Architecture of Asuka: palaces & pagodas

During this period, great building structures and sculptures in the “Asuka style” were erected. A census in 624 records 46 temples, ancient texts mention “24 temples of the capital” in 680, and “the Seven Temples” in 690.

A model of Asuka Kiyomihara no Miya palace and other structures (Daily Yomiuri photo)

A model of Asuka Kiyomihara no Miya palace and other structures (Daily Yomiuri photo)

What we must make of ancient Asuka’s culture is to be gleaned from the architectural remains of Asuka’s many temples including the Asukadera temple, Horyuji temple in Ikaruga, and that of Yamadadera Kairou.

Temples and temple complexes

Built by Soga no Umako in 588 and completed in 596, Asukadera is known to be Japan’s first official temple. The magnificent temple’s ruins, lay claims to be among Japan’s oldest temples, housing the bronze Buddha statue of the Asuka Daibutsu. A great temple, covering 200 meters on one side, it is known that Korean workmen from Paekche (Kudara in Japanese) were engaged for its construction.

Other great temples at Shitennoji and Ikaruga, were built on a plan that had a rectangular garan inner precinct that was enclosed by a roofed corridor and to be entered from the south through the middle gate (chumon). Within the precinct was a pagoda, a main hall (kondo), a lecture hall (kodo).

Ikarugadera was destroyed by fire. Renamed Horyuji when it was rebuilt, the renewed temple had a new innovative design element that moved the pagoda from its traditionally central position to the west side of the compound and opposite to the main hall on the east side.  

Begun construction in A.D. 587 by Emperor Yomei but completed in 607 by Empress Suiko and Prince Shotoku, Horyuji is today Japan’s oldest existing temple complex. Horyuji’s structures — the Five-story Pagoda (Goju no To), the Golden Hall (Kondo), the Inner Gate (Chumon) and most of the surrounding Corridor (Kairo) are also the world’s oldest surviving buildings.

Yakushi Temple was ordered to be built  in 680 by Emperor Temmu when Empress Jito fell ill. The temple was designed with a rectangular inner precinct with the main hall positioned at its center and its two pagodas, one to the east and one to the west.

Chinese-style palaces and capitals

The Asuka Kiyomihara Palace was where Emperor Temmu and Empress Jito resided from 672 to 694. Nihon shoki mentions that the palace complex had a hall of state (daigokuden), great gates, gardens, the imperial residence and ministry buildings and administrative offices — all of which suggest Chinese design. A semi-urban capital district (kyo) grew up around the palace and a Capital Office was established to govern it.

Courtesy of Asukamura municipal government

Asuka Kiyomihara no Miya palace (Courtesy of Asukamura municipal government)

Archaeological excavations have unearthed an elaborate drainage or irrigation system as well as unusually shaped stone fountains in the ancient palace gardens.

Shumisenseki stone fountain (Daily Yomiuri photo)

Shumisenseki stone fountain (Daily Yomiuri photo)

Excavations of the palace site of Emperor Kotoku revealed even more clearly that the palace plans followed the Chinese model. The palace built between 645 and 653 in the capital city of Naniwakyo contained a large compound (chodoin) containing the Eight Ministries and behind it a smaller one, entered through a massive gate, that contained the quarters of the emperor.

Roving palaces and revolving courts

Asuka breezes
which used to flutter the sleeves
of lovely ladies
aimlessly blow on in vain
now that the court moved away.

Manyoshu, book 1, poem 51

This poem from Manyoshi, alludes to the custom during the Asuka era, whereby the imperial family by custom resided out of multiple palaces and conducted state affairs from mobile courts.  It was the practice for the ruler to build one or more palaces sometimes including a summer palace, or  a new palace would be relocated for reasons of ritual cleansing and purity after the death of the previous sovereign.  But the practice was expensive and it prevented the development of a stable political order.

Fujiwara-no-Miya was occupied by Empress Jito at the end of the Asuka period from 694 until 710, and it was the first palace to house multi-generations of the imperial family. Located in the northern part of the planned city Fujiwarakyo, both the palace and the city with its grid layout, were closely modeled on the Chinese pattern.

The Asuka Style

In early temple-building, the pagoda was of symbolic importance and usually was placed in a central position.  In Asuka, multiple golden halls usually surrounded a central pagoda in the late 6th century at Asukadera, but later the pagoda lost its imprtance and became more ornamental so that in later 7th century designs, two or more pagodas would frame a centrally positioned golden hall instead.

Some of the elements that clearly indicate the Asuka style of architecture found in the four oldest Horyuji structures are:

  • the cloud-pattern bracket arms that support the eaves of pagodas;
  • a slight convex line on the pagoda columns (called entasis);
  •  the stylized swastika pattern in the ornamental railings;
  •  the inverted V-shaped struts beneath them.
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