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Tue, Jun 6, 2023

Treasured Five-storied Pagoda of Kofuku-ji temple in Nara to undergo major repairs

The Five-storied Pagoda of Kofuku-ji temple in Nara. The tower will be hidden from view once the repair starts. (Aerial photo by Takumi Harada)

The Five-storied Pagoda of Kofuku-ji temple — a designated national treasure of Japan — that towers over the ancient capital of Nara as if it were its symbol, will undergo large-scale repairs for the first time in about 120 years starting in July 2023. The tower, which has endured time and exemplified Japanese architectural beauty for nearly six centuries, will be hidden from public view for some time due to the restoration.

The restoration of the Five-storied Pagoda will start in July 2023 (Photo by Osamu Kanazawa)

Kofuku-ji is a popular destination for school trips in Japan and international tourists alike. The visitors seem to like taking commemorative photos with its Five-storied Pagoda in the background.

The major repair soon to start is the first since 1901. Kofuku-ji abbot Eishun Moriya, 73, looks up at the soaring tower (roughly 50 meters in height) and says, “We do not think of the pagoda as belonging only to the temple.” Rather, “We deem it as the nation’s treasure, or cultural property.”

Kofuku-ji abbot Eishun Moriya talks about the Five-storied Pagoda and its repair.

The Nara prefectural government office for conservation of cultural properties inspected the tower in fiscal 2020 (Japan’s financial year which started on Apr. 1, 2020) to find some of the roof tiles misaligned or damaged, the wooden components around the eaves damaged and the stucco walls exfoliating. Subsequently, a panel for the conservation and restoration of the pagoda consisting of repair experts from various fields such as architectural history and structural dynamics concluded that it should be repaired.

With the renovation of the roof tiles, fixing of the wooden components and recoating of the stucco walls, the total project cost will amount to about ¥5.7 billion (about $41 million).

The Amida Triad is enshrine on the first floor of the Five-storied Pagoda

Legend has it that the Five-storied Pagoda of Kofuku-ji was built in 730 according to the wishes of Empress Komyo, (the consort of Emperor Shomu and) the daughter of court noble Fujiwara no Fuhito, the founder of the temple. Through its history, the pagoda had been burned to the ground in fires caused by lightning or otherwise a total of five times, but was reconstructed every time.

The current tower, which is the sixth, was built during the Muromachi period (14th-16th century), in 1426. It is the second-tallest wooden five-storied pagoda in Japan today after that of To-ji temple (about 55 meters in height; also a designated national treasure) in Kyoto.

Looking up at the central pillar from the inside of the tower. Footholds were placed inside for an inspection of the tower before the repair.

At the dawn of Japan’s modernity, the Meiji-era government issued an order to separate Shintoism and Buddhism. This sparked an anti-Buddhist movement that swept over the country, pushing Kofuku-ji and other Buddhist temples into a tight corner. Reputedly, the Five-storied Pagoda was put out for sale.

However, the Five-storied Pagoda of Kofuku-ji was later designated as one of the specially protected structures of Japan under the Ancient Shrines and Temples Preservation Act of 1897. From 1900 to 01, a large-scale repair was conducted to overhaul the fifth layer of the tower, to renovate the roof tiles and to fix the vertical shaft on top, wooden components around the eaves, stucco walls and cobblestones.

To be completed in March 2031

This time, the major repair will start with the setting of a steel frame structure to roof the tower, which will take about a year. The four sides of the tower will then be behind walls for some time to come.

Abbot Moriya says: “The tower will be hidden for some time, but I intend to move the restoration forward as one of the relay runners who have to pass on the legacy to future generations in wish for the tower to last another century or more.”

The restoration project is scheduled to end in March 2031.

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Damages found around eaves, on stucco walls

More than 120 years have passed since the Five-storied Pagoda of Kofuku-ji temple was last repaired. On the exterior, damages are found on the tiled roofs, around the eaves and on the stucco walls. As we proceed with the repair work, we may come across parts that require more fundamental repairs, in which case, we will conduct a more detailed survey to see if they need to be dealt with.

Satoshi Unno
Associate Professor, The University of Tokyo
Panel of repair experts for the conservation and restoration of the national treasure Five-storied Pagoda of Kofuku-ji temple

One tends to think repairs can be conducted more thoroughly by totally dismantling the object, but taking apart parts that are in good condition may harm the building rather than work the other way.

On another note, we need to find out what kind of wood was used to build the pagoda. Kofuku-ji’s Hokuendo (Northern Round Hall; a designated national treasure) and Three-storied Pagoda (also a designated national treasure) were rebuilt during the early Kamakura period (12th-14th century) with Japanese cypress wood of good quality. However, the Five-storied Pagoda was rebuilt during the ensuing Muromachi period. They may have used wood other than the Japanese cypress in good quantity.

If the temple was able to procure Japanese cypress wood during the early Kamakura period, but not about 200 years later, it could mean either the temple had lost its clout or Japan’s forest environment had taken a turn to the worse during that time. Kofuku-ji, as one of Japan’s preeminent temples, can be said is a mirror of the times. I look forward to the new knowledge and understanding we can obtain from the repair.

Damages from wind and rain are found around the eaves.
The stucco walls of the tower are marked with stains.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun and other sources)



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