A Symbol of Kyoto: Heian Shrine

February 13, 2005

by Satoko Kawaguchi, Natsuki Kamikura & Yusuke Shimizu


Almost everyone who visits Kyoto thinks that the ancient capital’s temples and shrines were originally built many, many years ago, and indeed most of them were. But there is one famous exception: Heian Shrine. This magnificent Shinto place of worship, also known as Heian Jingu, was built in 1895 to celebrate the 1,100th anniversary of the transfer of Japan’s capital to Kyoto. In 794 A.D., the Emperor Kanmu moved the capital from Nara to what is now Kyoto and named the new city “Heian-kyo”, which means “the capital of eternal peace”. The shrine’s main buildings convey the atmosphere of elegance of the Heian Period (794-1185). In those days, the Japanese people welcomed Chinese culture warmly, and we can still find in this shrine today many features and artifacts connected with Chinese culture.

Actually, there is another interesting background story to the building of Heian Shrine. In the late 19th century, Kyoto had seriously declined because the capital had been transferred once again, this time to Tokyo. As a result, Kyoto’s population had decreased, and the city had become spiritless. By building a new and impressive shrine, the remaining people of Kyoto intended to boost Kyoto’s image and reinvigorate the life of the city. The Heian Shrine project was a success, and today both its architecture and grounds are so grand and inspiring that is a suitable symbol of Kyoto. This is an important part of Heian Shrine’s history.

Daigokuden: ‘Great Hall of State’

Daigokuden, the holiest place in this shrine, is composed of three buildings: Gaihaiden (Front Shrine), the Inner Sanctuary and the Main Sanctuary. Everyone can enter the first building to pray to the deity by offering some coins. Speaking of prayer, do you know how to worship in Shinto shrines? It is different from the way of praying in temples. First, you bow twice, and next clap your hands twice and then you bow again. Each action has a meaning. The first two bows express gratitude in advance for the granting of a wish. The two handclaps are for letting the deity know that you are present. And the final bow conveys gratitude for the granting of your wishes from now on.

We are only permitted to enter the second building, the Inner Sanctuary, on the days of Shinto events like Shichigosan or Omiyamairi. Shichigosan (literally, “7-5-3”) is a festival for three- and seven-year-old girls, and three- and five-year-old boys. Dressed in kimono, hakama or other formal wear, small children traditionally have gone to shrines to receive blessings on November 15th, but nowadays they may visit anytime within the month of November. Omiyamairi is the first shrine visit after a baby is born, when the tiny child, swaddled in white lace, is brought inside to the altar to be blessed.

Although we can enter the shrine’s first and second buildings, no one except for the priests of Heian Shrine are allowed to enter the Main Sanctuary because the souls of emperors Kanmu and Komei are enshrined here. Kanmu, who moved the capital, was the first emperor to reign from Kyoto, and Komei was the last. They are both considered very precious in this shrine — so important that their vehicles are shown in the Jidai Matsuri, or Festival of Ages, an annual procession where we can see people costumed in clothing from various periods ranging from 790 to 1860.

Otenmon: ‘The Main Gate’

Otenmon is a majestic and colorful building which has reproduced Daidairi, a part of the imperial palace that once stood in Heian-kyo in Emperor Kanmu’s time; it is reduced to about two-thirds in scale but it is still vast. Daidairi was the center of government in the Heian era. In Heian-kyo, the nobles named the gates which they governed with their own names. Otenmon was governed by an official named Otomo, and “mon” means gate, so at first it was called Otomomon. Long afterward, people came to call this building Otenmon. When public officials visited the Imperial Court, they led their men and took up their positions beside the right and left hallways of the gate. In 866, there was a fire in Otenmon and it burned down. This incident, called “The Affair of Otenmon”, involved arson and was connected to a government plot. A man named. Fujiwara took the helm of government after he banished Otomo from politics for his arson. Otenmon was reconstructed in 871, but when the Onin Rebellion broke out in 1467, Kyoto was drawn into a vortex of war, and Otenmon disappeared. The current Otenmon appeared four centuries later.


What do you associate with a shrine? Perhaps many people who know something about Shinto connect shrines with the torii, a freestanding gate with two overhead crossbars or lintels. A gate such as this usually stands at the entrance of the approach to a shrine. Heian Shrine has an enormous torii (its height is 24.4 meters!) You will be fascinated with this towering, vivid vermilion gate. But, this shrine didn’t have a torii until 1928, when people projected a plan for this massive gate. The construction started in June of that year and the torii was completed in October. The next year, workmen started to paint the torii with red clay and they finished all their work in March. When you see this torii with your own eyes you’ll marvel at how quick the construction was! In those days, it was biggest torii in all of Japan. At first, many people said, “Such a big red torii mars the beauty of the scenery.” But now, it is a symbol of Heian Shrine. This torii combines grandeur with grace.

