Mon, Jan 4, 2021

See Japan from a new perspective

Exhibit ‘Japanese Architecture: Traditional Skills and Natural Materials’

1/10 scale model of Nishina Shimei shrine
National Museum of Japanese History

Japan is a nation that’s set a precedent for architectural excellence. The country’s landscape is dotted with not only modern-day feats of industrial excellence, but also meticulously preserved historical buildings that have managed to survive against all odds; fire, war, natural disasters and the wear and tear of age.

1/10 scale model of Jishoshi temple Togudo hall
National Museum of Japanese History

Situated in Tokyo National Museum’s suitably regal Hyokeikan building – with additional smaller displays at the National Museum of Nature and Science (Ueno, Tokyo) and the National Archives of Modern Architecture (Yushima, Tokyo) – the current exhibition “Japanese Architecture: Traditional Skills and Natural Materials,” showcases the nation’s richly fascinating architectural roots and early evolutions, offering context and a depth of appreciation of the country’s great landmarks.


The display showcases some of the country’s most remarkable pieces of architecture spanning from the Asuka period (6th-8th century) to the 21st century. Going beyond just photographic displays, what makes this particular exhibition special is the meticulously crafted to-scale full model replicas of the featured constructions. Offering insight and a new, almost panoramic perspective of each building, exterior and interior, these models give guests a more encompassing insight into the processes, planning and consideration that goes into creating these structures. 

Throughout the exhibition, you can see just how Japan’s traditional architecture has changed and developed in alignment with the country’s cultural evolution as well as technical developments and natural influences. The exhibition explores how over time, styles and features of Japan’s most unique buildings, like shrines, temples, castles and teahouses have both shifted with time, and maintained unifying design motifs.

1/10 scale model of Kasugataisha shrine honden (main sanctuary)
National Museum of Japanese History

A majority of the models on display are replicas of buildings found in the centre of Honshu, near many of the country’s most highly tourist-trafficked areas. So, there’s a good chance for guests who visit the exhibition to have seen a few of these pieces in the flesh. But of course for good measure, there are also structures from farther-flung corners like the Shuri Castle from Okinawa’s city of Naha.  

As well as the buildings themselves, the exhibition also covers the processes that go into creating such pieces, including traditional skills, techniques and knowledge. Seventeen of these skills, as a way to not only maintain the current structures but also pave the way for the next generation of artisans and builders, have been registered on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in December 2020.

1/10 scale model of Chojuji temple hondo (main hall)
National Museum of Japanese History

The highlights of the exhibition will vary greatly according to taste and interest. For example, those with a keen interest in spirituality, and the country’s most iconic religious destinations may be interested in the displays of the Buddhist temples, like the Five-storied Pagoda of Nara’s Horyu-ji temple, once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples, and Japan’s first-ever UNESCO World Heritage site. Built in the Asuka period, it’s the oldest wooden building in the world, and its towering presence and unique silhouette are icons of Nara.

Other impressive temple models include the lesser-known but structurally stunning Three-storied Pagoda of Ichijo-ji temple, which is located in Hyogo Prefecture.

The Matsumoto Castle display is an impressive feat of model design, and one of the exhibition’s centrepieces. Sliced right down the middle the semi-open display allows guests to look deep into the castle’s inner-workings, exploring the rooms and traditional layout.

1/20 scale model of Matsumoto Castle donjon
Tokyo National Museum

Moving beyond just sacred and cultural sites, the displays of family homes, offer great context into how people lived. High-er class residences, like Imanishi Family Residence in Nara – which dates back to 1650 – contrasts greatly with more primitive designs like the traditional pit-house dwelling discovered in Shizuoka’s Toro Archaeological Site, which has origins in the 1st century, in the late Yayoi period. Comparing these two homes, which of course are thousands of years apart, just showcases the incredible depth of Japan’s history and culture.

1/10 scale model of Imanishi Family Residence
National Museum of Japanese History
1/10 scale model of Kitamura Family Residence
National Museum of Japanese History
Exploring Beyond Tokyo National Museum

Suppose you’re looking to go further into the world of Japanese architecture. In that case, you’ll be happy to know that the programme, which is co-presented by the Japan Cultural Expo, will also feature guided architecture tours, so keep an eye on the website for that.

Also, within walking distance from ‘Japanese Architecture: Traditional Skills and Natural Materials,’ sits a cluster of other museums offering endlessly fascinating displays showcasing the history, culture and wonders of the world. From the National Museum of Nature and Science to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, put aside a few extra hours to explore the area’s incredible displays.

(Photos courtesy of Lucy Dayman)





Born and raised in Australia, Lucy is a currently Tokyo-based journalist with a passion and focus on Japanese travel, art and culture. Previously, she worked as a publicist, and later, as the editor of a music magazine in Melbourne, before relocating to Japan in 2016. In 2019, she co-founded the bilingual communications and creative agency Y+L Projects, based in Tokyo's Omotesando. Her first book, a guide to Tokyo, which she co-authored, will be out via U.K. publishing house DK in 2021.



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