Japanese Traditional Gardens and the Pagoda

What are Pagodas?

Pagodas are very common in the oriental culture and architecture. It is a multi-tiered tower which is built as a house of worship. Pagodas are usually seen in Buddhist gardens and temples, however, there are Taoists temples that have pagoda-like structures as well. This particular kind of architecture can be seen in many traditional East Asian cultures. These may include Nepal, China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and more.

A pagoda symbolizes different things to different cultures and religions. For instance, in India, it served as a tomb and these structures were built as temples for which loved ones of the dearly departed could make offerings to spirits and souls – especially to their ancestors.

In China, on the other hand, a similar form of architectural design is used in their homes, temples, and palaces. There are buildings with pavilions whose roofs look similar to those of a pagoda. There are terraces and verandas which are designed to look like a multi-storeyed structure.

Typical Structure of the Pagoda Tower

A typical pagoda tower has multiple tiers whose number would depend on the religion being considered. However, it is more common to find pagodas which have odd-numbered stories. Most Chinese pagodas have five tiers each to represent the five natural elements of earth, fire, water, wind, and metal. For the Chinese, these are the most important as they represent states of being and the cycle of life. “Fire helped create the Earth, the Earth produces metal, metal has the ability to collect water, water will nourish life and wood, then wood feeds fire which then creates the Earth” – the cycle shall continue.

For other cultures and religion, nine tiered pagodas represent the nine heavens of Buddhism. Those that are smaller in size represents other ideas. The main concept of the pagoda is to show proportionality and symmetry – a symbol of balance and stability. These are very important pillars of the Buddhist religion.

Wooden Pagodas

For a structure which is built higher than most of its kind during the earlier times, it is sure that the structural stability of these towers is a bit of a danger. Most of the pagoda structures are built in East Asia, countries which are susceptible to multiple forces of nature like typhoons and earthquakes. A rigid structure, which is made from stone, is much more dangerous in sudden movements. Structures made from wood adds to the flexibility of the tall structure.

Most of the pagoda structures which are still standing today are made of wood. This is particularly due to the fact that the material can move along the motion of a force be it strong wind or quakes from the ground. One of the proofs for this is that the oldest standing pagoda in Japan is made from wood.

On the other hand, wooden pagodas are still at risk because extremely high and dry temperatures can easily cause a fire. A tower structure like a pagoda will be useless and dangerous when damaged by flames, which is why there is a considerable amount of pagodas that remain in ruins today. It is also more susceptible with changes in temperature as wood can easily rot when exposed to snow and moist.  

Stone Pagodas

More modern pagodas are made from stone. These pagodas have evolved from wood as the exploration for structural stability developed. What is interesting about wooden pagodas is that the roofing material used are extremely heavy. This causes excessive supports and bracings in wooden roof eaves, making the structure even heavier. The taller the structure becomes, the more danger the foundation faces as well.

Once engineers of pagodas have realized ways to combine the strengths of both stone and wood, they have found ways of building the tower with fewer materials but more stability. Instead of pointed edges like that of wooden pagodas, stone pagodas usually have rectangular or square bases. Progressive tiers are made with smaller pillars. There are still roof eaves which are made from tile materials and its supports are made with more stone and less wood.

Different Pagodas in Japan

The Japanese Pagoda Tree

The Japanese Pagoda tree, or the Sophora japonica, is a tree species which has deciduous leaves and flowers. It got its name probably because its fruits look like strings of beans with a pointed tip – a similar looking figure to a pagoda tower.

In history, this tree actually originated from China instead of Japan. It has been a culture in early China to use this tree in temple entrances and in village edges, perhaps as a means of protection. However, it has gained its role as an ornamental tree when early horticulturists have used this tree in decorating traditional Japanese gardens – the prime destination to view it during its shedding season. Its flowers are beautiful during the late summer months.

Japanese Pagoda Tree leaves

The leaves of this tree are small and bladed. They usually make a really beautiful sight during the autumn months because, at maturity, the leaves fall off on their own. This kind of tree is very common even outside of Japan as a decorative element to line up streets, parking lots, and the like.

What is special about this tree is that it has a multitude of medicinal properties which range from being anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, to being a diuretic and purgative. Some studies have shown that it has properties of the fruit can be anti-cancer, anti-tumor, and even anti-obesity. On the other hand, it must not be taken by a pregnant woman as it may cause harm to the unborn child.

The Japanese Pagoda Lantern

Also known as a toro, the Japanese pagoda lantern is a traditional designed outdoor lighting which is used in oriental gardening. These pagoda lanterns have the hanging type and the platform type. The hanging ones are usually tied to the eaves of the roof or are hung in branches. The platform type, as its name suggests, is laid on a pedestal. These are more common and are used as ornamentation in Japanese gardens and courtyards.

