What of the






Temple Patterns in Ancient Japan-2 Mark A. Riddle




1. Mountain Temples –Examples from the Ancient World

The simplest temple form would be a mountain divided into three levels.  Just as Mt. Sinai became a temple-like sanctuary when gboundsh were established and it was set apart as holy, and the tripartite division was then established by a graduated pattern of ritual ascent, so there may have been many such gopen airh sanctuaries,  before the era of massive stone buildings.  Early Minoan rites, for example, took place in a context of rocks and trees, on landscape unmodified by human intervention.[1]   The nemeton were sacred groves of the Celts, on hilltops or mountaintops with the ancient ensemble of rivers and springs, rocks and trees. [2]

Phoenicians worshipped contemporaneously at undeveloped natural sites (sacred mountains and groves); at Biblical bamah (KJV ghigh placesh)—open-air shrines featuring a sacred grove, altar and pillar;  and at fully-enclosed temples like Solomonfs.[3]

The Zoroastrians abandoned their ancient custom of praying in open and elevated places (mentioned by Herodotus) and began building their gfire templesh beginning in about the fourth century BC as a countermeasure--gin reaction to the temples with statues of the goddess Anaahita that Ataxerxes II had erected throughout his empire.h [4]  The Kushan Fire Temple at Surkh Kotal, in Bactria, a Zoroastrian revival possibly built by the great Kushan King Kanishka, has a monumental staircase in three flights. [5]  Examples such as this permit us to both hypothesize specifically that Zoroastrian ritual before temple-building was also based on tripartite division, and also to look more widely for the same patterns—of tripartite structure and of open-air ritual preceding building-enclosed temple worship. 

On the origin of shrine buildings in Japan, Allan Grappard writes [6] that the ritual actions by which the kami (deities) are invoked do not require the presence of permanent buildings.  What is needed is only a ritually defined and purified area on a mountain, near a spring or in a forest, entered only by those purified through observation of specific taboos.  At such sites the focus for ritual is a rock abode (iwakura) or tree (himorogi) that serves as the gsupporth (yorishiro) for the deity.  Even in the age when there were permanent shrine buildings, a temporary shrine as simple as an enclosure would be erected for the duration of a ritual and then destroyed.  Such was the case for the Wakamiya Shrine at the Kasuga shrine complex in Nara Prefecture, for example, the temporary building of which (erected yearly at the time of the On-matsuri) is seen by Japanese scholars of ritual and architectural history as the original structure of all the shrines of Kasuga before they were established permanently.  On a map of Kasuga dated 756 A.D. we find located not buildings, but only a sacred ground (shinji).  Archaeological excavations have revealed the existence of many ritual sites around the Kasuga complex dating to the 7th  century or earlier.
2. Mountain Temples in Ancient Japan

In Japan, we find that the oldest [7] Shinto shrine in Japan has no honden building housing the diety; the shintai, the sacred site, is a mountain divided into levels by three iwakura—assemblies of standing stones.  It is Mt. Miwa, elevation 467 meters, near Sakurai in Nara Prefecture.  Mt. Miwa is a conical mountain composed of gabbro, a type of igneous rock. On its western slope is Japanfs most ancient road, known as the yamanobe no michi.[8]  According to a medieval (1226 AD) source, the Oomiwagami Sansha Chinzashidai, from earliest times the shrine had no buildings, only three torii gates at three iwakura  (ga circle of boulders within which a deity abidesh) sites. [9]  In this, the shrine was re-creating the Heavenly pattern—the Ama no Iwakura (the iwakura of Heaven) was the abode of the imperial ancestor, a deity in heaven before he descended to reign in Japan.[10]

The earliest ritual sites mentioned in Japanfs first histories, dating from the early 8th century, consist merely of sacred trees and stones.  The accounts describe the Heavenly gsacred precincts of divine trees and holy stonesh and tell how the Heavenly ancestors directed two subordinate deities to descend to Japan with the himorogi (sacred tree). In obedience to the Heavenly edict, ga holy site with sacred trees and stones was erected in the [first] Imperial Court.h [11]  Emperor Suujin is said to have established a holy site, or enclosure, by planting sacred trees and setting up sacred stones at Kasanui, in Yamato.[12]

