In their endeavors to create a perfectly serene setting for the practice of Buddhism, the Japanese have long been renowned for their beautifully restrained designs, in both the built environment and their carefully manicured natural landscapes. In Tokyo, Asakusa’s Sensoji Temple is one of the most visited in the country, while in Kyoto, the bamboo forests of Arashiyama form a tranquil oasis away from the frenetic city streets. The question is: can it be possible to combine these two conditions to create a temple that harnesses the qualities of both?
Japanese firm Yutaka Kawahara Design Studio believes so, and it has sought to realize this hybrid in its design for a contemporary temple in the heart of Tokyo named Ekoin Nenbutsudo. Completed in 2013, the Buddhist complex is intended to represent the “Gokuraku” or “Paradise in the Sky” and is comprised of the three traditional structures associated with Buddhist architecture — the vihara (monastery), the stupa (pagoda), and the shrine — stacked one atop the other in response to its compact site.
The temple contrasts sharply with most religious buildings constructed in Japan throughout the last few centuries; its wafer-thin roof canopy and slender columns have more in common with the minimalist designs of SANAA than the traditional Chinese-influenced architecture of most Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. However, two unusual external features set this building apart from the many exhibitions in modernism seen across Japan in recent years.
First, an elevated bamboo grove lines the covered walkway that wraps around the outside of the temple, providing a natural ‘green screen’ between those inside and the surrounding city. According to Yutaka Kawahara, the forest of chutes mean “it should be forgotten that you are in the center of Tokyo.” This visual buffer lends the temple the appearance of a raised park slotted between the neighboring office buildings, and this oasis continues on the roof of the structure, where a Japanese garden is provided for contemplation in the outdoors.
The bamboo brings a rare moment of nature back to the city, as Kawahara explains: “Temples in the old days were gathering places rich with greenery. But Tokyo has become a big city of the world, green open space were being lost. Ekoin (temple) had a lot of land a long time ago but is now surrounded by tall buildings.” Accordingly, this living material formed the basis for an urban oasis before evolving into a full realization of Gokuraku. “At first, there was only a bamboo garden. After that, it began to evolve in the representation of paradise.”
The other notable element of the temple’s outer reaches forms a second, more decadent buffer between interior and exterior: 108 columns were constructed from sparkling chains of Swarovski crystals, interspersing the bamboo with glacial globes that glint continuously in the sunlight. The crystals represent the Buddhist rosary, and Kawahara believes this could well be the world’s first example of Swarovski crystals used for external architectural use.
“The purpose of the Buddhist faith is to go to Gokuraku, and, on the road to paradise, there is a forest of seven treasures, according to scripture,” reflects Kawahara. “I represented the forest of seven treasures by using the light of seven colors of the prism.” The crystals refract light throughout the day, lending the external terraces an ever-changing atmosphere in keeping with Kawahara’s vision for a reflective, transient space.
In a deep transitional area between the interior and the outer walkway, a series of tables and chairs are provided for communal use. The interior design is kept minimal, keeping aesthetic distractions to a minimum to aid quiet contemplation and prayer; a single wall of contemporary art provides a dash of color, while rice straw tatami mats cover the floors — typical of religious buildings, tearooms, and homes throughout Japan. At the heart of the building, a prayer hall is adorned with more traditional artwork on folding screens, complemented with a grid of circular panels depicting Japanese birds and flowers on the ceiling.
Ekoin Nenbutsudo offers people a peaceful escape from the hectic atmosphere of Tokyo while satisfying the city’s appetite for cool, contemporary styles that form a striking reinterpretation of traditional architectural typologies. The combination of bamboo and crystal that makes up the temple’s permeable outer shield encapsulates Japan’s knack for balancing age-old materials with moments of modern exuberance, and the local residents of this Tokyo ward will undoubtedly benefit from the sanctuary it offers.