瓦 kawara—roof tiles

Some weeks ago, I cycled to see a “roof-tile stupa” – a 7th-century earthen mound or pyramid covered in roof-tiles.

This stupa was constructed by a monk called Gyouki who helped to promote Buddhism in Japan in the 7th century, and also did lots of works to help the poor, such as building clinics, carp ponds, and irrigation (as well as stupas).

Anyway, you can see the ceramic roof tiles from 1300 years ago. The design is simple: alternating rows of hemi-cylindrical convex tiles and quarter-cylindrical concave tiles.

Ceramic roof-tiles (kawara) are still a distinctive and appealing feature of Japanese houses, and they have evolved lots of interesting features to reward a closer look.

Nowadays the convex marugawara and flat hiragawara are usually combined into a single tile, creating an elegant, wavy roof surface. The house below features both styles.

At the end of the ridges on the upper roof, you can also see the scary faces of onigawara – ogre tiles.

The pendant discs on the end tiles are gaitou, and they often have a particular circular pattern like tadpoles or commas.  This very ancient symbol, called tomoe, is reminiscent of Celtic forms such as the triskel.

Lots of roofs have other decorative features, such as turtles, fish, dragons, gods…

Note on the word of the day:

In an earlier post, I remarked on the fact that the Japanese word for gas, normally written in katakana as ガス, can be written using kanji characters: 瓦斯. This is very unusual for a loan-word from English.

Anyway, the first character in is 瓦, which is the character for roof-tile. In this case it is merely being used for its sound value “GA” (the Chinese pronunciation of 瓦). When a kanji is used purely for its sound value, this is called ateji.

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