When Kobo Daishi (Kukai) returned from T’ang Dynasty China in 809, he built Tocho-ji, said to be the first Shingon Mikkyo Buddhist temple in Japan. The temple has a long and distinguished history, and is the burial site for members of the Kuroda family, the daimyo of Fukuoka. The famous wooden statue of the seated Buddha, one of the largest in the nation at more than 10 meters high, has been designated an important national cultural treasure. A new five-story pagoda was built on the temple grounds this year to commemorate the temple’s 1200th anniversary.
The five-story pagoda is about 26 meters high, and was erected with traditional methods using cypress. The traditional construction methods for Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines employ no nails or other metal at all. The structures are built by cutting large grooves and rails in the wood and fitting the pieces together. This method is said to be noteworthy for its earthquake resistance. In addition, a structure was adopted that separates the central beams and the roofs of each story so as to better absorb the shock waves of an earthquake.
These traditional methods were likely developed because there are frequent earthquakes in Japan. Thanks to the skillfulness of our ancestors, there have always been many five-story pagodas throughout Japan. The oldest is said to be the one at Horyu-ji in Nara, which was built in the seventh or eighth century.
The structure of seismic isolation, which keeps the five-storied pagoda strong against earthquakes, has also been adopted for use in modern high-rises. The metallic upper portion of the pagodas is not as resilient, however, so that part of the Tocho-ji pagoda was rendered more quake-resistant by using a new construction method that involves coating the decorative section with a special rubber. That demonstrates the value of combining the traditional and the modern.
The interior of the pagoda contains a statue of the Buddha and beautiful Japanese-style paintings depicting the four seasons. It isn’t possible to see them other than on special occasions, unfortunately. But because Kyushu has few of these pagodas, it is worth it just to see the lovely wood structure itself. It will likely become a new Hakata tourist destination.
Originally published online for Fukuoka Now magazine (Jul. 2011)