Returning to Mt. Miwa: the word `miwa` means `three (mi) rings (wa),` and traditionally, three miscanthus hoops placed on boulders on the mountain represented the three main deities of the shrine.[13] Mt. Miwa is also called `Mt. Mimoro` in ancient literature—kannabi no Mimoro.  `Mimoro` (var. Mimuro; kannabi is a makurakotoba, a `pillow word` or literary epithet of uncertain, apparently non-Japanese, etymology but indicating the presence of the kami, gods, on a sacred mountain), is certainly a reference to the three ritual sites.  Anciently,  a muro was a grotto dug out of the side of a mountain, a shelter (yado) or ritual enclosure;  today the word still means a storehouse.[14]  Donald Philippi points out that gMimoro was used as a common noun for some sort of shrineh and the word is today widely found as a Japanese place name.[15]  The old word kannabi no yama (var. kamunabi) also indicates a mountain used for ritual, as it does, for example, in one of the oldest Japanese documents still extant—the Izumo Fuudoki, where explicitly, one Kannabiyama was called thus because there was a shrine on the top of the hill. [16]  Extrapolating from the current use of these words in Japanese place names, we can surmise that there were many mountain temples of the Miwa type in old Japan.

Other examples of this include the Mikami and Hie Shrines in Shiga Prefecture, which have shintaisan (sacred mountain) traditions similar to Miwa; the sacred mountain of the Hie Shrine also has a sacred boulder site.[17]  The important shrine of Usa Hachiman in Kyushu originally had no buildings—there were just three stone iwakura on the mountain, as at Miwa.[18]   The sacred site where the deity of the Matsuo Shrine in Kyoto was worshipped was at an iwakura on the mountain until 701AD, when local leader Hata no Imiki Tori established a shrine at the foot of the mountain and moved the sacred presence from the mountain iwakura to the shrine buildings at its foot.[19]

The Kamigamo Shrine of Kyoto is located at the foot of Kouyama (`Mountain of God`), a conical kannabi mountain; at the foot of this mountain is the kourinseki (`Stones of Visitation`), an iwakura where the deity of the shrine is said to have appeared. [20] 

3. The Tripartite and `Three-fold` Patterns of Japanese Shinto Shrines Today

Returning again to our prototype at Miwa, we find there that three-fold-ness is today a theme of its shrine architecture:

*the Miwadorii, the Miwa-style torii shrine gate, is a triparite form with a larger central passageway flanked by two smaller ones.[1]

*A notable motif of shrine design is the Borromean ring motif (three interlocking rings) found on gables, lanterns, etc.[2]


These themes are found at sites throughout Japan.  At Mt. Dewa in Yamagata Prefecture, the 2,446 steps of the stone stairway leading from the shrine at the foot of the mountain to its peak are divided into three levels—the Ichi-no-saka, Ni-no-saka, and San-no-saka.[3]   The staircase ascending nearby Mt. Haguro is similarly divided into three stages. [4]  Other examples of this pattern include:

*the Afuri Shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture, which has a Zensha (forward, outer shrine), a Honsha (main shrine) and an Ousha (inner shrine).[5]

*The Futaarayama Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture, has one yashiro just above Nikkou City, another at the foot of Mt. Futaara, and an Ooku-no-miya (inner shrine) at its summit.[6]

*The Nibu no Kawakami Shrine in the Yoshino area of Nara Prefecture has three parts—upper, middle and lower shrines (kami, naka and shimo, respectively). [7]

*Other notable shrines with the same upper/middle/lower tripartite division include the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, the Kumano Honguu Taisha in Wakayama Prefecture, and Aso Shrine in Kyushu.  At this latter, on the summit of Mt. Aso is a sacred crater lake with stones round it forming a wall.[8]


There are temporary shelters built to house rituals for festivals, as well.  At the Miyoshi rite of the Tsushima shrine in Aichi Prefecture, the miyoshi (a ritual scapegoat object to which evils are transferred before it is washed away in a river) starts out in a temporary enclosure surrounded by a three-fold fencing. [9]  Three concentric enclosures also surround the himorogi (tree in which the deity is present) of the Aoyama Festival at Iwashimizu Hachimanguu. [10]  Other examples of permanent three-fold enclosure include:

*Ise, Japanfs most important Imperial shrine, where the inner and outer compounds are enclosed by four wooden fences.  The outermost fence surrounds the entire precinct, and is the only fence through which worshippers may pass. [11]

*The main shrine at Izumo is surrounded by two wooden fences. [12]  When a shrine is encircled by two- or three-fold fences, the outer are usually called tamagaki and the innermost a mizugaki.

