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Zen Style Medieval Japanese Architecture (Karayo)

Updated on January 25, 2012

The Architecture of the Zen Sect (Zenshuyo)

The first Zen Buddhist sect, the Rinzai, was introduced to Japan by a monk called Myoan Eisai (1141-1215), only to be followed shortly by the second Zen sect, the Soto, that was introduced by Eihei Dogen (1200-1253).

Eisai was supported by the second Kamakura shogun, Yoritomo's son Yoriie, and was encouraged to build Buddhist temples in Kyoto and in Kamakura. And so he did. Dogen, however, declined the shogunal regent's invitation and chose instead to withdraw deep into the woods among the mountains of what is today known as Fukui Prefecture, where he established the temple Eiheiji, the headquarters of the Soto.

Both the Rinzai and the Soto sects gained ground rapidly due to the fact that the strict self-discipline and respect for intuitive understanding they displayed was greatly appreciated by the warrior mind. Also, these Zen Buddhist sects had deep connections to Chinese culture and learning and were not under the influence of the court, which the shogunal regime was highly suspicious of.

Shofukuji Zen Buddhist Temple, 1407
Shofukuji Zen Buddhist Temple, 1407

Apart from a new doctrine, Zen Buddhism also brought with it a new Zen architectural style that - not unlike the Great Buddha style, - was perfected in Sung-dynasty China, but possessed a completely different in design.

The typical Zen complex is axial in plan and bilaterally symmetrical, which is reflective of the regimentation of the Zen monk's daily life. Each act of a Buddhist monk's day is devised to contribute to the big picture of their religious discipline. Zen sects have rules for both the shape and appointments of every structure and the placement and scale of every building within the Zen complex.

What makes the Zen style of architecture most evident is the way individual buildings are structured and decorated. Each hall is elevated on a stone podium and has a stone floor. The posts are placed on carved stone blocks, or plinths, and are beveled at both top and bottom. The brackets rest above each post and in the intercolumnar spaces. (Look at the picture of the Jizodo of Shofukuji below.)

Jizodo of Shofukuji Temple, 1407
Jizodo of Shofukuji Temple, 1407

Zen style architecture in Japan is also known by the name Karayo, which means the "Chinese style", a name that sets it apart from the earlier style of Buddhist architecture, which by the 12th century had been considered indigenous and as such was named Wayo, meaning the "Japanese style".

Like the Great Buddha style of Chogen, many of its innovative aspects were adopted into the construction technology of other sects, but unlike Chogen's style, Zen style architecture went on to thrived on its own as well.

The Shofukuji Jizodo Temple, 1407
The Shofukuji Jizodo Temple, 1407

The Shofukuji Jizodo Temple, 1407

The Jizodo of Shofukuji temple was built in 1407, which makes it the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in eastern Japan to which we can affix an exact date.

The structure is 3-by-3 bays and 1-story tall, but the surrounding area with pent roof gives the impression of a 5-by-5-bay, 2-story-tall structure. Over top of it rests a hip-and-gable (irimoya) roof. At the heart of the Jizodo is a 1-bay-square section housing the altar.

Compared to the Great Buddha style and the Wayo style, the Karayo Zen-style members are thinner and give the exterior a fine and slender appearance. This doesn't come at the cost of sacrifice in stability due to better use of the tie beams (nuki) that pierced the columns they bridged together.

The Shariden of Enkakuji Temple, Kamakura

The Shariden of Enkakuji temple in Kamakura has a very similar structure to the Jizodo Temple, and is just as famous. Unfortunately, the original building burned to the ground in 1563, and the present structure was brought from Taiheiji, one of the 5 Kamakura nunneries. However, Taiheiji's history is obscure and no precise date can be fixed to the Shariden.

The Shariden of Enkakuji temple in Kamakura
The Shariden of Enkakuji temple in Kamakura

The Double Roof System

Although the Zen style was introduced from Sung China, Japan's Zen Buddhist structures are far from being exact replicas of Chinese prototypes. Japanese carpenters changed the original designs to suit their preferences. The roof in Japan is usually covered with wood shingles in place of the Chinese-style tiles and is held up by a double-tiered system of rafters.

The second hidden layer (nodaruki) supports the roof and is set at a steeper pitch than the exposed first layer of rafters (keshodaruki) beneath it. The construction is further strengthened by the employment of a cantilever (hanegi) that sits between the two layers of rafters.

Prior to the development of the double-roof system in the 10th century, wide spaces could only be built employing a steep drop in the angle of the rafters over the peripheral parts (hisashi) of the structure surrounding the center (moya).

With the double roof introduced, the pitch of the underside of the roof could be set up independently of that of the exterior, allowing for more gently inclined rafters over the periphery. This, in turn, got rid of heavy shadows and gave an impression of serenity to the outlying areas. This double roof system was entirely a Japanese invention, after which Japanese temple spaces felt quite different from their Chinese counterparts.

