copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)                                             

Click Here to return to
Romance of Old Japan
Content Page

Click here to return to the
Previous Chapter





The Ruined Temple


Time glistening rain-drops lend deep velvet hues

To mossy roofs, whose graceful sweeping lines

Repeat the pendant branches of the pines,

Which stretch in silent shadowed avenues,

Sharp silhouetted ‘gainst the sky’s deep blues,

Leading to lonely and neglected shrines

Where golden lacquer now but dimly shines,

Whose gods no priest invokes or suppliant sues.


Forgotten gods in their recesses dim

That no one longer either fears or loves,

And yet for homage do not wait in vain,

Nude children dance about the fountains’ rim,

Peace broods o’er all the place, and cooing doves

Seek shelter in the temples from the rain.

OF all Japanese arts her architecture, the most com­prehensive and significant, has been least under­stood and still less appreciated.

The majority of Western writers have characterized it as frail, fantastic and monotonous, and have dismissed it with a perfunctory tribute to its ornate decoration. Nor is this strange, since the architecture of the Orient is as far removed from that of the Occident as the diametric poles of their respective civilizations.

Not only must it be judged as the most consummate example of wood construction, but as the supreme artistic embodiment of Buddhism and “The Soul of the East.” A conscientious analyst will find in the architecture of Japan one of the most perfect examples of the evolution through twelve centuries of a style that the world has ever seen, an art not less sincerely inspired than the Mediæval Gothic or the Golden Age of Greece.

Professor Fenollosa, the well known art critic, says:

“It is not enough to approach these delicate children of the spirit with the eye of mere curiosity, or the cold, rigid standard of an alien school. One’s heart must be large enough to learn to love as the Japanese artist loves, before the veil can be lifted to the full splendour of their hidden beauties.”

Primarily the architecture of Japan owes its individ­uality to the volcanic nature of the country and the frequent earthquakes. Its temples have been built for over a thousand years upon non-rigid foundations, the wooden columns being set in ball-and-socket joints upon a masonry base. This renders the frames elastic, so that after an earthquake they resume their place with little damage.

 "Painted pagodas lift their lofty spires,
And vague vermilion caves, like smouldering fires

With scythe-like sweep into the azure keen"
Permission of Nara Museum

Pagoda of Yakushiji

"In place of rigid symmetry it lifts its graceful roofs in a
capricious irregularity characteristically Japanese"
With permission of the Department of Education, Tokyo, Japan

Kondo, Horiuji

“Its delicately curved roofs of green-grey tiles and dull vermilion
framework remain today unequalled in Japan”

With permission of the Department of Education, Tokyo, Japan


Kondo, Horiuji

"Its delicately curved roofs of green-grey tiles and dull
vermilion framework remain today in unequalled in Japan"
With the permission of the Department of Education, Tokyo, Japan


“The Golden Pavilion”

“From its gently curving eaves hang corroded bells, that tinkle with the breeze”


The heavy overhanging roofs weigh down the struc­ture and assist in their stability,  while the complicated corbellings and dove-tailed frame-work distribute the shock into  an infinite number of light vibrations.

In the lofty pagodas is a well (a full one hundred feet high) in which a great beam hangs, suspended from the topmost rafter, which acts as a pendulum, and by its great weight retards the movement during seismic disturbances.

Legend tells that the architect who first conceived this clever device was poisoned by his jealous rival. Those were happy days when artists met with such supreme appreciation! 



Painted pagodas lift their lofty spires

O’er billowy clouds of cryptomeria green,

Thrusting their storied roofs of silvery sheen

And vague vermilion eaves, like smouldering fires,

Faint dying embers of forgotten pyres,

With scythe-like sweep into the azure keen;

By rays of molten gold the magic scene

Illumined dimly as the day expires.


From angle rafters hang corroded bells

Dull emerald bronze, soft-chiming with the breeze.

Before the temple’s golden-lacquered cells

Bald-pated bonzes chant on bended knees,

Where sad-eyed Shaka sits in holy gloom

Enthroned upon a giant lotus bloom.

With the introduction of Buddhism in the middle of the sixth century there came from Korea to the court of Prince Shotoku, an army of monks, priests, architect and sculptors who constructed and embellished the famous monastery of Horiuji at Nara, the first notable example of Japanese art.

