Muromachi Period Art & Architecture

Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

The Muromachi period (1336 to 1573 CE) was a time of civil unrest in Japan. But it was also a time when Japanese architecture and art were allowed to flourish. In this lesson, we will focus on the art and architecture of the Muromachi period.

What is the Muromachi Period in Japanese History?

From the mid-1100s, the imperial government of Japan was losing control over the country. The Japanese emperor, Go-Daigo, was challenged and overthrown by the Ashikaga family around 1338 CE creating a shogunate, or military dictatorship. They established their government seat in the Muromachi district of Kyoto holding this position for almost 200 years.

Though politically unstable the economy grew under the Ashikaga shogunate, as established groups of merchants experienced declines in their influence, opening doors for smaller businesses. Trade with other countries also brought cultural diversity and Buddhism experienced growth during this time, both having a great influence on art and architecture. Changes in cultural practices allowed people to move between social classes. And in an effort to establish themselves as a legitimate government, the Ashikaga family became patrons of the arts, promoting Zen Buddhism and Chinese culture.

Muromachi Architecture

During the Muromachi period, Shinden-zukari, or aristocratic architecture, was modified to a more modest building style reflecting the core philosophy of Zen. Shoin-zukari used a smaller floor plan. The shoin is a study or meeting room that displayed books or calligraphy. These rooms reflected the Zen idea of meditation and enlightenment. Soon all homes had a shoin. Square structural posts hold up the roofs and tatami mats are used for floor covering. Folding or sliding shoji screens and solid walls separated rooms giving a clean look. Shoji screens also allowed smaller rooms to be opened up creating larger living areas. Some screens might even open to the outside giving a view of the carefully designed gardens.

With an awareness of the connection between beauty and religion, Zen Buddhism influenced the creation of the tea ceremony, chanoyu, a time for contemplation and meditation. The shoin became the place to perform the tea ceremony. Chanoyu also emphasizes the appreciation of interior design, architecture, painting, calligraphy, and even garden design.


Shoin-Zakuri Interior

Zen Gardens

Symmetrical gardens gave way to the Zen idea of the structure and the landscape working together to create a meditative environment. Gardens were designed to be thought of as three-dimensional paintings. The first garden to begin the transition to this idea is at Saiho-ji, The Temple of the Perfumes of the West. Originally a Buddhist temple, it became a Zen monastery in 1334. The garden is divided into a lower portion with a traditional pond and an upper rock garden in the Zen tradition.

Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion, also has a traditional pond garden, but also includes a new feature created entirely of raked and shaped white gravel. One of the most famous Zen gardens is Ryoan-ji. On a bed of white rock, larger stones are arranged in groups. The surrounding rock is hand raked every day by monks. It is meant to promote tranquility.The work that it takes to maintain the garden is also meditative.

Zen Garden - Ginkakuji - Kyoto, Japan

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