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The Heian Classics
Elegant Imperial Culture of Heian-kyo, the Capital of Peace and Tranquility

In Japanese history, 794 marks a significantly important event. This is the year when Emperor Kanmu relocated the capital of Japan from the previous capital named Nagaoka-kyo (presentday Nagaokakyo City of Kyoto Prefecture) and the new Heiankyo was born.

Folding screen depicting the life of Heian-period

Being named Heian-kyo, or, literally, ''the Capital of Peace and Tranquility,'' this new capital remained the seat of the imperial court for more than a thousand years, from its foundation in 794 to the day in 1868 when the so-called the Meiji Restoration took place and the new capital of Japan was established in Tokyo.

The Heian period (794-1185) is regarded as one of the greatest periods of artistic and cultural development in Japan. Beginning at the end of the ninth century, as the Tang dynasty collapsed and contacts with China were interrupted, Japan began to distance itself from its large mainland neighbor and develop a culture that was more uniquely Japanese and simplified and refined versions of Chinese art forms.

Vermilion Shomei-mon Gate in the Kyoto Imperial Palace

The origins of all kinds of what we call ''Japanese Culture'' today were born and developed during this time. Later renamed Kyoto, this ancient imperial capital is still deeply respected and cherished by its local people and people all around Japan.

In spite of this fact, however, there are few places in present day Kyoto where one can witness the remains of the Heian period.

Sadly, this treasured capital could not withstand the numerous wars, fires and drastic social changes that occurred during Japan's long and turbulent history. Almost all the buildings originating from the Heian period have been restored or reproduced. However, there are a few places in Kyoto where one can still experience the breath of the Heian period. Visit one or more sites and feel the presence of this elegant imperial culture of Japan.

To-ji Temple
The Treasure House of Buddhist Secrets

Rising from the city skyline, Japan's tallest pagoda at To-ji Temple is an elegant reminder of Heian-kyo, and now a symbol of our ancient city. The arrival of the imperial court in Kyoto in 794 brought with it the new Heian period and the building of a new city. During this time, To-ji, meaning the East Temple, was built alongside the new south entrance to the city, and an 84-meter avenue running directly north towards the Imperial Palace was established.

The large temple flanked this new Heian-kyo entrance, marked by the great Rasho-mon Gate, along with Sai-ji, the West Temple, which sadly no longer exists today. Both temples were established for the protection of the nation and ancient capital and To-ji Temple now serves as a beautiful reminder of Kyoto's millennium spent as the powerhouse of Japan.

The historical figure most strongly associated with To-ji Temple is Kobo Daishi, known as Kukai during his lifetime, who was the founder of Shingon Buddhism. In 823, Kobo Daishi became the head of To-ji Temple and made it Kyoto's headquarters of this particular sect of the religion. Now a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site, To-ji Temple is a treasure trove of Japanese Buddhist art, culture and history.

Many of its beautiful constituent structures and buildings hold the designation of National Treasure, including the famous five-story pagoda which burnt down no fewer than four times and was most recently rebuilt in 1644 under the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu. The pagoda, standing nearly 55 meters, is the tallest in Japan and has come to be a muchloved symbol of Kyoto City.

To-ji Temple's two other famous structures, the Kon-do and Ko-do Halls, house a number of the temple's interesting artifacts. To-ji Temple's main object of worship, a large wooden statue of the Yakushi Nyorai Buddha, surrounded on either side by his two attendants, the Nikko and Gakko Bodhisattvas, is situated in the Kon-do Hall, an original building that was destroyed by the 1486 fire and reconstructed according to the early Edo architectural style of the time.

The Ko-do Hall, also lost to the same fire but reconstructed sympathetically in its original style, comprises 21 Buddhist images and statues, the layout of these forms a unique sort of three-dimensional ''mandala world'' conceived by the temple's famous founder, Kobo Daishi.

Every month, on the 21st, there is a vast antiques and craft market with vendors on the plaza and in the surrounding park selling all manner of authentic items from scrolls to ceramics to kimono. Perhaps here you'll find your own treasure?