This group of stately structures represents not alone the birth of national civilization but as a supreme embodiment of Korean and Chinese art still remains the most perfect monument in all Asia, the type from which succeeding Japanese architecture drew its origin.

Entered through a massive, lofty gate, in the midst of a vast court, encircled by the Kwairo or cloister, stand the temple, lecture hall, and pagoda, with minor halls, temples, shrines, and dwellings of the priests. These subordinate buildings have been reconstructed within the last few centuries, but with great fidelity to the original Korean work. An alteration of the six­teenth century, the lower stories of The Kondo and Gojuto mar the proportion of these graceful buildings; but, in spite of this, their delicately curved roofs of green-grey tiles and dull vermilion framework remain today unequalled in Japan in simplicity of construction and subtle purity of line.

Within the temples are the most ancient treasures of Korean and early Japanese sculpture, and the walls of the Kondo display faded mural paintings in which Indian influences are plainly discernible.



A century later the first native architects built at Yakushiji, near Nara, a pagoda which in subtlety of line and daring of design is perhaps the most unique in Japan. In place of the rigid symmetry of its Korean prototype, this pagoda lifts its graceful roofs in a capricious irregularity characteristically Japanese.

This charming structure marks the beginning of a national style, and exhibits the first example of the double brackets, developed in later periods to such richness and elaboration of detail. 

Old Nara

O cuckoo of the ancient city great,

Iso-no-kami; now thy golden lay

Echoes unheard within her empty gate,

Singing the glory of a vanished day!


Little remains of the ancient populous city of Nara whose hundreds of temples, monasteries, and yashiki once covered an area of thirty square miles. Incessant wars and conflagrations have destroyed all the import­ant buildings of its early civilization, so that we must look elsewhere for examples of the architecture of this period.

After the passing of the early Korean influence during the eighth century there was a temporary decline in Japanese art. Of this period only the small and primi­tive temples of the Toshodaiji, Todaiji, and Shinya­kushiji remain.

With the removal of the court to Kyoto in the ninth century came from China a renaissance of Oriental civilization. The golden age of learning, philosophy, and the fine arts had begun.



At Uji near Kyoto was constructed during the Fujiwara period a building, the Phoenix Pavilion of the Byo do-in, which in refinement of proportion and purity of style is unsurpassed in all Japan.

The composition consists of a central shrine flanked by two-storied galleries leading to end pavilions. Not the least of its charm is due to its setting in the midst of lofty trees on the marge of a lagoon, which mirrors its fragile balconies in inverted grace. 

Lovely as is its exterior the sumptuousness of its splendid interior is beyond description. What it must have been in its day of glory we may only imagine. After eight centuries of neglect and decay it still remains a masterpiece of grace and dignity. 

Its carved and coffered ceiling is inlaid with ivory, silver and mother-of-pearl upon a background of black lacquer, and its walls glow with polychromatic paintings and the glory of burnished gold.

Pavilion of the Phoenix, Uji

“On the marge of a lagoon which mirrors its fragile balconies in inverted grace”

With Permission of the Department of Education, Tokyo, Japan


“Bronze incense-burners in the likeness of devils

fumed under the shadow of silken banners”



“Apart from St. Mark’s in Venice and the Capella Palatina in Palermo,” says Ralph Adams Cram, in his Impressions Of Japanese Architecture, “I know of no religious interiors that can vie with such caves of glory as Chion-in.”

Fragrant incense, great golden lotus, vast baldachinos of beaten filigree, vestments stiff with embroidery, sonorous brazen gongs, weird chanting of bald bonzes — it seems a vision born of Nights Arabian, gorgeous, un­earthly, inconceivable.

Rudyard Kipling paints it with his bold brush in the glowing colours of Solomon’s Temple. 

