Ancient Japan: Must-See Japanese Buildings With Around 1,000 Years of History
- Published: Sep 11 2023
- Last updated:
While neon lights and giant robots are icons of modern Japan, the country has also excelled at protecting and preserving its ancient history and culture. Despite myriad disasters, Japan is home to several ancient buildings that have stood the test of time for nearly 1,000 years, granting us an authentic glimpse into its past. This article will introduce 8 ancient Japanese buildings, including the oldest building in Japan, to fill your itinerary with snapshots of long ago!
Why Aren’t There More Ancient Buildings in Japan?
Earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, volcanosーit’s no secret that due to its location on the Ring of Fire and other factors, Japan has long been plagued by calamities. Historically, such disasters, particularly earthquakes, have made it difficult for Japanese people to build large structures out of stone, and with wood being the main alternative, fire and decay has been a notorious challenge in preserving historic buildings throughout the centuries.
Periods of immense destruction like the Sengoku Period (1467-1567) and World War II likewise saw the obliteration of much of Japan’s ancient streetscapes, and many of the old castles, shrines, and temples we see today have actually been reconstructed numerous times, making it difficult to call them truly “ancient” even if they have a history stretching back millennia.
That being said, call it divine intervention or chalk it up to proper maintenance, there are a number of ancient buildings dotting Japan that have managed to escape this all-too-common fate. Here are some of the oldest buildings in Japan that we can confidently say are truly ancient!
1. Horyuji Temple (Nara Prefecture)
Horyuji Temple is believed to have been initially founded as a Buddhist institution in 607, and is counted among the Seven Great Temples of Nara. Its precincts house several ancient structures, including what are said to be the oldest wooden buildings in the world! These include the Chumon (Central Gate), Kondo (Main Hall), and Five-Storied Pagoda, which boast at least 1,300 years of history.
The temple was originally constructed by Prince Shotoku, who contributed greatly to the spread of Buddhism in Japan, together with Empress Suiko, Japan’s first female sovereign, and its stately, solemn architecture continues to leave deep impressions. With such an immense legacy, it’s no surprise that it was one of the first World Heritage Sites registered in Japan.
While Horyuji Temple has undergone several renovations over the centuries to ensure its longevity, much of it has managed to escape destruction, and its treasures can be safely deemed authentic relics of the past.
Its iconic Five-Storied Pagoda stands proudly as the oldest in Japan, while each individual building presents a collection of priceless Buddhist relics. The Kondo is particularly famous for its ancient Buddhist statues, including a gilt bronze statue of Buddha created upon Prince Shotoku’s death in 622. The fierce statues of Kongo Rikishi, the guardians of Buddha and a common sight at temples in Japan, are also said to be among the oldest in the country.
2. Hokiji Temple (Nara Prefecture)
After the passing of Prince Shotoku, his son, Prince Yamashiro, erected Hokiji Temple in 708 to realize his late father’s wishes. It was built on the site of Okamoto Palace, where Prince Shotoku had lectured on the Lotus Sutra, and while it initially flourished, it eventually fell under the jurisdiction of the nearby Horyuji Temple, and waned into near obscurity. Thankfully, the priest Shinsei Ennin and his followers restored its iconic three-storied pagoda and added buildings in the late 17th century, and today it is rightfully recognized as one of Nara’s most ancient and precious treasures.
Standing at an impressive 24 meters in height, the Three-Storied Pagoda of Hokiji Temple is the oldest of its kind in Japan, and is the sole remaining original building on the grounds. It presents one of the few opportunities to see genuine architecture from the Asuka Period (538-710) up close, and even untrained eyes will no doubt marvel at the level of craftsmanship and precision of the carpentry.
Accommodation Near Hokiji Temple and Horyuji Temple: Temple Town Hotel WAQOO Horyuji
3. Yakushiji Temple (Nara Prefecture)
Together with Horyuji, Yakushiji is another of the Seven Great Temples of Nara, and was built in the year 680 under orders from Emperor Tenmu. When his wife, Empress Jito, fell ill, the Emperor commissioned the construction of Yakushiji (named after the Healing Buddha) to pray for her recovery, and his wish was soon granted.
Like many wooden Japanese buildings, Yakushiji Temple has not gone through time unscathed. Having ignited in flame time and time again, the only original structure standing today is its East Pagoda. This 33.6-meter-tall tower is a feat of architectural mastery cleverly designed through the use of additional roofs to make its three tiers appear as six. It boasts a staggering 1,300 years of history, and is the oldest surviving building of Heijo-kyo (the former capital of Japan during much of the Nara Period (710-784)).
Visitors to Yakushiji Temple can also try their hand at tracing Buddhist sutras in an art known as “o-shakyo.” These scrolls hold wishes of recovery from illness, natural disaster, and more, and are stored at the temple for future generations to treasure.
4. Konjikido (Iwate Prefecture)
Konjikido, meaning the “Golden Hall,” is the highlight of the Chusonji Temple complex, one of the most famous sites of Hiraizumi, the former capital of the Tohoku region. It was built in 1124 by Fujiwara no Kiyohira, a devoted Buddhist and founder of the Oshu-Fujiwara Clan, and the hall’s altars contain his remains and those of his descendants, who were also clan rulers.