To-ji Temple: 8:00-17:00; Spring Special Exhibition and special opening of the first floor of the five-story pagoda until May 25 (9:00-17:00); www.toji.or.jp

Byodo-in Temple
The Height of the Fujiwara Regents Period, Reproducing the Buddhist Pure Land

Superb Phoenix Hall and its surroundings represent the Buddhist Pure Land © Byodo-in Temple

The countryside city of Uji lies just a few kilometers from the southeastern part of Kyoto and was the aristocrats favorite place to build their villas during the Heian period (794-1185) due to the areas superb natural beauty. This is where two of Kyoto's two UNESCO World Heritage sites: Byodo-in Temple and Ujigami Shrine are located.

Byodo-in Temple is a striking example of Buddhist Pure Land (Jodo) architecture. Together with its garden, the temple represents the Pure Land Paradise and was influential on later temple construction. Initially built in 998 as a countryside retreat villa for the powerful politician Michinaga Fujiwara, it was converted into a Buddhist temple by Michinaga's third son in 1053.

© Byodo-in Temple

The most spectacular feature is Hou-ou-do, or the Phoenix Hall. It was named so because of its shape and the two phoenix statues on its roof. What is noteworthy about the Phoenix Hall is that it was never destroyed, making it one of the few original wooden structures to survive from the Heian Period in spite of the fact that Byodo-in Temple itself was repeatedly lost to fires over the centuries. The hall is featured on the front of the Japanese 10-yen coin.

The Hoshokan Museum is a unique treasure house which exhibits an array of the temple’s most valuable artifacts, including dozens of designated Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures. Recently, the temple has opened its new website which offers extensive information about the temple and its cultural properties in five languages (Japanese, English, Chinese (traditional/simplified), Korean).

Byodo-in Temple: www.byodoin.or.jp

Rozan-ji Temple
Where the World's Oldest Novel Was Born

The Tale of Genji Garden with pretty bellflowers

Rozan-ji Temple is located southeast of the Imperial Palace. In the Heian period (794-1185), the temple was used as a residence of Murasaki Shikibu, a female servant of the Empress who was also the author of the Tale of Genji which is still widely known as the world's first full-length novel.

Written over a thousand years ago, the story depicts the life of a court noble named Hikaru Genji and the human relationships around him in the elegant aristocrat culture of the imperial court during the Heian period. For those interested in the culture of this time, the Tale of Genji is one of the best recommendations to read as one can find several English translations.

Rozan-ji Temple has a small garden called ''Genji-tei,'' or the Garden of the Tale of Genji, named after the novel. White gravel and pretty purple bellflowers create a wonderful contrast from late June to September. There is a poem written by Murasaki Shikibu on the stone monument in the precinct.

Rozan-ji Temple: 9:00-16:00; 500 yen to enter the Garden of Tale of Genji

Heian Costume Experience Studio
Juni-hitoe, the Authentic Noble Costumes

Elegant Juni-hitoe worn by the imperial ladies

The juni-hitoe, or literally translated ''twelvelayer robe,'' is an extremely elegant and highly complex kimono that started to appear around the 10th century during the Heian period. It was only worn by high-ranking court ladies and the variety of colors, arrangement of layers and patterns on the outfits represented the social rank and intelligence of the wearer.

The Heian Costume Experience Studio specializes in juni-hitoe and other costumes from the Heian period. The studio's owner is Ms. Kazue Fukuro, a true specialist of the era and its costumes who has worked as a costume maker for Shinto priests and maidens.

Kariginu formal costumes for high-ranked court men

At this studio, people can try extraordinarily beautiful, authentic juni-hitoe and other Heian-period costumes. Believe it or not, every single costume and accessory is produced by Ms. Fukuro's hand based on her thorough research of the Heian period.

''At my studio, people can wear truly authentic juni-hitoe exactly in the same way as noblewomen did in the Heian period. I am very proud of this tradition which has not changed and continues to exist after nearly 1,000 years. When you put on a juni-hitoe, you can feel what a noblewoman must have felt like in those times,'' Ms. Fukuro is proud of what she offers. Many foreigners visit her studio and try her extraordinary costumes which were born from Ms. Fukuro's deep love and respect for the Heian period.

Heian Period Costume Experience Studio:
For prices, bookings and other enquiries, visit their website: www.junihitoe.net