(Above): The Horyu-ji temple complex is considered the oldest wooden structure in the world. Originally completed in 607 and reconstructed in 670 AD (the original was struck by lightning and completely burned down) near Nara, Japan, the temple exemplifies Japanese temple architecture of the Asuka period.
Cypress is a nationally revered wood that is cultivated and protected by a long line of particular families for centuries in Japan. All the ancient temples were built exclusively from the Cypress forests and are carefully tended to this day.
From Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) Lives Twice: The World of Tsunekazu Nishioka, a Temple Carpenter by Tanaka Masakazu, Institute for Research in Humanities, Kyoto University, Japan
Hinoki (Japanese Cypress) or the King of Woods
One cannot truly apprehend how the Japanese traditionally relate to the environment, without understanding the role of wood in Japanese culture. Jiro Kohara, for example, compares the Japanese and European cultures as below.
'Japanese and European houses differ most in the way their indoor and outdoor spaces meet. Our [Japanese] houses have developed based on the sense of life that everything, including plants, animals, and even human beings, is ephemeral, that a single nature has manifested itself in these ephemeral shapes, and that this world, as a single nature, is our 'life-long dwelling.' So the basic idea [of the Japanese people] when building a house is to build it in such a way that it is inconspicuous in the surrounding environment, by simply erecting thin wooden posts, putting shoji or paper screens between neighboring posts, and laying down a veranda around the house. Open the screens, and you will find the surrounding environment, erasing the boundary between the green outside and the indoor space.'
(Above): Japanese Cypress, or Hinoki, Forests are destinations for visitors and locals alike, as part of the spiritual journey to visit the oldest of Japanese Cypress-built Temples.
For Nishioka, the essence of Japanese culture is not a specific architecture or life-style, but the people's attitude to wood, and their accumulated knowledge about the nature of wood. He believed Horyuji Temple to be a showcase of these attributes. What astonished him was the knowledge and technology of the people of the Asuka Era (593-710), in which the temple was built, regarding wood, especially hinoki (hinoki, or Japanese cypress, was the wood used in the temple), and not its architectural style.
'When a temple or shrine carpenter says wood, he means hinoki. Because there was hinoki, Japan could develop wooden architecture, and possess the world 's oldest [wooden] structure.'
(Above): The Horyu-ji Temple complex is constructed completely out of Japanese Cypress, or Hinoki. The natural durability of Cypress is why it is has been the first choice of Temple Carpenters in Japan, like Tsunekazu Nishioka, for thousands of years.
There is a reference to Hinoki already in the first of the thirty volumes of the Nihon Shoki (the oldest official history of Japan, covering the mythical age of the gods up to the reign of the empress Jito, r. 686-697): 'Hinoki should be used to build a shrine.'
Nishioka also said, '[People of the Asuka Era] knew that Hinoki has nobility, aroma, and long life...Hinoki has a long life, yet is easy to handle. It can be chiseled and planed well...But it isn't just tame, soft, or manageable. When it is new, it is easy to drive a nail into it; yet, you can't pull the nail out when a long time has passed, because the wood shrinks and clamps the nail. After fifty years, you can never pull a nail out. If you try to force it, you will tear off the head of the nail. Hinoki can be so strong.'
Hinoki not only has a useful life of longer than a thousand years; it also sharply increases in strength about two hundred years after being cut down, and maintains that strength until another thousand years. This means that, in terms of strength, a hinoki tree doesn't die when it is cut down, but continues to "live" for almost one thousand years more. Therefore, the mission of temple or shrine carpenters, who use almost only hinoki, is to draw the longest second life out of hinoki.
(Above): The plan of the complex follows the Chinese general monastery plan. The main compound is laid out on a north-south axis with the main entrance facing south. The four main components, the pagoda, the Main or Golden Hall, the Lecture Hall and the Middle Gate and the Great South Gate, are aligned symmetrically through a central axis.
Although Horyuji Temple is the world's oldest wooden structure, built one thousand and three hundred years ago, and was recently added to the World Cultural and Natural Heritage list, Nishioka said that it was not 'old and tattered' at all. He explained as follows;
(Above): A detailed view of the construction of the eves of the pagoda temple, utililizing the natural rot-resistance and durability of Cypress.
'If you look at the tips of the eaves of five-storied pagoda [of Horyuji Temple], you realize they are aligned in a straight line pointing to the heaven. No disarray after one thousand and three hundred years... What is more, the wood older than one thousand years is still alive. If you take off the roof tiles and remove the dust underneath, you will notice that the wooden structure rebounds gradually. If you plane the wood surface, you can smell the aroma of Hinoki. This is how long Hinoki lives.
(Above): Looking across one of the many open spaces contained within the temple walls, notice the hearty construction of the Cypress beams used to construct the temple structure.
Because Hinoki has such characteristics, it is the responsibility of a carpenter to let it live its full life. You must make sure to let the wood live for at least one thousand years, if that is its life. For that purpose, you need to know wood and how to use it very well.
(Above): An interior view of the temple shrine, which has looked much the same for over one thousand years.
This doesn't apply only to large temples. It applies also to private homes. Wooden posts used in private houses have a life of about sixty years, so you have to make them last for at least the same length of time. If you tear down houses and throw away all the lumber every twenty years, you will never have enough wood in Japan. It is a natural obligation humankind owes to nature to make wood last for the same length of time as the original tree lives. If we could do that, we would never run out of wood resources."