Kansai Council page on special features in Japanese architecture

The Secret of the Dragon

and the Mysterious Urns



Kansai Council page on special features in Japanese architecture

The painted dragon on the ceiling “roars.”

Sokoku-ji temple

Sokoku-ji temple

On the ceilings of such halls as Shokokuji Temple, Tenryuji Temple and Myoshinji Temple in Kyoto are drawings of dragons. In Shokokuji Temple, when you clap your hands, a long reverberating echo, traditionally called the “roaring dragon”, is heard. This sound is in fact caused by the ceiling. A sound produced between two parallel planes, the floor and the ceiling, repeatedly bounces between them, causing acoustic reflections and subtle overlapping of echoes. The result is unique sound waves, the roar of the dragon.

The phenomenon is more likely to happen when one side of the plane is slightly cambered, as seen in the ceiling of the hall of Shokokuji Temple, where the panels on the right and left of the ceiling, have a camber of about 10 cm. The dragons on the ceiling have known the secret of the sound for a long time.

The Painted Dragon on the ceiling at the Sokoku-ji temple

The Painted Dragon
on the ceiling
at the Sokoku-ji temple

The Noh drama theater echoes

The Noh Dramatheater

The Noh Dramatheater

Another sound-related topic. Noh is a traditional Japanese performing art. Did you know that something is placed underneath the stage of many Noh theaters for acoustic effect? The “something” is earthenware urns, like those used in the past in old-style kitchens. This acoustic device is said to date back to when Noh theaters were built outdoors. When sounds from the stage reach the urns buried underneath, urns with frequencies corresponding to the frequencies of the incoming sounds vibrate and reemit the sounds.

There are no rules about how big the urns should be or how many should be used. Urns are also sometimes hung from ropes underneath the floors at theaters. The one common factor in both is that the urns are always placed concentrically around the center of the stage with their openings facing the center. This arrangement is meant to maximize sound reflection.

Another Mystery: Nightingale Flooring

At some temples, when you walk on the floor you hear the floor sing with your every step. This type of floor is called a nightingale floor, and the singing sound is produced as the clamps used to fix the floorboards rub against holes in the floor boards as a person walks above. The beautiful sound was associated with the singing of a nightingale, hence the name. This phenomenon has been found to be naturally caused by the warping of the floorboards from long years of wind and rain or by the expanding of the holes due to the heavy load of people walking above. (In Kyoto,these floors can be seen in such places as Chioin Temple, Nijo Castle and Tojiin Temple.)