In search of gojunoto, the five element Japanese pagoda

The Japanese five-storied pagoda (gojunoto) is a remarkable piece of Buddhist architecture that represents the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind and space/void. It has played a significant role in Japanese culture for over 1400 years and continues to do so.  Built to enshrine Buddhist relics and as a focus of devotion, the towering form of the gojunoto captures and captivates the imagination. Their layered wooden grooves ascending in stages towards the sky evoke a spiritual connection. The metal spire at the top completes the structure and symbolism.  The sophisticated wooden architecture of the pagoda provides resistance to the elemental forces of earthquakes and strong winds, a design that has informed modern multi-story architecture. With it’s origin in India, and influences from Chinese architecture, the Japanese pagoda has developed into a distinctive form. My search for gojunoto and the way they are represented has opened up a new and exciting dimension of Elemental Japan.

Toji Autumn illumination 2018

The gojunoto at Toji, a famous Shingon Temple in Kyoto, is the tallest five-storied pagoda in Japan (54.8 m). It was most recently rebuilt in 1644. Special night illuminations are held to highlight the intricate structure of the pagoda and the changing nature of the seasons. This eye-catching poster, with the pagoda reflected in a pond, advertised the 2018 Autumn illumination.

The five Buddhist elements of earth, fire, water, wind and space/void are represented by each tier of the gojunoto, starting with earth at the bottom . Unlike the related stone gorinto, the elements are not inscribed on each level. The finial/shaft at the top of wooden pagodas, known as a Sorin, is usually made of bronze and can be 10 m tall. It has deep religious symbolism and includes representations of fire, water and wind. The gojunoto at Horyuji, completed around 711 AD , is one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world. This is remarkable given the susceptibility of Japanese pagodas to fire. One saving grace is their extreme resistance to earthquakes, another elemental connection.

The gojunoto is one of the principle buildings in the Temple complex at Horyuji, an independent Temple in Ikaruga near Nara. The bottom level of the pagoda contains ancient clay statues of Buddha and his life, with the tableaus facing north, south, east and west. There were long queues of school children waiting to see these treasures during our visit to Horyuji in October 2018. Pagodas built in later eras in Japan became secondary buildings, yet are still often the most eye-catching structures on the temple grounds.

A strong connection exists between the oldest pagoda in Japan and the newest, the Tokyo Skytree. The architects of this imposing modern structure drew inspiration from the design of Horyuji. Both have a large central pillar, one of wood and the other of concrete, that is used as a counterweight to the outer shell of the building. In the event of an earthquake or extremely strong winds the sway of the outer structure is counterbalanced by the movement of the core pillar. The designers of the Skytree go further than emulating the internal structure of the original wooden pagodas. When the feng shui (J. fu sui) impact of the Skytree was criticised, they argued that the tower was a giant five element pagoda that would protect the prosperity of Tokyo for years to come.

This stunning photo of the Sensoji gojunoto at Asakusa with the Skytree in the background was taken by Ishii Noboru. It is the first time I have seen the two pagodas juxtaposed like this. Noburo-san has a YouTube Channel called ‘Spiritual Japan‘ where he posts videos of gardens, park and temples in Tokyo. He was happy for me to share this remarkable photo, for which I am very grateful. It perfectly captures the evolution of design from ancient to modern times in Japan, bolstered by continuity in the philosophy (in this case the five elements) underpinning it.

22 five element pagodas built in the pre-modern era (prior to 1868) remain. The three most beautiful examples are considered to be located at Horyuji, Daigoji on the outskirts of Kyoto (built in 952 AD) and at Rurikoji at Yamaguchi in south-eastern Honshu (built in 1442). Shown below, the elegant design and shingle roofs of the Rurikoji pagoda and its beautiful setting makes it my No. 1.

My trip to Yamaguchi to see the gojunoto at Rurokuji was blessed with beautiful blue skies, as well as a Shiga dog that inadvertently posed for this photo.

Rurikoji is a Soto Zen temple. Don’t be surprised if you read elsewhere that Zen temples don’t have pagodas, that these structures don’t fit the minimalist philosophy of Zen. That’s what I believed until l learnt about a few exceptions to the rule. Not only does this and other Zen temples have pagodas, Rurukoji has a Museum dedicated solely to gojunoto. A Zen temple with a five-tiered pagoda Museum! Both the Temple and Museum are well worth visiting.

The first section of the gojunoto Museum at Rurikoji has photographs of 44 five-tiered pagodas in the order of their most recent construction. There is also a comprehensive video that shows how the pagoda at Rurikoji was built and images of the Buddhist statues found on the first level.

In the second room of the Museum there are scale models of 56 five-tiered pagodas from across Japan. How good is that! The care and attention to detail in making them is impressive. I was amazed. As no book is available on the Museum, I took numerous photographs and notes at this largely unknown destination. It deserves greater attention.