For the Japanese, lanterns play very important roles. For instance, lanterns are believed to guide the spirits home during the Obon Festival and back again to their resting place when the celebration ends. It is also usually used to light up pathways that lead to the main buildings of worship in temples as in the Buddhist religion these are considered as offerings to Buddha.

The Japanese Pagoda Statue: Japanese Pagoda Garden Ornament

Traditional gardens are usually designed to mimic landscapes and landmarks. They are usually built and designed to look like smaller or scaled versions of important sights in Japan. For instance, a temple in one city in Japan can mimic a larger temple somewhere else in the county. To do this, they can re-create the buildings and main halls. However, the pagodas are hard to re-create this is why they just make small scaled statues in the size and shape of a pagoda.

Many temples in Japan have pagoda statues, some homes have them as well. What is interesting is that some lanterns in Japan are designed to look like miniature pagodas. These are usually made of stone and rock. Other pagoda statues are made from wood and metal, which are of higher price and quality because of its rareness. There are places in Japan to have these pagoda statues made and there are ready-made products of this as well.

Japanese Pagoda Tattoos

The pagoda has become an iconic form of art and architecture in Japan that there are some people who have tattoos made out to look like pagodas. Customers who have pagoda tattoos have them on their skin not just because of the majestic beauty of the architecture but also for what it represents. As explained, it symbolizes stability, balance, and symmetry. Some pagodas represent the heavens, others represent the elements of the earth. All in all, a pagoda is closely related to the spirit, worship, and spirituality.

What is the importance of Pagodas in Japanese culture?

The Japanese Pagoda Garden

Japanese gardens are more than just the plants which are thriving in it, sometimes a Japanese garden is what it represents – be it a recreation of a bigger landmark, or a place of meditation and worship. A traditional garden in Japan have elements, items, and pieces which make it symbolic. Every detail has a deeper meaning.

Conversely, pagodas in Japan are usually surrounded by lush gardens and greenery. There are also artificial or natural ponds nearby. Since a pagoda plays such an important role in remembering ancestral spirits, or in religion, it is important that the surroundings give a space for people to clear their minds. Pagodas are found outdoors and are usually located a distance from the main halls and courtyards of temples. The quietness of the surroundings and the beauty of nature (or the garden) shall bring peace to the mind and soul of any visitor. Enjoying the peace comes free with the beautiful view.

What is the religious background of Japanese pagodas?

History of the Pagoda

The actual origin of the concept of a pagoda structure is in India, not China. Its original form is known as the stupa which is a monument built to store sacred artifacts and relics. It is believed that the ashes of Buddha are stored in a mound called a stupa.

Its popularity became widespread in East Asia when Buddhism spread out as well. Monks and missionaries have reiterated of the sacred importance of the stupa in their religion. Soon, simple dome-shaped monuments have been more elaborate and challenged current architecture of the time. Believers of Buddhism made it a point to create majestic towers as a means of expressing the holiness of whatever it stores. 

Soon enough, each East Asian nation has their own interpretation of the meaning and importance of a pagoda. They have developed their own design and architecture as well, but most have retained its multi-tiered characteristic – a feature which makes it unique from any other kind of architecture at the time.

Most famous Pagodas Structures and Structures in Japan

There are a number of popular pagodas in Japan alone. Some date back to the early 600 AD while others are much younger dating back to the late 1100s. Most, if not all, of Japan’s pagodas, are considered as National Treasures and UNESCO World Heritages – proving that its preservation is a priority by the Japanese society.

One of the most popular would be the pagoda of the Hokki-ji in Nara. It is known to be the oldest wooden monuments in Japan, the oldest well-preserved pagoda in the country. This pagoda has a height of 24 meters and is home to a 3.5meter tall statue of an 11-faced god. Another popular Pagoda in Japan would be the pagoda in Ichijo-ji. The temple was built in 650 AD by Emperor Kotoku, but the pagoda was a later addition and was built only in the 1100s. This pagoda is also considered as a national treasure of Japan.

The five-story pagoda of Horyu-ji is also one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world. It stands at a height of more than 30 meters. What is interesting is that it is believed that the wood used in the pagoda dates back to 590 AD. The design of this pagoda is special, and it is believed that it is home to a fragment of Buddha’s bones. This is one of the reasons why there is no access to the interior of the pagoda.

The To-ji Pagoda is the tallest wooden building in Japan. It has a height of 54 meters. It is believed to have been built in the late 1600s during the Edo Period. This particular pagoda symbolizes the strength and popularity of then-capital city of Kyoto – a majestic structure to represent the importance of Kyoto to Japan’s history and society. It is a symbol of power and stability. Today, it is considered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Treasure.