*At the Atsuta Shrine of Nagoya (where the Imperial sword, one of the three Imperial regalia, is kept), the deity enshrined in the honden is worshipped from a gate in an outer wall, the sototamagaki.  Within the precinct enclosed by this outer wall are two more concentric rectangular walls or fences, an uchitamagaki and a mizutamagaki which also enclose the honden, making a total of three sequenced sacred spaces into which worshippers do not enter.  On January 1, a ceremonial troupe perform music and dance numbers at the shrinefs san no torii, third gate. [13] 

*The honden at Kibitsu Shrine has four separated areas—an outer court (gaijin), middle court (chuujin), inner court (naijin) and innermost court (nainaijin).[14]


4. The Tripartite Structure and Japanese Tombs, Capitals, Palaces and Thrones

The earliest keyhole-shaped burial tumuli (kofun) of the late 3rd and early 4th  centuries AD often had three tiers. [15]  The enormous keyhole tomb mound said to be that of Emperor Nintoku is ringed by three layers of moats. [16]  The kofun said to be that of  Emperor Oujin has three tiers surrounded by two moats and two dikes. [17]  Other examples include:

*perhaps the earliest burial mound in Japan, Tatetsuki in Okayama Prefecture, where gon the slope of the mound were positioned two encircling rows of standing stones 1-2 meters in height.h [18]

*At the Ishiyama kofun in Mie Prefecture, three rows of tubular haniwa (clay figurines) encircle the mound. [19]

*An early tomb at Kanakura-yama in Okayama also has three rows of haniwa cylinders surrounding the mound. [20]

*Another early example of the three-tiered tomb mound in Okayama is the Tsukuriyama kofun. [21]

*An example from the Kanto area of Japan are the three terraces of cylinders on the immense Tonozuka at Shibayama in Chiba Prefecture. [22]


The first haniwa were in the shape of jars and were gused to mark the boundary between this and the other world.h [23]  The use of clay cylinder haniwa spread from Okayama to the Kinai area of Japan.  At the Mesuriyama tumulus at Sakurai, Nara Prefecture, there were three rows of cylinders, some as high as 2.4 meters. [24]  Miki makes explicit for us the comparison between the rows of haniwa on the tombs and the fences or walls setting off the more hallowed areas of  sacred sites such as shrines. [25]  Watanabe compares specifically the ghouse-shapedh haniwa inside the fence of cylindrical haniwa of the kofun to the inner shrine buildings inside the innermost fence at Ise. [26]

In addition to temples and imperial tombs, early Japanese palaces and capitals also show the tripartite structure.  The 8th century AD Nara capital palace was a gtriple-nestedh compound and the capital itself was considered to be gprotectedh by three nearby peaks. [27]  The palace precincts included three walls: the innermost fence surrounded only the Imperial Domicile. The second fence enclosed the first fence as well as the offices and workshops of those attending to  the personal needs of the imperial family.  The outermost wall enclosed all of this and also the bureaus of public administration and government. [28]  The Kyoto Imperial Palace still seen today is similarly divided, and among its inner buildings, the library (O-gakumon-jo) is divided into three parts (`upper,` `middle` and `lower`) and the building where rites are held is called the Omima (`three spaces`). [29]

The Takamikura (throne) from which the Japanese Emperor at his investiture makes solemn announcement of his accession is a series of three stages, upon the top of which is an octagonal

canopy. [30]  Robert Ellwood compares the three levels of mats of the shinza throne of the enthronement ceremony with the three-fold dais built by the Sea King of Japanese mythology to test an early imperial ancestor, Hoori no mikoto, to see if he was really a grandchild of the gods. [31]


[1]  K, 2139

[3]  from the shrinefs yuisho-ryakki, in the possession of the author

[4]  H. Byron Earhardt, A Religious Study of the Mount Haguro Sect of Shugendö (To\yo: Monumenta Nipponica, 1970), p.117

[5]  Yamanaka (1968), p.31

[6]  Ooba, Iwao, (1967), p.175

[7]  Jean Herbert, Shinto (1967), p.481

[8]  Ponsonby-Fane, R.A.B. Studies in Shinto and Shrines, Vol. I of Richard Ponsonby Fane Series (Kyoto: Ponsonby Memorial Society) I: 484-5

[9]  Gunter Nitschke, gShime-Binding/Unbinding,h Architectural Design (London), Dec. 1974, p.755; illustration 7. 