There is one other Zen Temple I know of that has a gojunoto and it’s a long way from Yamaguchi – around 1,155 km. In 1896 a five-tiered pagoda was built in Tsuruoka, also a Soto Zen temple, to commemorate all of the fishes in the seas. Built in wood with metal rooves, this gojunoto is found in Yamagata Prefecture.

This image at Zenpoji illustrates the intricate wooden architecture and interwoven wooden pieces of the gojunoto, joined without using nails. The Buddhist statues in the bottom level of the pagoda can be seen through the open doors. This space is the only accessible part of pagodas and is usually off limits to lay people. The pagodas are designed to be worshipped by circumambulating the buildings and the relics kept inside or underneath the structure. Given their height and imposing presence, the gojunoto can also be seen and revered from a distance.

Inside the main temple grounds at Zenpoji a stone gojunoto stands watch. This is an unusual and beautiful representation of the five element pagoda.

Across the valley from Zenpoji is a more famous gojunoto, one that Joanna Lumley introduced to the world in her 2016 series on Japan. The five-storied pagoda, found along the stone path that embraces Mt Haguro, is set within a glorious old growth forest. The energy is very powerful. The mountain (part of the Dewa Sanzen group), and pagoda, have a long association with the Shugendo faith. The Buddhist elements are a fundamental component of the religion and the gojunoto is an important place of worship on Shugendo pilgrimages.

Our visit to the pagoda at Hagurosan was timely as it was the first opportunity in 150 years to see inside the first and second levels of the gojunoto. Viewing the large central pillar (shinbashira) on the second floor was a great thrill. I have read two theories about the purpose of the shinbashira, one that it protects the pagoda from earthquakes and two that it is designed to support the weight of the Sorin. It is possible it does both.

The beautiful and striking form of the gojunoto is reproduced throughout Japan in diverse ways. One that I was not expecting to see was Miss Kitty – particularly representing a site of active Shugendo practice that emphasises self-awareness and connectedness with nature through ascetic practices. Like joining a Karaoke session on my first Shugendo pilgrimage to Mt Ontake, it’s important to keep an open mind about the path to enlightenment.

Here is Miss Kitty, standing in front of a centuries old gojunoto on Hagurosan, dressed in the attire of a Shugendo practitioner. Setting aside the appropriateness or otherwise of the image, she is pretty cute.

Traveling further north on the island of Honshu another gojunoto with a long history can be found. Saishoin is a Shingon temple built in 1532 in Hirosaki (near Aomori) in the hope of good harvests and national peace and security. The gojunoto, built in 1667 and known as the most beautiful pagoda of Tohoku, retains its original vivid colours.

Like the gojunoto at the Zen temple in Tsuruoka, the Saishoin pagoda has metal on the rooves of the five tiers. This modern addition would save maintenance compared to the tiles or shingles found on other gojunoto. The colours enliven the pagoda and make an interesting contrast to those where the natural wood is now dominant.

The elegant gojunoto on Miyajima, which overlooks Itsukushima Shrine, is also brightly coloured. Most recently rebuilt in 1407, the pagoda was originally part of a Shrine-Temple complex.  Since the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto and Buddhist institutions and teachings were forcibly ‘disassociated’, the pagoda has become part of Toyokuni Shrine. The Buddhist statues originally located in the pagoda were moved to Daiganji, a Shingon Temple on the island. Even so, the symbolism and spiritual presence of the pagoda remains.

In total there are nearly 70 full-sized gojunoto in Japan, most of them built since 1868. When you add images and photos of five-tiered pagodas into the count, their number would have to increase to the millions. A few examples follow.

Not surprisingly the beautiful shape of the gojunoto lends itself to some striking and varied representations. This is a sample of the collection amassed so far in my search for gojunoto. Once you start looking you see the pagoda, and the Buddhist elements, everywhere!

In particular, the five element pagoda has become a symbol of Kyoto, along with the Daimonji (great character) fire symbol. The city has four gojunoto, three found at the  Shingon Temples of Toji, Ninnaji and Daigoji, and the Hokaiji pagoda in Higashiyama (more commonly known as the Yasaka pagoda). The gojunoto at Daigoji, built in 952, is the oldest wooden structure in Kyoto. It was one of the few buildings to survive the Onin War in the 15th century. Of the multiple options, I’ve read that the five element pagoda at Toji  (East Temple) is most commonly used to represent Kyoto. Originally built in 826, it stood at the gateway to Heiankyo with a partner at Saiji (West Temple). With the Rashomon gate in-between, the entrance to the ancient capital would have been an imposing sight.

The wrapping on these traditional pickles shows a gojunoto and the Daimonji symbol together, both symbols of Kyoto. The tram passing past them harks back to an extensive transport network in the city that was closed in 1978, despite strong opposition. It’s a story repeated around the world. Gojunoto were also ‘closed down’, albeit over 100 years earlier, as part of the forced separation of Shinto and Buddhism. As an example, and also against strong opposition, the 600 year old gojunoto at Suwa Shrine in Suwa was demolished in 1868.

