Discovery of fragment hints at Japan's legendary 100m tall pagoda

PHOTO: The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network

KYOTO - A fragment that can be regarded as part of a legendary pagoda over 100 meters in height was found at Kinkakuji temple (see below) - known for its Golden Pavilion - in Kyoto, local authorities revealed Friday.

As no ruins or relics of the pagoda had been found at the site it was widely thought to be apocryphal.

The pagoda is called Kitayamaoto and is said to have been built by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), the third shogun of the Muromachi shogunate (1336-1573).

The finding suggests the possibility that the pagoda was the tallest example of wooden architecture in the nation's history, exceeding 100 meters.

According to ancient documents and other sources, Yoshimitsu built two gigantic pagodas. The first was a seven-story pagoda standing 109 meters tall at Shokokuji - a temple also built by him in Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto - in 1399. It was later burned down by lightning.

Five years later, Yoshimitsu began building another seven-story pagoda called Kitayamaoto at a location that later became Kinkakuji temple. Kitayamaoto was also burned down by lightning in 1416, just before its completion.

According to the Kyoto City Archaeological Research Institute, the fragment appears to be from the kurin, a circular part of the decorative shaft at the top of a pagoda. The fragment was excavated from a stratum of the Muromachi period on the west side of a parking area about 200 meters northeast of the famed Golden Pavilion.

The gilt bronze fragment is 37 centimeters wide, 24 centimeters long, 1.5 centimeters thick and weighs 8.2 kilograms. The diameter of the whole kurin is estimated to have been about 2.4 meters.

The diameter of the kurin atop the Gojunoto five-story pagoda at Toji temple in Minami Ward, Kyoto, is 1.6 meters. The pagoda is preserved to this day and stands 55 meters tall.

As this comparison reveals Kitayamaoto to be bigger than Gojunoto, it can be surmised that it was equivalent in size to the big pagoda that existed at Shokokuji.

In Kyoto, the highest building before the pagoda at Shokokuji temple is said to be the no longer standing 81-meter Hakkakukyujunoto nine-story pagoda built in the late Heian period (late eighth century to late 12th century) at Hosshoji temple in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto.

Showing immense power

Kyoto University Associate Prof. Yoshiyuki Tomishima said the Hakkakukyujunoto pagoda had been the symbol of power in Kyoto before the building of Kitayamaoto.

As an expert in Japanese architectural history, he said: "Yoshimitsu had to exceed it to show his power. Standing next to the Golden Pavilion, the symbol of Kitayama culture, the pagoda would have been a gorgeous and immense display of Yoshimitsu's power."

However, he insists the exact size of the pagoda cannot be known only by the fragment of kurin. "Unearthing the foundation is essential," he added.

"It is possible that other remains are still buried. We want to co-operate on further excavation and research," said Raitei Arima, head priest of the Shokokuji branch of the Rinzai Zen sect, and also chief priest of Kinkakuji temple.

  •  Kinkakuji temple

A villa built by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397 and converted into a Zen temple after his death. It was named Rokuonji after Yoshimitsu's posthumous Buddhist name. It is famous for a shariden hall called Kinkaku, or the Golden Pavilion, that enshrines relics of the Buddha. Representing Muromachi culture, the temple is better known as Kinkakuji. In 1994, it was registered on the UNESCO's World Heritage list as part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.