Kenchoji Zen Buddhist Compound
Kenchoji Zen Buddhist Compound
Juniper trees and Buddha Hall in Kenchoji Temple, Kamakura
Juniper trees and Buddha Hall in Kenchoji Temple, Kamakura

The Typical Zen Monastic Plan

The Zen Buddhist complex uses an axial layout. One good example of this can be found in an extant plan of Kenchoji from 1331. We enter the temple complex over an arched bridge (1), pass through the Main Gate (Somon) (2), and then go on between rows of junipers stand in front of the Enlightenment Gate (Sammon) (5), which is the equivalent of the inner gate (Chumon) of other sects.

The bathing facilities (Yokushitsu) (4) can be found to the east, while the latrine (Seichin) (3) is located to the west. Beyond is the central court (6) planted with junipers and bordered by a corridor. We find the Buddha Hall (Butsuden) (9) at the north. Situated to the east of the Buddha Hall is the hall for the worship of local deities (Tochido) (11) while to the west lies the Founder's Hall (Soshido) (10).

Leaving the central court we find the temple kitchens (Kuri) (8) to the east and the Monks' Quarters (Sodo) (7) to the west. Up north is placed the Dharma Hall (Hatto) (12), which serves as a place for lectures on doctrine.

Further north lies the Guest Hall (Kyakuden) (13) overlooking an elegant pond (14), a place for the entertainment of important persons. In other Zen compound this area houses a hojo, the residence of the abbot and another area for doctrinal discussion.

Kencho-ji Temple Timelapse Video

Beautiful gardens of the Kencho-ji Temple in Kamakura


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    • profile image

      your mom 

      6 years ago


    • dobo700 profile image


      7 years ago from Australia

      Very cool architecture :)

    • Bldg an Architect profile image

      Bldg an Architect 

      8 years ago

      Very interesting hub! Thanks!

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Hungary

      Thank you, Cyndi. One of my fave topics. :D

      Thanks for reading, Audrey!! :D

      Thank you Aurelio! The videos are my favorite. :D

    • alocsin profile image

      Aurelio Locsin 

      8 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Excellent hub about some beautiful architecture. I liked the videos a lot. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      8 years ago from California

      Loved this hub!!!

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 

      8 years ago from Georgia

      This was a really great article about the history of the Zen Temples in Japan. Interesting information and it was so well presented. Thank you for enlightening us.

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Hungary

      Hi Simone! I'm sure you've seen most of this stuff already. Thanks for reading, though! :D

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      LOVED this Hub! I've always been in awe of the architecture of various castles, shrines, and templates I've visited in Japan. It was great fun to learn a bit more about it!

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Hungary

      Thanks for stopping in and reading, Thomas!

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image


      8 years ago from Reno, Nevada


      It is very nice to make your acquaintance and to do so with such a great hub...double bonus for me! Beautifully done.


    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Hungary

      Thanks Tammy! I gotta love anything that has a double roof. :D

    • tammyswallow profile image


      8 years ago from North Carolina

      This is very interesting. It is amazing how you can tell an area by its style of architechture. I love the Zen type building. Well done!

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Hungary

      RHW, that'd make such an interesting hub. To me, at least. hahah Thanks for reading. :D

      Linda, I'm so zen right now. ;)

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 

      8 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Bela, this is a fascinating hub! I had a zen-like feeling while reading it. Well done!

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 

      8 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I think this is perfection for a hub:). So interesting, great writing - so professional. Wow! Awesome. I love the Buddist train of thought and have always been intrigued by it. Very cool! My oldest daughter is taking a class right now in college in Chinese history and we were just talking about that an interesting hub it would make last night.

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Hungary

      lisadpreston, thanks for stopping in and reading!

      happyturtle, thanks I like them too. :)

      Hawkesdream, Zen structures appeal to me a great deal. :D

      posh, hi dude! :D

      Ardie, I like this hub too. Thanks! :D

    • Ardie profile image


      8 years ago from Neverland

      Zen, this is a beautiful Hub with plenty of information about these wonderous buildings.

    • poshcoffeeco profile image

      Steve Mitchell 

      8 years ago from Cambridgeshire

      I agree with lisadpreston, it looks so peaceful amongst these buildings. Beautifully researched Haunty.

    • Hawkesdream profile image


      8 years ago from Cornwall

      You have made a comprehensive study here, Haunty. I have often wondered about the Zen structures, and you have explained it so well.

    • happyturtle profile image


      8 years ago from UK

      Thanks for creating this hub. I do like the line drawing (Jizodo of Shofukuji Temple, 1407) with explanations. This appeals to my diagrammatic mind.

    • lisadpreston profile image


      8 years ago from Columbus, Ohio

      These are beautiful structures. I love them. They emanate peace! Thanks!


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