Heian Shrine

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Heian Shrine
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This imperial shrine is surrounded by gardens, and in retrospect I realized that we spent far more time in them than in seeing the buildings of the shrine itself. Perhaps this is not surprising, since the gardens are more extensive than the shrine buildings (see map), admittance to some of the buildings may not have been permitted, and many of the buildings are of both modern origin and prosaic design and function.

Although I’m sure our guide must have provided an overview of the history of the site, it was only after returning home and doing some research that I became more familiar with it. The official Heian Jingu Web site provides a wealth of information, not only historical but also descriptive, including photos of many of the highlights of the shrine. What follows has been adapted [stolen] from that site and others.


The title “Jingu” indicates to the cognoscenti that this is an “imperial shrine,” dedicated to the memory of an emperor. The shrine actually honors two emperors, the first and the last of the Heian dynasty.

The first, Emperor Kammu, was born in 737 as the crown prince of Emperor Konin and ascended to the throne in 781 as the fiftieth Emperor of Japan. Dissatisfied with the small scale of the Heijo capital at Nara, which he considered beneath the dignity of the country, Emperor Kammu transferred the capital to Nagaoka in the province of Yamashiro and, further selecting the adjoining districts of Kadono and Atago in 793 as the best possible site for the capital, began to construct a new palace. In the following year, the seat of government was moved to the new capital called the Heian Capital.

In 796, the emperor held an audience for the first time at the Daigoku-den Palace, at which dignitaries celebrated the New Year. This marked the beginning of Tokyo, which prospered as the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, until the Meiji Restoration.

Emperor Kōmei was born in 1831 as the crown prince of Emperor Ninko and ascended to the throne in 1847 as the 121st ruler of Japan. Though brief, his reign of 21 years marked the closing days of the Tokugawa Shogunate and heralded the beginnings of modern Japan. When he died on December 25, 1866, at the young age of 36, this gifted ruler had laid a firm foundation for the Meiji Restoration.

During the Meiji period, the imperial house moved its permanent residence to Tokyo. This transfer of the national capital from Kyoto to Tokyo haunted the residents of Kyoto, who feared that the Old Capital would become little more than a museum. As Japan industrialized in the late nineteenth century after contact with the West, Kyoto began to transform herself into a new city embracing modernization in a conscious effort to mature beyond tradition. It was with renewed optimism that the city approached its 1,100th anniversary in 1896. Marking this commemorative year, the citizens of Kyoto decided to praise the virtues of Emperor Kammu and deify him as the ancestral god of Kyoto. To this end, they created a shrine in the eastern foothills of the city, dedicating it on March 15, 1896. The Heian Shrine, as it became known, celebrates the culture and architecture of the city’s Heian-era past.

In 1938, in recognition of the character and achievements of the Emperor who laid the foundation of modern Japan, the citizens of Kyoto organized an association to deify Emperor Kōmei at the Heian Shrine. This propelled a move to rebuild the shrine as a commemorative project marking the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of Japan. The dedication ceremony took place on October 19, 1940.

Many of the structures of the original shrine, including the Daigoku-den (Outer Oratory), Ōten-mon (Divine Gate), Soryu-ro (Blue Dragon Tower), Byakko-ro (White Tiger Tower), Platform, and Ryubi-dan (Dragon Tail Platform), were built in 1895 in the style of the Chodo-in, the main administration building of the Heian Capital. Though only about two-thirds of the original in scale, they recapture the glory of olden times.

On the occasion of the deification of Emperor Kōmei in 1940, additional edifices such as the Main Sanctuary, Shinto ritual hall, Inner Sanctuary, Flank Hall, Tablet Hall, Outer and Inner Platforms, Saikan, and Administration Building were built and major repairs made to the older structures.


Visitors approach the shrine through an enormous ferro-concrete torii, built in 1929, with the imperial chrysanthemum in gold. Farther down the road is the Ōten-mon (Main Gateway), a two-story, vermilion-colored structure with a blue tile roof. It is modeled after the Rasho-mon of 794. Just outside this gaudy gate is a roofed water basin for ritual washing before entering.

Inside the gate is a huge courtyard covered with white sand. Along the east and west sides are blue-tile-roofed, vermilion-painted galleries, each with a building (East Hall, West Hall) in the center. Beyond are two towers in the Chinese pavilion style, known as the Byakko-ro (White Tiger Tower) and Soryu-Ro (Blue Dragon Tower).

At the north end of the courtyard is the Daigoku-den. The original building of the Old Capital burned to the ground in 1177 and was never rebuilt. The replica you see caught on fire and burned down in 1976 but was reconstructed in 1979. It measures 33 meters long, 12 meters wide, and 16.5 meters tall. To the right of the front steps is a cherry tree (Sakon-no-sakura), to the left a citrus tree (Ukon-no-tachibana); both are trees that would have been found on the grounds of the original palace in Heian times.