[10]  N, p.6 

[11]  Watanabe, Yasutada, Shinto Art: Ise and Izumo Shrines, trans. Robert Rickets (New York: Weatherhill, 1974)  pp.12, 18ff and see diagram on foldout between pp.88-9

[12]  Ibid.; photos on p.68ff and diagram on p.81

[13]  from the 1989 version of the shrinefs yuisho-ryakki (in the possession of the author), pp.42, 82

[14]  Fujii, Shun, Kibitsu Jinja (Okayama, 1973), pp.3, 37

[15]  W. Wayne Farris, Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures: Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan (U. Hawaii, 1998), pp.88, 90 

[16]  Grove Dictionary of Art (1996), XVII:57 

[17]  KE VI:76

[18]  Tsude, Hiroshi, "The Kofun Period," in Tsuboi, Kiyotari, ed., Recent Archaeological Discoveries in Japan (Tokyo: The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies and UNESCO, 1984), p.57

[19]  Richard J. Pearson, Ancient Japan (1992), pp.209, 255

[20]   J. Edward Kidder Jr. and Ozawa, Kenishi, The Birth of Japanese Art (1965), p.115.  Kidder, in Early Japanese Art: The Great Tombs and Treasures (London, 1964), p.84, suggest the haniwa cylinders on tumuli slopes form a sacred enclosure.

[21]  Michael S.F. Gorman, The Quest for Kibi and the True Oriins of Japan (1999)

[22]  Kidder (1965) p.87

[23]  Aoki, Michiko Y., Records of Wind and Earth: A Translation of Fudoki (1997), p.222, n.169; a story in the Harima Fudoki mentions a jars buried at a mountain pass to mark the boundary between two kuni [administrative districts]; ibid., p.222. 

[24]  Kidder, J. Edward Jr., gCeramics of the Burial Mounds (Kofun) (AD 258 - 646),h in  Weeder, Erica H., ed., The Rise of a Great Tradition: Japanese Archaeological Ceramics from the Jomon through Heian Periods (10,500 BC - AD 1185), (New York: Japan Society, 1990), p.44

[25]  Miki, Fumio, Haniwa, trans. Gina Barnes (NY: Weatherhill, 1974)

[26]  in Shinto Art, op.cit., p.139

[27]  Joan R. Piggott, The Emergence of Japanese Kingship (Stanford U., 1997), pp.189-92

[28]  Tsuboi, Kiyotari The Historic City of Nara: An Archaeological Approach (Tokyo: Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, 1991), p.12

[29]  based on the authorfs personal observation

[30]  D.C. Holtom, Japanese Enthronement Ceremonies (Tokyo, 1928) p.63; for octagonal shapes and the significance of the number 8 in general in Japan, see the authorfs gShinto and the Number 8h (1994).

[31]  The Feast of Kingship: Accession Ceremonies in Ancient Japan (Sophia U., 1973) pp.70-1



[1]  ER, I:33  

[2]  ER III:156,161

[3]  ER XI:315 

[4]  ER I:477-8

[5]  EWA II:202

[6]  in Protocol of the Gods: A Study of the Kasuga Cult in Japanese History (U. Cal., 1992) pp.28ff.

[7]  Nishitsunoi, Masayoshi, Nenjuu Gyouji Jiten (1965), p.651; EWA VIII:815; hereafter cited as eN f

[8]  Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan (1983) V:216; hereafter cited as eKEf

[9]  R.A.B. Ponsonby-Fane, Visiting Famous Shrines in Japan, Vol. VI of Richard Ponsonby Fane Series (Kyoto: Ponsonby Memorial Society, 1964) pp.261-5, including a description of the Miwa iwakura and a variety of natural and man-made iwakura found in Japan

[10]  Koujien (1955) s.v. eAma no Iwakuraf p.59; hereafter cited as eKf

[11]  The account given in the Kogoshuui, Kato and Hoshino trans. (London: Curzon Press, 1972), pp.27, 34

[12]   Ibid., pp.36-7

[13]  Ponsonby-Fane, op.cit., VI:260, 267

[14]  Nakada, Norio, Kogo Jiten (1963), p.1086; Ueda, Masaaki, Nihon no Rekishi (Tokyo, Iwanami, 1975-77) I:340-1

[15]  Donald L. Philippi, trans. Kojiki (U. Tokyo, 1968) p.449 

[16]  Aoki, Michiko Y., trans. Izumo Fudoki (Tokyo: Sophia U. 1971) p.198

[17]  Ueda, op.cit., I:340

[18]  Ishida,  Eifichiro, gMother-Son Deitiesh History of Religion Vol 4 (1964) No 1, p.39 

[19]  Matsuo Taishsa Ryakki  (1975), p.4

[20]  from the shrinefs official guidebook (yuisho-ryakki); for more examples of this phenomenon, see gMountain Beliefs and Practices,h in Kokugakuinfs on-line Encyclopedia of Shinto, at http://eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp/modules/xwords/category.php?categoryID=26