Kawara: Decoding Roof Tiles of Japan
February 28, 2018
Kawara with tomoemon gatou

Kawara, traditional roof tiles of Japan, not only keep the rain out, they have personality, meaning and spiritual symbolism. You cannot travel to Japan without noticing the tidiness, attention to detail and deliberate use of design to improve the look of dull and everyday objects to create a beautiful living environment. Whether it is a carefully pruned garden, meticulously rolled sushi, or decoration on a utility cover, Japan is the perfect kind of place for anyone who is buoyed by thoughtful design details, craftmanship and character.

One notable aspect of Japan’s traditional architecture is the kawara – roof tiles that can be traced back to the late 6th century when they were introduced to Japan from China and Korea. Unlike the ceramic tiles we use in the west, the roof tiles of Japan have a little more personality. They are decorated with marks that not only personalise and pretty-up a gloomy grey rooftop but carry much spiritual symbolism.

Kawara: Roof Tiles of Japan
Kawara: Roof Tiles of Japan
Kawara: Roof Tiles of Japan

Upon the arrival of kawara in Japan, which coincided with the migration of Buddhism, these tiles were decorated with botanical motifs that generally depicted lotus blooms, a flower revered in the Buddhist faith. Around the 11th century, fashions changed and tile decorations became increasingly diverse. Among the many new roof decorations that arose at this time were Buddhist symbols, an arrangement of swirling commas symbolising water named tomoemon, and identifying family seals called kamon. The most commonly decorated tiles are those that cap the ends of the eaves. They are generally round disks known as gatou, joined by broad, semi-circular tile endings called nokihiragawara.

Lotus gatou
Lotus gatou
Kawara: Roof Tiles of Japan
Tomoemon, a swirling comma design, in the centre of this gatou
Kawara: Roof Tiles of Japan
If anyone can help identify this kamon, please leave me a message below this post

Onigawara, ogre tiles, are used more as accents on the corners and peaks of roofs, particularly those of Buddhist temples. As the “oni” part of the name suggests, many of these tiles are decorated with the faces of demons or ogres, although they may also depict flowers and other symbols. However don’t mistake the fierce looking ogres for being strictly evil beings. In Japanese culture they are helpful in scaring off malicious spirits that might cause those living or worshipping under that roof, bad fortune. Oni come in many forms, each with a specialisation that often refers to a particular element or cosmic body. Stars, moons, water, clouds, fire – a little like the cast of Captain Planet really. Depending on their particular brand of power, oni are believed to attract desirable things such as wealth, longevity, light and purity, or they may be more gifted at repelling unwelcome fires and misfortune. The tiles also have a functional purpose, which is to seal the ends of a roof to prevent leakage, wear and tear.

Kawara: Roof Tiles of Japan
An onigawara with a round gatou above featuring the kamon of the Toyotomi clan, which is also the symbol of the office of the Primeminister of Japan
Kawara: Roof Tiles of Japan
Onigawara with a floral motif at Tennoji Temple, Yanaka, Tokyo
A devilish onigawara peaking over the eaves
Kawara: Roof Tiles of Japan
This onigawara is a kamon, family crest, in the form of a stylised orange blossom

Plan a trip to Japan

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Find flights to Japan with Skyscanner.

Search for accommodation using Tripadvisor.

Don’t forget travel insurance, I recommend Seven Corners or World Nomads.

It only took half a day strolling Tokyo for kawara to ignite my curiosity and compel me to take far too many pictures of Japanese roof tiles. It soon became a game to seek out new symbols and find out their meaning. The roof tiles of Japan are a fun reminder that functional is, of course, essential but a little bit of design work and attention to detail can brighten the ordinary and bring joy to the everyday.

Check out more from Japan trip at Creative Corners – Where to go in Tokyo and Even Samurai Grow Flowers – The Story of Japan’s Chrysanthemums.

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

Kawara: Decoding Japanese Roof Tiles
Kawara: Decoding Japanese Roof Tiles | Duende by Madam ZoZo #kawara #japan #travel #architecture

About author

Madam ZoZo

Hi! I'm Madam ZoZo, aka Zoë, an Australian designer, creative consultant, blogger and digital nomad. I'm passionate about travel, design, dance and new experiences that fuel my creativity. I strive to travel in a style that is gentle on the earth and that contributes to the communities I visits, even if it is merely to take away a greater understanding of a different culture. Duende by Madam ZoZo, is where I share the stories of my travels and the duende (soul/inspiration) I find along the way.


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  • […] 10 days to explore Tokyo I covered a lot of ground, and uncovered plenty of inspiration. I’ve written before about how impressed I was at the attention the Japanese give to the smallest details from the […]

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