Late Heian Period pillar puts history of architecture in Japan up for review

Kyodo

A pillar with a diameter of 3 meters has been unearthed within the compound of Izumo Shrine in the town of Taisha, Shimane Prefecture, according to the town’s local education board.

The board said the pillar — three giant tree trunks tethered together — is the thickest of Japan’s ancient wooden architecture and the first discovered in which several trunks were used.

It suggests that within the shrine’s grounds stood a 48-meter structure — the equivalent of a 14-story building.

The pillar was thought to have been one of several that supported the shrine’s main building in the ancient complex, which was built in the late Heian Period (794-1185).

The discovery of the pillar could revise existing theories on the history and development of Japan’s architecture.

While admitting difficulty in determining the building’s actual height, the board said the discovery appears to offer evidence backing up a centuries-old legend that the shrine used to stand 48 meters tall.

Blueprints of the complex that have been kept by the shrine since the Heian Period mention a 3-meter-diameter pillar made using three trees, which appears quite similar to the one unearthed.

The remains of two of the three trees excavated are 1.2 meters long and 1.35 meters in diameter. Traces of red paint were also found on the trees’ surface.

A large number of stones roughly the size of human heads were found around what is believed to be the pillar’s base, indicating they were used to stabilize it and keep it in place.

Historical documents have often mentioned that the shrine used to have an extremely tall wooden building.

If true, the Heian building would have been twice as tall as the current main building of the shrine, which would make it the tallest example of the country’s historical wooden architecture, with the exception of some five-story pagodas at Buddhist temples.

The current Izumo Shrine is built in the “taisho zukuri” style, the oldest architectural style for shrines. It is believed to be the 25th shrine to stand on the site.

A textbook from the Heian Period says the shrine’s main building at the time was taller than the 46-meter building that accommodates the Great Statue of Buddha in Nara’s Todaiji temple.

Experts, however, have been skeptical of the boast, saying legends are prone to exaggeration.

In 1988, Osaka-based general contractor Obayashi Corp. reconstructed an image of the 48-meter-tall Izumo building using existing documents detailing its size and design.

The company also estimated that if such a building was constructed with the technology of the time, it would take 1,000 workers six years to complete.

Izumo Shrine first appeared in historical documents in the year 659. Famous as a shrine dedicated to the god of marriage, 2.3 million people visit it each year.