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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.