Pagodas within churches

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Japanese professor seeks to preserve the unique amalgamation of Catholism and Buddhism found in French colonial churches

Phat Diem Church in Ninh Binh province which is famous for the wooden architecture

Japanese architecture professor Yamada Yukimasa feels many old Catholic churches in northern Vietnam have a unique East-West combination.

"Inside, you have the feeling of standing in a pagoda, but outside is the structure of a Catholic church."

Yukimasa has spent years traveling back and forth between Japan and Vietnam on a research project that aims to make locals protect the old wooden churches of which he is so enamored.

A lecturer at the University of Tokyo, he has supervised the research on churches in northern Vietnam with the help of a close student of his, the Lao Dong newspaper said in a recent report.

The idea for the project germinated in 2003 when Yukimasa made his second visit in Vietnam to research Vietnamese traditional folk houses as part of a joint project between the two countries.

During this time, he discovered a large number of Catholic churches, especially beautiful wooden ones in northern rural areas, and decided to learn more about them.

The plan went ahead after he met Katano Tomoharu, an architecture researcher then studying Vietnamese in Hanoi, who was also pursuing the same passion.

The research paper on "Architecture of Catholic Churches in northern Vietnam" was published in November last year.

With assistance from the Japan Development Assistance Fund, the project surveyed more than 1,200 churches, around 24 percent of them wooden.

For more than three years, the professor and his student made more than 10 visits from Japan to rural areas in Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh provinces, considered the land of wooden churches in Vietnam.

Yukimasa said the more they researched, the more he was attracted to the sophisticated East-West combination at the construction.

Most of the churches were built during the French colonization period and were still in good condition.

The professor said the "interesting" combination of elements of pagodas and churches might be unique to Vietnam.

"There're also wooden churches in Japan, but they're merely churches. The structure of churches and pagodas there is completely separated," he told Lao Dong.

Yukimasa said the research aims to highlight the distinctive feature of churches in northern Vietnam in order to preserve them.

He said a number of the churches were already going down during his research.

The professor is also trying to motivate people in the area to protect their churches by collecting good photos to exhibit there and informing the local residents about the cultural and historical findings of the research.

He said, this way, his research has been limited to a small circle comprised of locals and several architecture professors in Vietnam and Japan.

Yukimasa said he decided to stop there, so that the villages can remain beautiful rural areas and avoid excessive public attention.

He recalled that the first time he saw Vietnam's villages, he was stunned as they reminded him of Japan's villages from his childhood.

The professor said he does not want Vietnam to follow in the footsteps of Japan, where rural beauty has been lost to industrial development.

Yukimasa visited Vietnam the first time in 1993 with an architects' delegation for a survey of Hoi An Town, which was a busy trading port in Southeast Asia for Chinese and Japanese merchants during the 18th century.

Results of the survey were influential in Hoi An's recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999.

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