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Reading Pagoda: Far East Symbol on Mt. Penn

Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo

A Buddhist Symbol Looks Over The Pretzel City

Are you familiar with pagodas? Usually, they are found in Asian countries, so how did a pagoda end up in Reading, Pennsylvania? Let’s look at the history of pagodas first, then see how the Reading Pagoda compares to this traditional structure. 

Japanese pagoda's stem historically from China (approximately 68 A.D.)/ The origin of the pagoda itself is often thought to come from India in a slightly different form. In India, the pagoda is called a stupa. The purpose of this building was to enshrine religious elements, artifacts, and Buddha.  

When China built their first pagodas, they enhanced the structure so it would not only be larger, but would appear more powerful. Most pagodas were made from wood, carved in stone, or by combining those two assets. 

When Japan raised their pagodas, they used wood with a slat system that allowed for fewer nails. While fire was a concern, the reason they built them this way was so that they could more easily withstand earthquakes. Another difference worth noting between Japanese and Chinese pagodas is that the Japanese roofing tends to be larger.

An amazing fact worth noting is that Japan's oldest 3-story pagoda structure was built in 706. Not 1706, but 706—that’s some history! The pagodas which popped up around the different Asian countries were about highlighting the spread of Buddhism.

As for shape and size, the pagoda structures are built in tiers. While there are some two-story structures, most are built with 3, 5, or 7 tiers. The Reading Pagoda stands 7 stories tall, and offers 5 tiered roofs. You can see a gorgeous video of the pagoda and surrounding grounds here. 

Torii Gate on Miyajima, Japan.

Why do the structures tend to be of odd numbers, rather than even? That’s a nod to numerology and tying into the ever-popular yin/yang symbology – with odd numbers pointing to yang and strength.

While multiple tiers come in varying heights, the most common number of levels is five. Why is five the magic number? It’s said to represent the elements (gadai) – earth, fire, water, wind, and sky. Note that in this instance that wind and sky are seen as separate entities. Also, while most are built in a square structure, you’ll also find polygonal, circular, and rectangle pagodas.

The Reading Pagoda as Compared to Japanese Pagodas

The Reading, Pennsylvania pagoda sits in Berks County on the side of Mount Penn. It was built back in 1908. The original purpose of the building was meant to be a hotel, but it never fully came to fruition. In 1911, the pagoda was donated to the city of Reading. 

This interesting and seemingly out of place structure was inducted into the Register of Historic Sites in 1972, and was actually styled based on a real pagoda. The Pagoda of Nagoya Castle in Japan was its creator’s inspiration. 

The Reading Pagoda stands seven stories tall and was built with five roof tiers and a finial at the top. This compares to traditional pagodas, as many stand in the same style and height. As noted above, the odd number of tiers correlates with yang and numerology.

Japanese pagodas are made of wood but the Reading Pagoda is made of concrete, whereas some of the early Chinese pagodas were carved in stone, as well as made with wood.

An interesting point is highlighted by the bell that sits atop the pagoda. It was originally cast in 1739 back in Obata, Japan. After it was purchased, it traveled via the Suez Canal, and was eventually delivered to Reading. Today, the bell is the crown jewel atop the Reading Pagoda which brings with it an amazing history. This very bell was once housed in a Buddhist Temple in Shogenji (sometimes spelled Shogengi). 

Three Story Pagoda in Takayama, Japan

Visiting the Reading Pagoda

If you're interested in visiting this iconic site in Berks County which sits on the side of Mount Penn, you can find more information at the official website: The treasure that is Pennsylvania’s Reading Pagoda offers views that cascade the area, along with their 10 acres of grounds.

Do note that at the time of this story (September 2021), the building and grounds are currently closed for renovations and improvements. They’ll be enhancing structures such as stairs, lighting, making it ADA compliant, and more. They’re also adding new gates, and new roadways for safer passage. 

Fun Facts:

  • The entrance is on the second floor, level to the parking lot
  • It sits 620 feet above the city
  • The panoramic view offers you viewing pleasures up to 30 miles in distance
  • There are a total of 87 steps which take you to the top of the pagoda

I hope you enjoyed learning more about pagodas and our very own Reading Pagoda. Don’t forget to grab a Berks County shirt to show off your Pennsylvania pride. 

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