Soryu-ro and Byakko-ro

These are towers at the sides of Daigokuden. Soryu-ro, to the east, means a blue dragon and a god that stand in the east, and Byakko-ro, to the west, means a white tiger and a god that stand in the west. These are two of four gods of a religion which came from China. The other gods are Genbu, a turtle and a snake and a god of water that stand in the north, and Suzaku, a vermillion bird in the south. Kyoto was regarded as a suitable landform for these four gods.

Shin-en: ‘Garden of the Gods’

At the sides and to the rear of Daigokuden, there is a superb garden which, at 33,000 square meters, takes up the half of the shrine’s precincts. This garden comprises four areas: south, west, middle and east.

The South Garden

In this area you can find about 200 kinds of plants which are described in books written in the Heian period such as The Tale of Genji, many with plates inscribed with passages from the famous story. As a result, this garden is called “The Heian Garden.” The most beautiful scene is pink weeping cherry trees. The blossoms are at their best in April. Oddly enough, you can also see the lone carriage of a streetcar in this area. Electric trolleys like this once ran in Kyoto, the first city they appeared in here in Japan. The one you’ll see nearly hidden in the plants in this garden is Japan’s oldest, come here to its final, honored resting place.

The West, Middle, and East Gardens

Ogawa Jihei, a landscape gardener of the modern era also known as Ueji, made these three gardens. He designed his plans with the intention that, all over this lush garden, people would be made to feel calm. He spent about 20 years making these three gardens.The west garden was the first garden entered until the south garden was made. In this garden there are streams and a pond, Byakko-ike. At the edge of this pond, 2000 irises of 200 different Japanese traditional Japanese types cluster together. They are at their best in June. You can walk a simple wooden bridge over the pond at that time and look at water lilies in the same pond.

The main attraction of the middle garden is Garyukyo and irises. Garyukyo is a series of stepping-stones in the pond called Soryu-ike. These stones were formerly piers of two great bridges over the Kamo River — Sanjo Ohashi and Gojo Ohashi — which were made by the great conqueror Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). Ogawa Jihei arranged these stones so that people stepping from one to the next can feel as if they might be riding on a dragon flying in the sky that is reflected on the surface of the pond. About 100 purple irises found here are at their best in May

The east garden is large and open. The first sight as you enter this area is a pond named Seiho-ike. As you walk, you will see Taiheikaku and Shobikan. You will feel as if Seiho-ike was a mirror because the surface of the pond reflects such buildings, trees and the sky. The garden “borrows” Mt. Kacho which is part of the Higashiyama range as background scenery. Taiheikaku is an exquisitely designed covered bridge over the pond. When you sit there for awhile and look down at the pond and carps, you can certainly feel calm. Shobikan stands on the edge of Seiho-ike and has gorgeous pictures painted on fusuma, which are framed and papered sliding doors used as room partitions. These two elegant buildings were given to the shrine from the Kyoto Imperial Palace.



In the pond there are two small islands, Kameshima (turtle island) and Tsurushima (crane island). They stand for Horaisan, a mountain that is a fabled fairyland in China. By the way, the water in these gardens’ ponds is drawn from Lake Biwa. There is a canal along Niomon Street for sending water here from the lake, Japan’s largest, in neighboring Shiga prefecture.

In this garden you can watch a lot of birds such as goshawks, kingfishers or herons and many water creatures. Sometimes unique animals are found — for example, the golden soft-shelled turtle. It is known that many soft-shelled turtles live in ponds, but this one is clearly a different color. It is said to be albino, and is very rare. Everyone seems interested in this unique turtle because it seems to bring good luck.

Another turtle whose shell is blooming with algae can also be found. It is called minogame, which means a turtle that looks like it’s wearing a straw raincoat! It takes a very long time and requires just the right conditions for algae to bloom on the shell, so this turtle also seems to be a good omen.

Admission to Shin-en might be a little expensive, but this wonderful garden is worth visiting. Make it a part of your experience of the shrine that revived Kyoto —Heian Shrine — and you will probably feel restored and refreshed afterwards yourself!

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