“A staircase of cut stone takes you down to the temple of Chion-in, where I arrived on Easter Sunday just before service, and in time to see the procession of the Cherry Blossom. They had a special service at a place called St. Peter’s at Rome about the same time, but the priests of Buddha excelled the priests of the Pope. Thus it happened. The main front of the temple was three hundred feet long, a hundred feet deep, and sixty feet high. One roof covered it all, and saving for the tiles there was no stone in the structure; nothing but wood three hundred years old, as hard as iron. The pillars that upheld the roof were three feet, four feet, and five feet in diameter, and guiltless of any paint. They showed the natural grain of the wood till they were lost in the rich brown darkness overhead. The cross-beams were of grained wood of great richness; cedar-wood and camphor-wood and the hearts of gigantic pine had been put under requisition for the great work. One carpenter—they call him only a carpenter—had designed the whole, and his name is remembered to this day. A half of the temple was railed off for the congregation by a two-foot railing, over which silks of ancient device had been thrown. Within the railing were all the religious fittings, but these I cannot describe. All I remember was row upon row of little lacquered stands each holding a rolled volume of sacred writings; an altar as tall as a cathedral organ where gold strove with colour, colour with lacquer, and lacquer with inlay, and candles such as Holy Mother Church uses only on her greatest days, shed a yellow light that softened all. Bronze incense-burners in the likeness of dragons and devils fumed under the shadow of silken banners, behind which, wood tracery, as delicate as frost on a window-pane, climbed to the ridge-pole. Only there was no visible roof to this temple. The light faded away under the monstrous beams, and we might have been in a cave a hundred fathoms below the earth but for the sunshine and blue sky at the portals, where the little children squabbled and shouted.”



Overhanging a deep ravine, blazing with autumn maples and swept by a rushing torrent, upon a bulwark of giant piles, looms the ancient temple of Kyomidzu.

Around it runs a portico of massive wooden pillars supporting a scythe-curved roof of velvet thatch. Beneath this purple pall hangs a buttressed balcony commanding an exquisite view of town and plain.

From this balcony jealous husbands of long syne were wont to hurl their wives, in the naïve belief that if innocent they would survive the hundred-foot fall to the rocks below.

Here throughout the year the faithful throng to wor­ship Kwannon and enjoy the eternal pageant of earth and sky.


The Silver Pavilion

“In a sequestered grove of pines, maples, and
cryptomeria, stands the time-stained Ginkaku-ji”



“The Yomei-mon, gorgeous with polychromatic carving,
commanding the entry to the third terrace”



Upon the overthrowing of the Fujiwara Shoguns, at the end of the fourteenth century, the Ashikaga founded a new dynasty, built the city of Kamakura, and in­augurated a new epoch of civilization.

After two centuries of internecine strife the arts of peace had languished, but with the coming of the Ashi­kaga a recrudescence of Chinese culture swept over the land. Representing this period are two types of struc­ture, the pseudo-Chinese temples of the Zen sect, and the Imperial pleasure pavilions of the Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji near Kyoto. Of the former, the vast seven­teenth century monastery of Obaku-san is an imposing monument of the classical Chinese type. In these buildings the long, low eaves of the Korean type are supplanted by steep and lofty roofs supported by intri­cate bracketings. The temple, almost square in plan, is set on a stone terrace and consists of a central nave rising into the roof, surrounded by aisles, on one side of which are grouped chapels, shrines, and altars.



A fifteen-minute walk north-west from Kyoto, shrined within an adorable little garden, stands the Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion, built in the twelfth century by the Ashikaga Shogun Yoshimitzu. Here the great states­man retired after a laborious career, to meditate at his ease, the revered master of a coterie of poets, painters, and men of learning. The graceful little edifice rises from the surface of a lily-dotted lakelet, which reflects its golden balconies, from whose gently curving eaves hang corroded bells, that tinkle with the breeze.



An hour’s walk north-east of Kyoto, in a sequestered grove of pines, maples, and cryptomeria is the time-stained Ginkaku-ji, or Silver Pavilion.

It was built toward the end of the thirteenth century, by the Shogun Yoshimasa, as a companion piece to the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. Within its gorgeous galleries dwelt a throng of bonzes, poetasters, and libertines, who led a life of unbridled sensuality.

Yoshimasa died in 1490 and the dainty Silver struc­ture was converted into a temple.



The end of the sixteenth century brought the down­fall of the Ashikaga. After the revolt of the barons under Hideyoshi, Ieyasu founded the Tokugawa dynasty, removed the capital to Yedo, and closed Japan from the outer world.

