Capitals of Japan – 3 – Heijou-kyou

March 14, 2011

With the beauty of green and vermilion,
The imperial city of  Heijou is now in its glory,
Like the brilliance of flowers in full bloom.

— By Ono-no-Oyu, Man’yô-shû No. 328.

Fujiwara-kyou soon appeared being still too small for the needs of the capital, so Empress Genmei, in 708, ordered the construction of a new city, indicating Heijō-kyō (平城京, present-day Nara) as a propitious location since it had been shown be sacred signs.

She was probably influenced by other considerations, such as the ancient custom of moving the capital at the beginning of a new reign. Moreover, an important role was given by the support of Fujiwara no Fuhito: more concerned with strategic and economic questions than with geomancy and divination, he probably understood quite well that  Heijou was close to rivers by which goods could be transported easily, such as Kizu River (navigable all the way to Naniwa), that was six kilometers north of the new capital, and Saho River, flowing into the Yamato River that led to Inland Sea at Naniwa. Moreover, just as Fujiwara-kyou, Heijou-kyou had mountains on three sides, so that it was a strategically safe area.

The capital was moved to Heijou-kyou in 710. It was modeled after Chang’an, the capital of Tang Dynasty China, although Heijou-kyou lacked walls. Like Fujiwara-kyou, it was built in a grid pattern; its surface was a rectangle of 4,3 x 4,8 km.

The main street, Suzaku, that led to the Palace and ended with the Suzaku-mon on the other side, had a width of 70m. The city was divided in two areas, separated by the street, and in nine lots in the north-south direction and in eight lots in the east-west one. A further group of 3×4 lots was added in the eastern part of the city. The overall form of the city was an irregular rectangle, and the area of city is more than 25 km2.

Suzakumon of Heijo Palace, Nara (reconstruction)

Recent archaeological investigations have noticed special geographical ties between Heijou and Fujiwara. Moving north from the avenue that ran along the western side of the old capital, one entered the Great Suzaku Avenue in the new one. And proceeding north from the street that ran along the eastern side of Fujiwara, one entered Heijou-kyou’s East Capital Avenue. The new city was therefore not only laid out in the square fashion of a Chinese capital but also had avenues that ran in preciselythe same direction as those of Fujiwara. The reasons of this geographical relationship are speculated and probably heve to do with the desire of the sovreign to be honored as a direct lineal descendant of predecessors who had reigned at Fujiwara.

Heijou-kyou flourished as Japan’s first international and political capital,  with a population of around 200,000, where merchants of China, Korea, India were coming for their trades.

The Palace, located in the north end of the capital city, was built as usual according to Chinese criteria and covered an area of more than 1km2. It included the Daigoku-den, where governmental affairs were conducted, the Choudou-in where formal ceremonies were held, the Dairi, the Emperor’s residence, and offices of the administrative agencies.

The spiritual authority of the Emperor was enhanced also by the erection of beautiful Buddhist temples: soon after Empress Genmei moved her palace to Heijou-kyou, temples originally built in the Asuka area (especially the Asuka-dera, Yakushi-ji, Daian-ji, and Kofuku-ji) were rebuilt at the new city.

Heijou-kyou was the capital city of Japan during most of the Nara period, from 710-740 and again from 745-784.

It was abandoned from 740 to 745 by Emperor Shoumu, who restored the habit of changing location in order to fight the misfortune that appeared to be dogging the Country: after the drought and the following smallpox epidemic in 737, then the death at the age of 2 of the Imperial prince and the rebellion of Fujiwara Hirotsugu in the Kyushu, he moved the capital to Kuni-kyou, where he stayed from 740 to 744; but the city was not completed, as the capital was moved again to Naniwa and then to Shiragaki Palace in the Shiga prefecture. But eventually the practical needs of the central organization prevailed and Emperor Shoumu moved back to Heijou-kyou.


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