In addition to the Utamaro paintings I found out about (and blogged about) recently, I have just come across news articles relating a number of other interesting finds in Japan.
(1) The World’s Oldest Timbers in active use, Older than at Hôryû-ji, found at Gangô-ji
The temple of Hôryû-ji in Ikaruga, just outside the city of Nara, is often said to contain (some of?) the oldest wooden structures in the world. Core elements of the pagoda and kondô (main hall; lit. “Golden Hall”) have been dated to the 6th and 7th centuries, respectively, and I suppose it is generally believed or assumed that enough of the rest of these structures (beyond just the core pillars and such) dates back to that time as well that it can be said that the building as a whole, despite later repairs and the like, is that old.
However, the Asahi Shimbun reported a few days ago on the discovery of timbers at Gangô-ji, another temple in the Nara area, which date back earlier than the Hôryûji structures. As usual, the Asahi cannot be trusted to maintain any kind of archive, and the link could stop working at any moment. So, for the sake of posterity, and for the sake of informing the public, I provide the original text and a translation. No claims of authorship or ownership of the original Japanese text are made, and all intellectual property rights belonging to the Asahi Shimbun and the original author (reporter) are acknowledged and recognized.
It may be a small point, but one thing which stands out to me in this article is the fact that these timbers, dated to the 6th century, and installed in a building built in the early 8th century, should be in a place called the “Zen Hall” or “Zen Room”, when Zen did not come to Japan until the 13th century or so.
A survey performed by Visiting Professor Mitsutani Takumi of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto has revealed, based largely on the counting of tree rings, that pieces of cypress used in the Zen Hall (a National Treasure) of Gangôji (also known as Gokuraku-bô), which is located in the Chûin neighborhood in the city of Nara, were originally felled in the Asuka period, around the year 586 CE. Dated to roughly 100 years before the construction of Hôryûji (late 7th to early 8th century), the site of the oldest wooden buildings in the world, this would make these timbers the oldest wooden architectural elements in active use (that is, serving a functional purpose within a structure) in the world.
Gangôji was preceded by Asuka-dera (now Hôkô-ji, in Asuka village, Nara pref.), the first Buddhist temple to be built in Japan. [Though the site remained active as a temple, now called Hôkô-ji], along with the moving of the capital in 710, [significant elements of Asuka-dera] were moved to Heijô-kyô [i.e. Nara]. Construction on Gangô-ji began in 718, and though the buildings are acknowledged as having been newly constructed at that time, there is a strong possibility that the Zen Hall at least was moved there from Asuka-dera.
The Zen Hall is a long, narrow wooden one-story building, 26.8 meters from east to west, 12.8 meters from north to south, and 8.4 meters tall. It is used as a monastic residence, and since a later time has also come to be used for ascetic practices.
In 2000, when Professor Mitsutani was head of the Excavation Techniques section of the Nara Cultural Properties Research Institute, he began surveys on the tree rings on wooden elements taken from the Zen Hall as part of repairs in the 1940s, and found pieces which showed that they were from a tree felled around 582. Seeing that elements from the same period were still in use, in 2007, he used a digital camera to capture images of the tree rings evident in elements on the underside of the roof, and employed computers to analyze the images. As a result, it was determined that a number of horizontal pieces called kashiranuki, which run between the upper sections of the vertical pillars, were the oldest, dating back to 586.
The precise year in which Asuka-dera was constructed remains unclear, but according to the Nihon Shoki, trees felled in 590 were used in the construction. It appears that elements from Asuka-dera were reused in the construction of this Zen Hall. Professor Mitsutani said, “That elements from the first Buddhist temple in this country are still in use is due to the durability of cypress, and the ease with which things can be built from it. As a building symbolizing Japan’s wood culture, this Zen Hall is precious.” The underside of the Zen Hall will be open to the public from October 17 to November 13, with a limit of 160 people per day. The deadline to apply is September 17 [sorry, guys, for the short notice. -T], and applications will be handled in the order in which they are received. For details, see the Gangôji Cultural Properties Research Center website http://www.gangoji.or.jp/ [Japanese site; no English, I'm afraid].
Gangôji: The moved Asuka-dera, which was originally built by Soga no Umako (d. 626), and then rebuilt in the Nara period in Heijô-kyô, roughly 22 km to the north. It is counted as one of the seven great temples of the Southern Capital (Nara), along with Tôdaiji. The Kondô and other structures burned down in the Muromachi period, and the pagoda, Kannon Hall, and other structures burned down in the Edo period. Today, it is divided into two temples, with Gokurakubô containing the Hondô and Zen Hall, and with both drawing upon the heritage of the Kannon Hall. Gokurakubô was recognized in 1998 as a World Heritage Site, along with a number of other sites together comprising the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.”