Under the shogunate of Ieyasu was established a feudal system more complete than that of Europe during the Middle Ages, and the succeeding century marks the highest tide of Japanese civilization. Buddhism fell into disrepute, and with the revival of Shinto, natural wood gave place to polychromatic carving and burnished lacquer, and “Japanese architecture burst from its brown chrysalis, a flaunting butterfly painted with the hues of dreams.”


The Sacred Forest


The multi-columned cryptomerias loom

In serried ranks, like vast cathedral choirs,

Through endless vistas, lifting lofty spires

O’er billowy clouds of burgeoned cherry bloom,

Whose shedded petals waft a faint perfume

Mingled with incense of the sacred fires

From Shinto shrines, where Tokugawa sires

Lie in the sleep of time’s eternal tomb.


Through towering portals, lichen-grown and grey,

The pilgrims file in never-ending line,

Cicada-like a drowsy chant they croon,

And at the temple-torii kneel and pray,

While pendant palms in silver radiance shine

Beneath the benediction of the moon.


“A rose-red city half as old as Time.” 

An avenue of giant cryptomerias twenty odd miles long leads to Nikko—an avenue of cypress-like trees with coppery-grey trunks and foliage of dull green, aligned so closely that their interlacing roots form a continuous wall along the interminable road, beneath banks abloom with azaleas and violets.

“Vistas of pillared shade,” broken only by an occa­sional opening where a village thrusts its thick-thatched roofs the silver trunks between.

“Never use the word magnificent until you have seen Nikko,” says a Japanese proverb. And well might one heed this admonition, for perhaps in all the world there is not a more magnificent mingling of Architecture and Nature, than this noble mausoleum of the Tokugawa Shoguns.

Beneath the arching vaults of the sacred forest, in the solemn spell of its ceaseless silence, unbroken even by the song of birds, we feel ourselves in an abode aloof from strife, where dwell only Beauty and eternal Peace. 

Tradition tells that a Shinto temple stood within the sacred grove in days long gone, that the beloved saint Kobo-Daishi established there a Buddhist temple in the early part of the ninth century. But it was not until the seventeenth century, when the body of the great Shogun Ieyasu was brought thither for interment, that Nikko assumed its full importance.

Across the tearing torrent of the Daiya-gawa arches a blood-red bridge, upon the very spot where Shodo-Shonin, the holy priest, first crossed the river. From that time only the Mikado, Shogun, and pilgrims are permitted to tread the Sacred Bridge which gleams like a great ruby against the emerald forest.



“Beneath a far-flung cryptomeria stands the Stable of the Sacred Horse”


The Three Monkeys. (Nikko)

“Evil, one must never mention,

Never see, nor ever hear”




At the extremity of an avenue of towering cryptomeria stands a massive granite torii, flanked on the left by a lofty pagoda and on the right by the Sambut-so-do shrine. A broad flight of flag-stones leads to a gate guarded by giant Nios, whose menacing mien seems rather to threaten than to invite the faithful to enter this ornate portal sculptured with fabulous imagery. Within is a spacious courtyard cinctured by a ver­milion wall. Beneath a far-flung cryptomeria stands the Stable of the Sacred Horse; under whose picturesque asymmetrical eaves are carven in open-work, with the audacity of Gothic grotesques, three little apes. One of the monkeys holds his hands to his mouth, another is stopping his ears, and the third blinding his eyes. 

And the carver’s plain intention

One may read, engraven clear:

“Evil, one must never mention,

Never see, nor ever hear!”

At the foot of the fore-court is a cistern of holy water. The font is hollowed from a great granite monolith and covered by a resplendent ebony and brass baldachin, supported by twelve ivory-white shafts.

Beyond the font is the Kyozo (Library of the Sacred Books), a graceful structure with delicately curving copper roofs. From its intricate brackets hang brass wind-bells, and the eaves are embellished with a wealth of multicoloured sculptures.

Twenty granite steps lead to a second terrace shad­owed by great-girthed cryptomeria bordered by a lichen-encrusted balustrade. Upon the right, beneath a brazen baldachin, hangs the great bell, which remains stationary and is rung by hurling against it a massive wooden ram. At the left stand a delicate bronze candelabrum and a revolving lantern of curiously in­congruous design, presented to the shrine by Dutch traders early in the seventeenth century.

