor. In the past, a new palace was built with the relocation of the capital every time a new emperor ascended to the throne. In 710, the first permanent capital was set up in Nara, and thus the first permanent palace, the Heijo Palace, was built. The palace’s former site is open to tourists today and exhibits a few rebuilt structures.
The imperial capital was later moved to Kyoto where it remained for over a thousand years until 1868. Along with the Kyoto Imperial Palace, several imperial villas still exist, exhibiting a grand and dignified, yet not overly-ostentatious style. The Kyoto Palace, Sento Palace, Katsura Villa and Shugakuin Villa are open to the public today. Furthermore, some temples such as Kyoto’s Ninnajiand Daikakuji utilize former palace buildings.
From the 14th to the 16th century, Japan went through a period of civil war. With the arrival of peace in the Edo Period, feudal lords started to build palaces for themselves too. These palaces were usually situated within the castles but separate from the main keep. They served as residences, offices and reception halls. Most castle palaces have been destroyed, leaving only a handful of original ones, most notably the Ninomaru Palace at Nijo Castle and some recent reconstructions at the castles of Nagoya, Kumamoto and Hikone.
Townhouses were inhabited by craftsmen and merchants, further down the social ladder in the past. Many townhouses had relatively narrow facades but extended wide into the back because taxation was often based on road access. A typical townhouse had its store in front, the living quarters behind, and a storehouse (kura) in the back. Storehouses were fire-insulated with earthen walls to protect valuable goods from the threat of fires.
Several merchant districts exist today with nicely preserved townhouses, such as those in Takayama and Kurashiki. Some of the merchant houses open to tourists may resemble samurai residences. This is due to the tendency to preserve only the houses of the richest merchants, who towards the end of the Edo Period had become successful enough to design their houses in a style similar to that reserved for the samurai.
Japan is a hotbed for contemporary architecture with lots of eye-catching creations mainly in the leading cities, especially Tokyo. The growth of big cities has led to the appearances of skyscrapers and a variety of buildings exhibiting artistic imagination
Many Japanese architects have made their mark on the international scene. Star architects include Ando Tadao, who has won numerous architectural prizes and has designed many buildings both in Japan and abroad. Multiple museums designed by Ando can be found on Naoshima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea that has become famous as a site for contemporary art.