The gojunoto and Daimonji symbols of Kyoto are found together on another food item, this time extremely spicy rice snacks bought to eat on the train to Tokyo. Notice the jar of spices in place of the Sorin. Is nothing sacred?!

Given the culture of omiyage in Japan, where a local edible gift is taken home as souvenirs for family and friends, its not surprising to see other food items with pagoda imagery. From left to right these omiyage are from Yamaguchi, Kyoto and Nara.

While the gojunoto at Ninnaji in the northern hills of Kyoto is not as well known, photographed or represented as the one at Toji, it is an imposing building, especially in the rain.

The gojunoto is also a common image in Nara, including on arrival at the train stations. The five element pagoda at Kofukiji features on the limited edition bottle of Coca Cola that uses representative local symbols. Presumably they couldn’t have a pagoda on another bottle so the Kyoto version has the Daimonji symbol, a geisha and a famous bridge.  I was interested to read that at one stage it was suggested that the pagoda at Kofukuji be dismantled and sold. Imagine that.

After visiting the Temple and Museum in Yamaguchi I discovered another person with a fascination with gojunoto. Isao Mimura has published a book, shown below, which beautifully illustrates every five element pagoda in Japan. Each image is accompanied by information on the pagoda and the stories related to visiting and drawing the structures. The book also includes detailed information on the design of the pagodas and a wealth of other material. Most importantly from my perspective, Mimura-san shows the kanji for the five elements in the introductory pages of the book. One of the diagrams at the back of his book suggests that the void/space element equates to the base of the Sorin rather than the top tier of the pagoda. I will further explore what part of the gojunoto the fifth element corresponds to. I would also like to confirm, one way or the other, whether the association between the five elements and the gojunoto arose when Kukai introduced Shingon Buddhism to Japan over 1200 years ago. That is my theory.

The book on the five-tiered pagoda by Isao Mimura is a labour of love. He is one person aware of the elemental nature of the structures. Individual images by the artist can be bought on-line. At least two other books  devoted to the gojunoto are available in Japanese. One I am particularly interested in, with the help of a translator, is Nihon buttō shūsei 日本仏塔集成 (Compilation of Japanese Buddhist Stupas) by Prof. Hamashima Masaji 濱島正士

The relationship between the gojunoto and the elements is one that several Japanese people I have spoken to are no longer aware of. Visitors to Japan are also unlikely to be aware of the link. One aim of this blog is to bring this connection to the fore.

Pagodas with different numbers of tiers are also found in Japan. Of the pagodas built before the Meiji Restoration, 100 or more three-storied pagodas, a small thirteen-storied version and 80 or so special two-storied Tahoto pagodas remain. It is the gojunoto however that has captured the imagination of the world. This is exemplified by the recently constructed five-tiered pagoda that overlooks Mt Fuji. Built as a peace memorial on 1963 in the Asakura Sengen Shrine the Chureito gojunoto has become a magnet for visitors wanting what in their minds is an iconic image of Japan. The site is especially busy during Spring and Autumn when cherry blossoms and vibrant autumn leaves frame the scene.

Many images similar to this can be found online, with sakura in the foreground and Fujisan in the background. The gojunoto, like most built since WW2, is made of concrete. Regardless of the building material, the five tiers continue to represent the five Buddhist elements of earth, water, fire, wind and void/space.  Source:

While I am yet to visit this five-tiered pagoda, I have images of many others I have seen. They are very photogenic. An unexpected discovery during my search for gojunoto was of miniature pagodas, built faithfully to the original design. The oldest existing model was constructed in the 8th century and is a National Treasure. It is 5.5 metres tall and located in Ganjoji, a Shingon Temple in Nara. More informal models of the gojunoto, in clay, stone and wood, are relatively common in secular settings. Each time I see them I am reminded of the importance of the elements in Japanese culture.

5 thoughts on “In search of gojunoto, the five element Japanese pagoda

  1. Another fascinating chapter in your story of elemental Japan! I enjoyed reading your descriptions and gazing at the images of the gojunoto. There is something about seeing so many, and reading about the meaning behind each aspect of the buildings that caused me to see them in a clearer light. Instead of just looking at them, I started to feel like I could really ‘see’ them.


    • Thank-you for your comments. They are insightful as always. If reading the post helped you see the gojunoto in a different light then it was worth writing. Hopefully other readers will also view these important and unique buildings differently. The five element pagodas deserve to have their stories and deeper meaning revealed.


  2. It’s remarkable how much that form feels inherently right for the building, even if you don’t know the meaning behind it. It just seems that it is exactly what it should be.


  3. Pingback: Five elements and Mandala visualised on Cambodian and Japanese temples – CHUNZHI001

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