Beyond looms the Yakush-do, gorgeous with black and gold and polychromatic carving, the shrine of the patron saint of Ieyasu, a masterpiece of surpassing rich­ness; and at the end stands a gate, the Yomei-mon commanding the entry to the third terrace.

Kipling says in his delightful Letters of Marque: 

“Men say that never man has given complete drawings, details, or descriptions of the Temples of Nikko. Only a German would try, and he would fail in spirit. Only a Frenchman could succeed in spirit but he would be inac­curate. I have a recollection of passing through a door with cloisonné hinges, with a golden lintel and red lacquer jambs, with panels of tortoise-shell lacquer and clamps of bronze tracery. It opened into a half-lighted hall on whose blue ceiling a hundred golden dragons romped and spat fire…

“That money, lakhs and lakhs of money, had been lav­ished on the wonder impressed me but little. I wished to know who were the men that, when the cryptomerias were saplings, had spent their lives on a niche or corner of the temple, and dying passed on the duty of adornment to their sons. This question I asked my guide who plunged me into a tangle of Daimios and Shoguns 1 

1 Osomi and Tategawa were the architects of Nikko. 

“After a while the builder’s idea entered into my soul.

“He had said: ‘Let us build blood-red chapels in a Cathe­dral.’ So they planted the Cathedral three hundred years ago,. knowing that tree-boles would make the pillars and the sky the roof.”


“A holy water font covered by an ebony and brass baldachin supported by ivory-white shafts”



“A half-lighted hall on whose blue ceiling a hundred golden dragons romped and spat fire”


La Farge admirably expressed its strange, sad charm in his scholarly Artist’s Letters from Japan: 

“With the fatigue and repetition of the innumerable beauties of gold and colour, carving and bronze, the sense of an exquisite art brings an indefinable sadness, a feeling of humility, and the nothingness of man. It is as if they said:

‘We are the limit of human endeavour. Beyond us begins the other world, and we, indeed, shall surely pass away, but thou remainest, O Eternal Beauty.”



Passing the Hall of Perfumes, still redolent of incense, we pause a moment before the Hall of the Sacred Dances, where beneath the dim interior moves a ghostly shadow: —a Shinto Priestess in white robes is treading the mystic measures of her immemorial dance. Within the tile­-roofed cloister looms a white and gold gate. Over its door, in a bower of peonies, sleeps a sculptured cat, the masterly carving of the renowned left-handed sculptor Jingoro (Hidari).

Beyond the golden-white gate, soft carpeted wit Ii velvet moss, rise the stone steps that lead to the tomb of Ieyasu.

Enclosed by a granite balustrade, within a sun-lit clearing, engroved by lofty cryptomeria, stands the solemn monument. A great bronze-gate of superb craftsmanship guards the entrance of the sacred shrine. Before the tomb stand the Buddhist symbols: the lotus, the lion, and the stork, emblematical of purity, power, and long life.

The simple but costly tomb is placed upon a pedestal of five polygonal plinths and is wrought of golden bronze in the form of an Indian shrine. A domed cylindrical shaft crowned by a curved projecting roof rises to a finial of forked flame. The Tokugawa crest adorns the door behind whose corroded panels repose the ashes of the famous Shogun, the man who barred from Japan with relentless fury “the Three Devils—Gunpowder, Christianity, and the Portuguese.”

O  shade of the immortal Ieyasu, the one-time hated “foreign devil” now sates his profane curiosity, a wel­come tourist at thy tomb!

But the simple majesty of his resting place may not be described. It resides perhaps in its perfect harmony between Nature and Art. The symbol of the nothing­ness of man, the vanities of earthly ambition, and the eternal peace of Nirvana.


Tomb of Ieyasu, Nikko

“Before the solemn monument stand the Buddhist symbols: The lotus,
the lion, and the stork, emblematical of purity, power, and long life”



“Shinto priests and a gold and ivory gate-way”


The ceaseless click of clogs echoes from the distant temple. The wind soughs through the pines like the rush of many waters. Above, a flock of rooks suddenly shrouds  the sky, then wings away with eerie, raucous laughter. A clumsy caterpillar drags its viscous shape across the stones. Who knows, perchance it is the mighty Shogun in a new embodiment!