Behind the Daigoku-den is the Honden (Spirit Hall), where the spirits of the emperors Kammu and Kōmei dwell. It was built in a traditional Shinto style, with a tiled roof, green-barred windows, and vermilion beams and posts. For those who wish to offer prayers to the spirits here, the Haiden (Oratory), located in the Daigoku-den, is where people pray before the Honden.

As I said (and as my photos attest), I was only vaguely aware of any of these structures. Kyoko had us stop at the washing basin (Chozu-sha) and provided instructions on ritual washing. Afterward we entered the shrine, and, as best I recall just walked quickly across the courtyard and straight into the gardens through a passage on the left (west) side.

The garden (Shin’en) of the shrine actually consists of four gardens that surround the main shrine buildings. With a total area of approximately 33,000 square meters, these stroll-type landscape gardens are designated as a national scenic spot representative of Meiji-era (1868–1912) garden design.

The focus of the West Garden (Nishi Shin’en) is a quiet pond named Byakko-ike. The irises around the pond bloom in all their glory in early summer, lending the garden an ethereal beauty. A tea ceremony arbor called Choshin-tei is located in the cluster of trees in the southwest area of the garden.

The South Garden (Minami Shin’en) is a Heian-style garden designed for holding Kyokusui-no-en, a garden party during which aristocrats amused themselves by composing Japanese poems. The garden contains a smaller garden called Heian-no-sono featuring plants and flowers that appear in Heian-period literary works.

Visitors who pass through the cluster of tress behind the shrine’s main buildings will find a beautiful garden called Naka Shin’en (Middle Garden). Like the Nishi Shin’en, this garden was constructed in 1895. It contains the Soryu-ike pond, which features the Garyu-kyo, a walkway consisting of stone pillars that once served as foundation stones for the girders of Sanjo Ohashi and Gojo Ohashi, famous bridges in the center of the city of Kyoto. The pond is surrounded by an exquisite expanse of rabbit-ear irises.

The East Garden (Higashi Shin’en) was constructed early in first decade of the twentieth century. In the center of the garden is a pond called Seiho-ike on which courtiers are said to have gone boating in ancient times.  Borrowing the Higashiyama hills as background scenery, the garden contains two elegant old-style buildingsthe Taihei-kaku and the Shobi-kan adjacent to it—that add to the garden's overall charm. The Taihei-kaku (Bridge of Peace) is a covered bridge in the Chinese style, topped with a phoenix similar to that of the Golden Pavilion. The bridge spans the Seiho-ike.


Map of Heian Jingu (labeled in Japanese, unfortunately), showing the main shrine complex surrounded by gardens. Note the distance between the Grand Shrine Gate and the Ōten-mon; buildings on either side of the torii are presumably part of the shrine’s administrative complex or perhaps unrelated structures; they are hidden from the road by a wooded strip on either side, as can be seen in the last photo below.

The Grand Shrine Gate stands 24.2 meters tall, with a top rail measuring 33.9 meters long. The diameter of the upright posts is 3.63 meters.

Tom and Matthew wash their hands at the basin outside the main gate. The idea is to fill the dipper from the trough, then raise it until the water runs down your hand and arm. You can then also pour a little water into one cupped hand to wash your mouth.

The Ōten-mon or Main Gateway. Built in 1894, total area 112.8 square meters.

The courtyard and Daigoku-den (Outer Sanctuary). The current structure was built in 1979; total area is 344 square meters. The railing and steps in the foreground mark the front of a raised area called the Ryubi-dan or Dragon-Tail Platform.

The Byakko-ro (White Tiger Tower), one of two towers in the Chinese pavilion style that face each other across the courtyard. In the foreground, a better look at the railing of the Ryubi-dan.

Although this looks like a flowering shrub, the white “blossoms” are actually fortunes. Visitors to Shinto shrines help support the shrine by buying fortune papers (omikuji). Omikuji portending unfavorable predictions are tied to a tree or bush (or sometimes a line or fence) on the temple grounds in hopes that the resident kami will protect the unfortunate recipient from harm.

The first streetcar line in Japan was started in Kyoto in 1895. This is one of the original cars.

The Garyu-kyo, stepping stones made from stone pillars from the Sanjo Ohashi and Gojo Ohashi bridges in Kyoto

The Seiho Pond (Seiho-ike) with the Chinese bridge (Tahei-kaku) in the background

Tahei-kaku (Hashidono), a cypress bark–shingled wooden structure formerly located on the grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Built in 1912, total area 84.1 square meters.

Shobi-kan (Kihin-kan), a cypress bark–shingled wooden structure formerly located on the grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Built in 1912, total area 173.7 square meters. Stone lantern in foreground of view across Seiho-ike.

Barney in front of the torii as we left Heian Jingu. Note the length of the approach to the shrine.