Sayama Forest Chapel


Koji Fujii / Nacasa&Partners

Nestled between a protected forest and the Sayama cemetery in one of Tokyo’s sprawling suburbs, this small and minimalist chapel by Hiroshi Nakamura is devoted to multi-religious contemplation.

Af Peter Mandal Hansen

Japanese nature offers a myriad of sacred places associated with mountains, rocks, forests, and trees. Traditionally, the Japanese people see nature as animistic, a belief that various objects, places, and creatures possess spiritual qualities. This view of nature still permeates Japanese culture and has a profound influence on Japan’s contemporary architecture, which often incorporates natural elements in the design of buildings.

Similar to a traditional Shinto shrine positioned against forested hills, the Sayama Forest Chapel stands on the edge of a forest, in the corner of the predominantly Buddhist cemetery with its rows of grey stone tombs with commemorative inscriptions on wooden plates.

The architect behind this small chapel in the Sayama forest, Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP,  had previously designed a small community center and administration building for the Sayama cemetery, to welcome visitors and offer a place for mourners in the cemetery.

The Sayama Forest Chapel invites people from all religions — and people just seeking a contemplative space — to use the forest chapel. Visitors to the chapel are met with eight-meter-high walls, which also become the roof of the chapel, clad in small aluminum sheets that create a contrasting skin to the surrounding trees. The aluminum cladding of the roof consists of 21,000 thin aluminum sheets, that are only 4 mm thick in order for construction to be set up and bent by hand.

The triangular plan of the chapel wraps several semi-circular forms around three newly planted trees. The semi-circular forms, which emerge inside the chapel as big trunks that provide different openings to the forest and cemetery. The entrance to the chapel faces the forest and brings visitors into the small, high-ceilinged space, almost gothic in its linear verticality and proportion. Beams of larch wood in a dense pattern form the interior walls. These beams rise from the semi-circular forms as inverted Vs meeting along the ridge and form a complex three-dimensional geometry.

According to the architect, the inverted V-beam structure forms the traditional “gassho-zukuri” gesture, as when two hands meet each other in front of the chest in Buddhist prayer. Inspiration for the chapel also comes also from prehistoric Japanese Jomon period architecture, which is defined by heavy thatched roofs that almost reach the ground.

As people pray, so does the architecture.
— Hiroshi Nakamura

The chapel has a ground area of ​​110 square meters and a basement with technical and charnel rooms. The prayer hall is furnished with moveable benches and a small altar against a window framing the forest. The altar can change according to the religious ritual taking place in the chapel. The room is decorated for worship, prayer, and contemplation, and arranged so that it can meet all religions and people seeking simple contemplation.