Konjikido is covered in dazzling gold leaf both inside and out, and is an exceptional example of lavish Heian Period (794-1185) architecture and artistry. Complementing flourishes include mother of pearl inlays, decorative ivory and gemstones, intricate carvings, and impressive Buddhist statues, showcasing the opulence and wealth of the Fujiwara family, as well as their devotion to Buddhism.
While Konjikido originally sat outside, a protective building was erected around it in 1288, and these days it is shielded by concrete and glass. A feat of craftsmanship that can likely never be replicated, Konjikido will leave you awestruck.
Accommodation Near Konjikido: Iris Yu
5. Shiramizu Amidado Temple (Fukushima Prefecture)
Built in 1160 by the Fujiwara Clan, Shiramizu Amidado Temple is Fukushima’s sole National Treasure, and is a sight to behold. Its main attraction is its ancient Pure Land gardens, part of which remain intact from their original construction. The garden was designed to recreate the “Jodo” Buddhist version of paradise through ponds, waterfalls, islands, bridges, and more.
Owing to its well-preserved state, excavations in the 1950s were able to accurately reveal its layout, and reconstruction work commenced to recreate its original look. In addition to the blissful gardens, the Amidado Hall houses an impressive collection of Buddhist statues, and its design is said to have been inspired by Konjikido.
While all four seasons promise a stunning view of the gardens, summer is most famous for the full bloom of its lotus flowers, some of which grow to over a meter! The gardens are also known for their dazzling autumn foliage, which is illuminated at night around early/mid November.
6. Shingu Kumano Shrine Nagatoko (Fukushima Prefecture)
Nagatoko is Shingu Kumano Shrine’s Hall of Worship, and its name means “long floor” in Japanese. It consists of 44 wooden pillars that have been holding up a massive thatched roof since the late Heian Period (794-1185), and is completely open with no walls.
Nagatoko is believed to have served as a venue for ascetic training and kagura performances, and legend states that the copper bowl housed inside was originally used to rinse rice to offer to the Japanese gods.
The shrine grounds also host another natural monumentーa towering 800-year-old ginkgo tree. Its brilliant golden colors peak in mid-November, adding a dazzling splash to the scene. Also, don’t leave without taking a look at the huge shrine bell, and feel free to give it a ring!
7. Ujigami Jinja Shrine (Kyoto Prefecture)
Kyoto's Ujigami Jinja holds the distinction of being one of the oldest existing Shinto shrines in Japan. It is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is estimated to have been first built in 1060. Ujigami Jinja is dedicated to Emperor Ojin, together with his two sons, one of which became Emperor Nintoku, and is the guardian shrine of the nearby Byodoin Temple. However, many of the exact details of its history remain shrouded in mystery.
Ujigami Jinja was designed in the “nagare-zukuri” architectural style and its grounds are enclosed by lush greenery. While often overshadowed by the neighboring Byodoin Temple, it provides a valuable illustration of Japan’s ancient past, and serves as a reminder of the country's deep-rooted Shinto traditions and reverence for nature.
With rabbits being the symbol of the surrounding city of Uji, Ujigami Jinja also has numerous adorable rabbit-shaped charms available for purchase. There are plenty of other fascinating tidbits to keep an eye out for too, like piles of purification sand and a hut containing natural spring water to purify the hands of visitors.
Accommodation Near Ujigami Jinja Shrine: Travellersdou Kirinya
8. Katsuren Castle (Okinawa Prefecture)
Katsuren Castle is said to have been first established around the 13th century, before Okinawa was unified as the Ryukyu Kingdom, and long before its incorporation into Japan. Built on high ground overlooking the sea, its charismatic curved stone walls feel reminiscent of a European-style castle, standing in stark contrast to the castles of mainland Japan.
Katsuren Castle is best known for its connection with Amawari, a famously ambitious Ryukyuan lord. While said to have been a weak child abandoned in the mountains, Amawari gained his strength and fought to become one of the most admired leaders in Okinawan history. Setting his sights on taking over the entirety of Okinawa, he was eventually defeated trying to attack the kingdom’s capital of Shuri Castle.
While the buildings inside Katsuren Castle are long gone, its stone foundations remain in fantastic condition, and the top level offers breathtaking views of the surrounding paradise of Okinawa. Explore the grounds in silence, and you’ll surely feel the proud legacy of Ryukyu echoing through its walls.
Accommodation Near Katsuren Castle: Katsuren Seatopia
Discover the Enthralling Histories of Japan’s Oldest Buildings!
Japan’s old buildings are a link to the past and message to the future. They have been treasured for a millennium, and it is now our turn to ensure their preservation. While the reconstructed historical sites of Japan are deeply impressive, a truely ancient building possesses an ethereal power that can never be replicated. So, between visits to Japan’s modern pop culture hubs, make sure to save time to explore one or more of these old Japanese buildings and discover where it all came from!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.