A Tradition of Boundaries

By Jeremy B. Altman Assoc. AIA posted 11-20-2011 06:09


Committee on Design members reviewed the temples and shrines of Kamakura with our guide Yumiko on the first day of the joint conference.

These days, one may find temples and shrines intermixed, but it was not always so.  Most Japanese who think about it may say that they believe in both Shintoism and Buddhism at the same time.  But the two religions did not get along at first. Later, when it was declared that the animistic Shinto gods which were present everywhere are actually manifestations of lesser Buddhist deities, the two were reconciled.  Yumiko, our tour guide on the way to Kamakura, put it this way :”Shinto takes care of us during life; during important life events like weddings, starting a new business, or building a new home.  Buddhism takes care us at death and in the afterlife.”

One can always tell a shrine from its torii gate.  It will also be marked by a series of boundary markers in addition to the gate; each to symbolize that one is entering a sacred area.  A shrine will have a pair of guardian dogs or koma inu (or in some cases, foxes).  There is usually a bridge that one must cross to signify leaving the worldly earth behind.  The shrine boundary may also be denoted by the white paper and knotted rope or shimenawa.  The architecture of Shinto structures, apart from important shrines like Ise and Izumo is often identical to Buddhism, but the boundary markers and the types of ceremonies serve to identify them.

While on the bus, I had the opportunity to briefly talk to Yumiko, whose father happens to be a Japanese architect. 

Q: Who owns the temples? A:  In some cases an individual, but in most cases a group or association tied to the Buddhist sect.  The top of the organization will be a head priest.

Q: How do the temples receive income? A: For one, they are in a special tax category whereby they will only pay a little tax.  In recent years, this has actually led to the formation of a few cults whose sole purpose seems to be to channel money to the leader; they do not seem to contribute anything back to society.  The temples collect money from the fees paid to enter them.  In addition, they will send out requests for donations to the members of their sect; usually for special projects like remodeling.   In some cases, patrons can have their names inscribed on a part of the temple for a fee.  An example would be like the lotus flowers that will eventually go around the base of the giant Buddha: right now there aren’t enough, but people and business are donating to make more and having their names placed on back of the lotus petal.

Q: Do the temples do their own repairs on the buildings? A: No, they contract out to builders who have traditional temple experience.

Q: How do buildings become recognized as National Treasures?  A:  I’m not exactly sure but there is an application process with the Ministry of Education I think.  They need to limit the number so they need to judge whether a building is truly an national treasure or not.  I’m not sure of the criteria.  Even people can be designated as “Living National Treasures”.  I’m not aware of any architects, but Kabuki actors, painters and crafts people have been given this honor in the past.  It means you are the number one master at that skill.

Q:  Why do the temples use vermillion color? A:  The color was adopted from China.

Q:  What role do Shinto monks play in construction, if any?  A:  Before a site is purchased or prior to construction, a monk may be called in to review the site for good or bad luck.  Traditional carpenters also take on the role of monk at the completion of a project to have a special ceremony in blessing the house.  Even some large commercial buildings, like department stores, will place a shrine on top of the roof sometimes for protection and to help with good business.