The more highly developed religious architecture of China came to Japan with the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th cent. Late in the 7th cent. the great monastery of Horyu-ji, near Nara, was near completion. The gateway, temple, and pagoda remained practically untouched until the 20th cent., when they were faithfully restored. These buildings illustrate the first epoch of Japanese architecture (6th–8th cent.), which was characterized by gravity, frankness of construction, and simple, vital compositions, sparsely ornamented.
Wood has always been the favorite material, and wooden construction was brought to a structural and artistic culmination as complete as any of the great styles of masonry architecture. Interior wood columns receive the loads, while the thin exterior walls are of woodwork and plaster. As in Greek and Chinese architecture, little use is made of diagonal members, and the framing is almost exclusively a system of uprights and horizontals. Vitality and grace are contributed by the refined curvatures in the column outlines, in the shapes of rafters and brackets, and especially in the great overhanging roofs.
Throughout the 8th cent. the Japanese continued to emulate the architects of China. The gigantic monastery of Todai-ji was begun in 745. A great hall was built to house the gigantic statue of Buddha (daibutsu), in front of which stood twin pagodas, each seven stories high. A distinctly Japanese style of architecture was developed in the late Heian period (898–1185). The famous Phoenix Hall at Uji, near Kyoto, originally a nobleman's villa, was converted (c.1050) into a temple. It represents the apogee of Japanese design. Beautifully situated near a lotus lake, it has a new sense of airiness, with its open porch and lofty central roof.
The emergence of Zen Buddhism coincided with a renewed interest in Chinese architecture during the 13th cent. The plan of the Japanese temple adhered to the symmetrical simplicity of Chinese design. The hall of worship contained a spacious chancel with a flat ceiling, usually painted with the Zen theme of dragons in clouds. By the mid-14th cent. Buddhist architecture tended toward eclecticism and an emphasis on rich sculptural adornment.
Through the centuries Buddhist temples have varied little in general arrangement. In front of the main building, or honden, stands an imposing gateway. Accessory structures include the five-storied square pagoda (often omitted), the drum tower, and the holy font protected by a shed. The Shinto temple, whose pre-Buddhist type is perpetuated, is a small and extremely simple structure, roofed with bark thatch and devoid of color adornment. Greatest importance was attached to the landscape setting, a forested and picturesque hillside being the favored location.