Japanese Gate Typology (17)

This is a series of posts describing the many varieties of Japanese gate, or mon (). If you look at the preceding kanji more closely,  you can think of it as a picture of a pair of swinging doors, reminiscent of saloon doors in a wild west movie. I thought that it would be a nice idea to bring more awareness to a western audience as to the tremendous diversity in forms and types of Japanese gates. This series intends to be a gateway to gates.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. Heijūmon 
  2. Kabukimon 
  3. Kōraimon 
  4. Yakuimon 
  5. Yotsu-ashimon 
  6. Munamon 
  7. Commentary
  8. Uzumimon 
  9. Yaguramon 
  10. Rōmon
  11. Shōrōmon
  12. Taikomon
  13. Nijūmon
  14. Sanmon 
  15. Niōmon 
  16. Nitenmon


Sōmon (総門)

This is the principal entry gate to a temple, temple precinct, or, more rarely, a high class residence. The character sō () means overall, total, and general, with extended meanings of control or unify, so out of those options this is perhaps a structure best termed a main gate () which controls () access. Like other gates we have looked at recently, this gate is named for its location relative to other buildings and function rather than its structural arrangement or roof type.

To ward off any possibility of confusion on the part of the reader, in light of the gates we have looked at previously, some of which were ‘main gates’, let’s take a look at a fairly standard temple layout pattern, that of Zuiryūji (瑞龍寺) in Toyama Prefecture:

The illustration has west (西) to the top and north () to the right. At the bottom we can see the mon, 総門, and behind it, after you have passed through the entry and are heading west, is the main gate, or sanmon (山門). In the drawing above, the solid red star ‘‘ indicates buildings which are national treasures, while the outlined red star ‘‘ indicated structures which are designated Jūyō-Bunkazai (重要文化財), or “important cultural property”.

Another view of the same map, in sketched perspective:

Evidently this temple’s layout, axially symmetrical (which indicates a strong Chinese influence), is patterned on a human body, which does not seem especially auspicious in regards to the sanmon!

The mon at this site is listed as jūyō-bunkazai, so let’s start with a look at it:

Peering through the gate’s opening you can see the sanmon in the background. This
mon appears to be built on the pattern of the kabukimon, and the lack of front posts suggest that it is framed in the manner of the yakuimon, with an off-centered roof ridge.
Sōmon are single story gates of various styles based on the four-legged (shikyaku) or eight legged (hyakkyaku) framing patterns we looked at in the post on Rōmon. We’ll look now at an example from Tentokuji (天徳寺) in Akita prefecture:

A classic four-legged, kirizumaroofed gate.

Here’s the view from inside the compound looking back at the gate:

From the front a glimpse is afforded of the sanmon further down the path:

From the side looking up at the gable end eave:

The next sōmon is located in Tokyo – Myōgonji (妙厳寺), also the site of Toyokawa Inari Jinja (an inari jinja is a ‘fox’ shrine):

Here we have a more elaborate roof, a hipped gable, irimoya,  crosswise with a kara-hafu ‘dormer’ on the front facing portion:

A pre-war photo of the same gate:

The last one for this post is Narita-san Shinshō-ji (成田山新勝寺), a Shingon Buddhist temple located in Narita, Chiba prefecture:

The form is that of a rōmonon steroids’, if I might use a hackneyed expression. The site was consecrated in 940 by Kanchō Daisōjō, a disciple of Kōbō Daishi. The site is quite large, as one might expect from the mighty entry gate, and contains five National Treasure-graded structures, including a three-story pagoda and this niōmon:

Check out the mega-scale chōchin (提灯) hanging inside the niōmon, and the glimpses of the caving:

If you’re passing through Japan and layover at Narita Airport, this temple complex is but a short train ride away. Well worth investigating!

All for today – thanks for your visit. On to post 18

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