Simplicity and repose are the key-notes of the Japanese interior. From a workman’s cottage to the palace of the Mikado the principle is the same. All but the essential is ruthlessly eliminated.

There are no displays of useless furniture and bric-a-brac. My lady’s living-room at home contains more incongruous superfluities than one would find in all the combined salons of Japan. Only the necessary, and that disposed with the utmost refinement and loving craftsmanship.

The tokonoma, a niche of honour, is reserved for some choice object, a vase containing a simple spray of flowers, an image, and a kakemono. These objects are replaced from time to time by others taken from the go-down or fire-proof store-house.

Everywhere is exquisite cleanliness. The spotless mats upon the floor serve in place of chairs, beds, and tables. Food is served on trays about the hibachi (a pot of glowing charcoal sunk in the centre of the floor) Futons, wadded quilts, and a wooden pillow, designed to preserve the elaborate feminine coiffure, form the furniture of the night.

Truly the essence of economy, our Oriental cousins have surely solved the problem of the high cost of living and reduced to the ultimate the elements of the simple life.

As one looks into these diminutive dwellings, the entire house scarcely larger than an American drawing-room, and finds a family of four living daintily and discreetly within so small a space, one sees that in Japan poverty is not the necessary synonym for filth, licentiousness, and crime.



Make me a stave of song, the Master said,

On yonder cherry-bough, whose white and red

Hangs in the sunset over those green seas.

The young knight looked upon his untried blade,

Then shrugged his wings of gold and blue brocade:

How should a warrior play with thoughts like these?


Fresh from the battle, in that self-same hour,

A mail-clad warrior watched each delicate flower

Close in that cloud of beauty against the West,

Drinking the last deep light, he watched it long.

He raised his face as if to pray. The strong,

The Master whispered, are the tenderest.



“A blood-red chapel in a forest-cathedral”




The garden is above all things a picture, or more truly a symbol. It may be made up of nothing at all, only a little sand, a few stones, arranged according to a conventional ideal.

If not, as expressed by our omniscient guide, Tanaka, it is not a garden, it is “an agglomeration.”

The picture contains invariably foreground, middle-distance and distance; but the scale is frequently diminished to miniature dimensions. The symbol varies. Quaint suggestions of abstract ideas, that to the Western mind seem almost humorous, are favourite embodi­ments. Peace, Chastity, Connubial Happiness, Sweet Solitude, or Calm Old Age. At the bottom of it all is the naïve search for simplicity, naturalness, and repose.

The charm of Japan is as subtle and elusive as that of a perfect woman. “Age cannot wither, custom stale her infinite variety.” It is an indefinable something at once simple yet exquisite; the infinite sweetness of smiling Nature and the refined grace and supreme dis­tinction of Art. “Art here seems to be a common pos­session, has not been apparently separated from the masses, from the original feeling of mankind.”

After even a short sojourn in this joyous island where even the humblest peasant wears a tranquil smile, it is indeed difficult to understand the view-point of our western world where “life resembles a race in which the runners press forward to an illusory goal, only to fall breathless and exhausted before they reach it.” 

“How regretfully does one recall the charming manners of the most highly civilized people on earth, if by civilization we mean not the greater sum of knowledge which makes a man his neighbour’s superior to the extent of being able to destroy or subdue him, but the most exquisite forms of politeness and courtesy, the most sincere interchange of service and goodwill.” 1 

1 Gaston Migeon, Conservator of the Louvre Museum. 

Let us only hope that this artistic nation, so happy in its innocence, embarked upon the sea of enlightenment, will not wreck its naïve simplicity upon the rocks of Western commercialism.

This for Japan is “The White Peril.”


The Isles of Innocence


There lies a country eastward of Cathay,

A far-flung archipelago of mountains hoar,

Looming dim snow-capped cones and pine-clad shore;

Through amethystine mists of drifting spray

Where laughing children ever dance and play,

And joyance bloometh ever on the earth

And sorrow is not, neither strife nor dearth,

But peace abideth ever night and day.


Upon these happy isles one still may meet

The grace and chivalry of nobler days,

When men were ever bold, yet ever kind,

And maids demure, obedient, and sweet,

Content to worship, minister, and praise.

Where innocence is bliss, let love be blind!



Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)