Japanese temples don’t enclose congregations, they mark sacred space. Space to which pilgrims must undertake a journey.
These plain, craftsman buildings elevated above the ground on simple structures have been marking these same sacred space for centuries; unadorned, unchanged--yet they are destroyed and rebuilt anew identically every twenty years. (Unadorned, but not undecorated—the “decoration” derives quite naturally from their construction.) At the turn of the century poet Locfadio Hearn visited Ise and wrote,
And few people gain admission to the inner shrine, where we find one of the main Ise “treasure houses,” The architecture recapitulates the ancient end-post-and-roof beam style of prehistoric Japanese rice storehouses and shrines.
Ise pre-dates Zen. It represents a kind of nature worship that venerates the spaces that gods might inhabit, and the nature-given materials used to frame it. No wonder so many architects find inspiration here.
Granted permission to visit these temples a few years ago, architect Kenzo Tange—designer of the dramatic 1964 Tokyo Olympic Stadium--said,
The buildings, their placement, and their form and space moved me deeply. Plain to the point of artlessness, they nevertheless possessed a highly refined style. Their origin in remote times has stamped on them an elementary vigor; they combine this with a timeless aesthetic discipline. Seldom is an architecture created in which the vital and the aesthetic are as well balanced as here.
Tange wasn’t alone in finding inspiration here. Architects from Greene & Greene to Walter Gropius to Bruno Taut to Frank Lloyd Wright discovered architecture afresh from the shrines at Ise and from other lesser temples. taut reckoned that, along with the Parthenon, Ise represents “the peak of world architecture.”
But as Gropius and Wright observed, where the Parthenon seeks “to breast and conquer nature,” this is architecture that seeks to adapt and absorb it. Honor, said Wright, represents truth to nature and to materials. This is part of the “be clean” ethic celebrated here. Japanese architecture like this, he said, is “a supreme study in elimination—not only of dirt, but of the insignificant.” There is “very little added in the way of ornament because all ornament as we call it, they get out of the way the necessary things are done or by bringing out and polishing the beauty of the simple materials used in making the building. Again, you see, and kind of cleanliness.”
In Japan, he declared, “I had found one country on earth where simplicity, as natural, is supreme.”