This is part two of a two-part series looking at Japanese bell towers, or shōrō. For part I, click here.
As mentioned in the previous post, bell towers in Japan derive both from continental antecedents as well as indigenous drum towers, or korō as they are termed. Of the types deriving directly from Chinese patterns we have several varieties. One of the oldest forms, stemming from the Muromachi era (1336~1573) is a type of two-story bell tower which was structurally related to a particular type of two-story gate, called san-mon (山門).
For reference, here’s what a typical san-mon looks like, this one dating from 1536:
Now the same structural form as you see in the above two photos, with 6 vertical main posts on the lower story, and a kō-ran (高欄), a walkway, surrounding the upper floor came to be used for towers which did not serve as gates:
Here’s a similar form, except the lower story has four posts instead of six, splayed posts instead of vertical, and the bell is on the upper floor:
In that type of tower which did not function as gates, and which has the bell located in the upper floor, a variant type emerged in which the lower floor posts, stairs, and other related structural parts were enclosed in a kind of flared skirt. In fact, the term for this type of bell tower is hakama-goshi (袴腰), the hakama being a type of skirt worn by males (which you will still see in traditional Japanese martial arts today, among other places), and koshi, referring to the ‘hip region’ of the body. Here’s a few examples of that type, starting with the earliest extant one and, in my opinion, most sublime:
The above is the bell tower of Hōryū-ji (法隆寺) in Nara. I find it especially beautiful because of the way the ‘ribs’ on the skirt are fanned and curved in the most perfect manner. That’s hard carpentry!
Another example of the hakama-goshi type – this is at Nikko:
And one more, this time with a ‘simple’ plastered skirt and bark shingled roof:
The single floor arrangement is echoed in a type of bell tower which developed at the beginning of the 13 century. First seen at Tōdaiji (東大寺) in Nara, this new type of bell tower was completely open on all four sides and had thick pillars reinforced by flanking posts placed at the corners. All other structural members were visible. The huge bell was hung from the central transverse beam and the striking pole was within reach of the ground. Here’s that bell tower at Tōdaiji:
This open-type belfry became very popular and is today, especially in its derivative forms, the most commonly seen type of shōrō. Here’s another example, a tad less grand than the preceding:
In the most common derivative form, the corner pillars in this type of tower are set with an inward incline, or uchi-korobi ( 内転び), and the flanking posts are omitted. The flaring posts act to greatly stabilize the structure – just like a sawhorse. Here’s an example with a gabled roof:
Here’s one where the six posts reminiscent of the gate type of tower are employed, though splayed:
BTW, to read more about Zen architecture, the real thing as opposed to the usual wabi-sabi marketing shlock, please check out an earlier post on that topic.
Many bell towers also feature fanning rafters, a natural choice for roof which are square in plan, usually in the two-tiered variety of base rafters (ji-daruki) plus flying rafters (hi-en daruki):
Then there are what I call the oddballs, which are bell towers of unusual form or which are uncommonly seen. The first one here is a ordinary 4-posted type with splay, situated on a hillside and has a floor built in:
The next one also is on an octagonal plan, but placed on a tall stone pedestal and having a narrowed waist and circular kō-ran:
In the previous post I mentioned the cultural significance of bell towers for the Japanese people, especially around New Years. So, I’ll close this post with a show of New Years Eve being rung in by a long line of revelers, each taking their turn to ring the bell:
Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way today. I have a huge number of bell tower examples in my database I could have shown here, and in the interest of brevity I have had to leave out many fine towers, including some quite famous ones. As it is, I have run way over the normal 15 picture limit. Sorry about that!
Bell towers are a vast subject area, and are but one type of structure among many found on Temple grounds. In the future I will be taking a look at other types of structures found in association to temples.
Also, I will have more to say on bell towers, as I am currently designing one for a client. wahoo!!