kyoto triptych (I) — heian shrine

13Feb06

In 794 Kyoto, then called Heian-kyo, became the capital of Japan. Heian-kyo was built around an auspicious grid pattern that was aligned with the cardinal directions (associated with four different deities). This grid pattern still stands today. Since Japanese cities tend not to follow the well-defined and preplanned patterns of organization that define many contemporary American cities (Phoenix, Arizona — “the air-conditioned nightmare” — comes to mind), its fascinating to consider the fact that one of Japan’s most premeditated zoning plans can be traced not to the rationalist and utilitarian tendencies of contemporary urban planning, but rather to a pre-modern religious practice centered around a deeply mystical cosmology. Kyoto was originally modeled after Chang’an, the Chinese Tang Dynasty capital (contemporary Xi’an), and an incredible amount of Kyoto’s imperial and religious culture can be traced directly back to China (and Korea too, in the case of Buddhism), which is a great irony considering the incredibly xenophobic stance that many Japanese nationalists currently take toward these two nations.

In any case, Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan from 794 until 1868 (the beginning of the Meiji Restoration) when the imperial capital was moved to its present location in Tokyo. Even though Kyoto is still considered to be the center of traditional culture in Japan, and even though actual power was in the hands of the Shogunate for much of Japanese history, the displacement of the imperial center came as a great shock to Kyoto. In response to the decision to move the imperial capital, the city of Kyoto built Heian Shrine (completed in 1895) in a style reminiscent of the Tang Dynasty origins of Kyoto culture. Every year the Jidai Matsuri, or “Festival of the Ages,” is held to celebrate the history of Kyoto. Over 2000 people dress in traditional costumes that run the gamut of Kyoto’s historical legacy, and they parade from Kyoto Gosho to Heian-jingu.

On December 24th, J. and I paraded to Heian-jingu as part of a day trip to Kyoto that also involved shopping and eating. Instead of heading through the main entrance, a giant, steel, persimmon-orange torii, we snuck around the back, checking out a four-story crafts outlet on the way. Heian-jingu itself was great. The weather was still wicked cold, and there was plenty of snow on the ground, but patches of sky had cleared up and were holding a bright blue, which created a blinding spell of contrast with the orange of the shrine buildings. Inside the shrine grounds there’s nice sense of space, a kind of expanse that pulls you toward the distant shrine buildings. We walked first past the side buildings with their wonderful turrets, and then on to the main shrine building where I bought some good luck charms for friends — red and white clay dogs for the new year. As we walked out from the main shrine building we passed trees covered with fortunes that had been tied to their branches, as if a swarm of white paper butterflies had descended en masse. These fortunes are left behind by people who have received fortunes that are not to their liking. By leaving the fortune at the shrine, you leave your bad luck behind you. Which is clearly what I had done at some point because later that night J. took me out to a wonderful Kyo-ryori dinner.

The main hall of Heian-jingu.

One of the Chinese-style halls of Heian-jingu.

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