Kamakura Calling

By Jeremy B. Altman Assoc. AIA posted 11-13-2011 09:59


Day 1 of Crafting the Future Japan Conference

My equipment: a  Sony Nex camera, sketchbook and lonely planet phrase book…my companions: AIA members from across America and our steady, knowledgable guide, Yumiko-san.  Our tour to Kamakura descended into the crowds in this relatively small city of 117,000.  First to the giant Buddha statue of Diabutsu, then to the Kannon-Goddess of Mercy at Hase Temple.  We lingered to admire the kimono clad children at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine for the Shichi-Go-San festival (children aged 3,5,7 visit the shrine) before finding a restful beauty at Engaku-ji.

Guidelines on temple design and proper proportions directed craftsmen to focus their creativity in the details and connections.  Buddhist cannon dictates that the temple faces south, the construction guidelines dictate the proportions, etc. but the craftsman is free to experiment with the details.  The roof rafters on the main gate at Engaku-ji are in a radial pattern for the upper roof but perpendicular to structure on the lower roof.  Was this a choice made by the craftsman?  Was the builder free to modify the frog leg strut at Hase-Dera Temple to include the symbol of the temple?  Regardless, the unpainted wood has stood for centuries and is a testament to the method of construction and the deep overhangs that protect them.

As Azby Brown points out in The Genius of Japanese Carpentry “Temples may look alike, but only to the extent that operas or sailboats or plates of pasta look alike.  If one is looking for general similarities, they can be found in abundance.  If one is alert to differences, there is an unfathomable richness of variety and refinement.”

One of the basic differences must be to answer what is the difference between a shrine and a temple?  Temples are Buddhist, their names end in –dera, -ji or –in.  Shrines are Shinto, their names end in jinja or jingu.  Should be pretty straight forward, right?  We found it was more complicated than that…