These towers characteristically have multiple stories (having three or five tiers is common for Japanese pagodas) with beautifully designed eaves. The design and shape of the pagodas found in Japan will be further discussed later in this article.
Origins of the Pagoda
It is thought that pagodas originated in India though many would believe, due to the name, that it was first created in China or Japan. The predecessors of the pagoda, called stupa, were first created in India. This concept of a tiered structure then passed through Korea and China, which eventually made its way to Japan approximately 1,300 years ago. Though the general idea of the many tiers still remains, the shape of the stupa differs greatly from the pagodas that can be seen standing in Japan today.
The stupa, which can be translated to 'tuft of hair' or 'pile or mound' in Sanskrit, were used as relics that would generally be placed over the ashes of holy individuals, including Buddha. A stupa is generally a five-tiered system, of which each tier is a different shape that represents a different element. The idea of having the representation of the five elements, though not done through various shaped tiers, may also be seen in Goju no Tou (or gojunotou), which are five-story pagodas in Japan. Similarly, three-story pagodas, which are also fairly common, are known as Sanju no Tou.
As aforementioned, the stupa was used as an important relic in Buddhism, which has had a great deal of influence in Japan. Some of the Buddhist temples that are found in Japan today will feature a pagoda, in particular, one that contains the five tiers. The number of stories is significant in that, as does the stupa, the tiers can represent the five elements, the godai. The godai are as follows: chi (earth), sui (water), ka (fire), fu (wind), and ku (void, sky, or in some cases, heaven). The bottom story of the pagoda will represent earth, working its way up to the top story representing sky. The finial (the spire at the top of the pagoda) is also separated into five sections as well.
Structure of the Pagoda
The structure of the pagoda is both amazing and important to their still-standing structures today. All pagodas are made out of wood, an important feature since it adds to their flexibility, which is one of the key reasons that pagodas can stay standing during earthquakes in Japan. The one fall back of using wood as the entire structure is that pagodas are extremely susceptible to fire, which is the reason that many pagodas are no longer in existence today. As well, pagodas use relatively few nails to hold the structure together, and rely greatly on slots to fit pieces together, allowing even more flexibility to the structure.
The general architecture of the pagoda starts with a square base at the bottom and as more stories are added, the next level gets progressively smaller. Each level has twelve pillars, known as gawarabashi, which are enclosed by what are essentially boxes that lack bottoms. But since each level becomes smaller, the gawarabashi also move inwards towards the center of the pagoda, and are therefore supported by horizontal bases. These horizontal bases are then supported by diagonal beams, known as tanuki. The tanuki start inside the pagoda and slant diagonally downwards to the outside of the buildings. The portion of the tanuki that protrudes from the pagoda is what is used to support the large eaves of each tier. Due to this design, the eaves act as a counterweight, balancing out the weight put on the tanuki by the gawarabashi that are supporting a level of the pagoda.
The eaves are extremely heavy, due to the vast number of tiles that are laid across its surface, and thus makes a perfect counterweight for the tanuki. This then brings about one problem. If each eave is supported by the level above itself, what happens to the eave that is located at the top of the pagoda? To solve this problem, a finial, or spire, made of copper or iron is placed at the very top of the pagoda, and is used as the counterweight for the uppermost eave. The final important piece of the pagoda, and something that is very rarely seen in pagodas in China and Korea, is the shinbashira, the central pillar that runs through the center of the pagoda from the bottom to the top. All of these pieces together create a structure that has floors which are able to sway independently of one another, yet another aspect important to the strength pagodas show when it comes to earthquakes and typhoons in Japan.
Modern Life with Pagodas
Today, in Japan, stands the Horyuji Temple, built around the year 607 to honor one of the leaders of Japan who died from an illness. In 1993 this temple was given the honor of being considered a national heritage site by UNESCO. The temple contains many different sections, but in the Sai-in area of the Horyuji temple stands a Goju no Tou (five-story pagoda), which is one of the oldest wood buildings in the world. This pagoda stands at a height of 32.45 meters (122 feet), and has an approximated weight at three full tons.
Another well-known Goju no Tou that was built in 1644 is at Toji (or Eastern Temple), yet another national heritage site marked by UNESCO in 1994. This pagoda is the tallest wooden tower that exists in Japan today, spanning a height of 57 meters (180 feet); however, it is not the tallest pagoda that has ever existed. Some pagodas, which were destroyed by fires in the past had reached tremendous heights. Examples of such is an octagonal, nine-story pagoda that stood 83 meters (approximately 270 feet) and the pagoda of Shokokuji, a seven-tiered structure which is estimated to have been 108 meters (355 feet) tall.
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