The Heijō Capital

Sometimes characterized as Japan's first permanent capital, the Heijō Capital (Heijō-kyō) was established by Empress Genmei (661-721; r. 707-715) in 710 and lost its preeminent status when the capital was tentatively moved to Nagaoka in 784. Like the succeeding Heian Capital (established in 794), it was modeled on the Chinese imperial city of Chang'an (pronounced "Chōan" in Japanese and corresponding roughly to present-day Xi'an), the capital of the Western, or Former, Han (202 BCE – 9 CE).

The layout of the capital

The basic plan consisted of a grid of nine square blocks from north to south by eight square blocks from east to west, each block about 532 meters on a side. A broad central avenue -- Suzaku Avenue (Suzaku ōji) -- led south from the imperial palace compound at the northern end of the city, dividing the grid into eastern and western halves, called Sakyō (Left Capital) and Ukyō (Right Capital), respectively. This grid-like pattern of urban planning is termed the jōbō system (条坊制): for the main east-west avenues together with their corresponding wards to the north, and for the main north-south avenues together with their corresponding wards to the east or west on either side of Suzaku Avenue.

Overall, the basic grid measured about 4.8 km from north to south and 4.3 km from east to west. The northeastern portion of the grid was extended several blocks (about 1.6 km) to the east, with that portion referred to as Gekyō (Outer Capital). The circumstances behind the extension of this part of the grid -- constituting the center of the modern city of Nara -- are not entirely clear, but studies have shown that it does not appear to be a later development. A further narrow extension along the northern edge of the western half of the city completed the overall design, which was partially disrupted at its fringes by natural features.

In addition to the above-mentioned extensions, another key difference between the layout of the Heijō Capital and the similar layout of the later Heian Capital resulted from the way measurements were taken to produce the urban grid. For the Heijō Capital, streets and avenues were included when calculating the size of a planning unit, while for the Heian Capital, planning units were calculated independently of the width of streets and avenues. Consequently, a slightly different sort of regularity was imposed, and the prominence of temples as city landmarks suggests the close relationship that obtained during the Nara period between religion and matters of state.

One final caveat concerns the "permanant" nature of the Heijō Capital. In addition to the existence between 694 and 710 of the Fujiwara Capital (Fujiwara-kyō) almost directly to the south of Heijō -- the capital for three successive emperors and actually the first to adopt the Chinese model -- a gap of approximately five years existed between 740 and 745 when Emperor Shōmu (701-756; r. 724-749), in the wake of a rebellion by Fujiwara no Hirotsugu (d. 740), abandoned the Heijō Capital for three other short-lived capitals before returning to re-dedicate Heijō as the capital in 745. As might be imagined in view of the passage of over 1,300 years, there is actually a great deal about the history and geography of the Heijō Capital that remains to be elucidated.

Heijo Capital


The main east-west avenues were labeled sequentially from North Ichijō Avenue (Ichijō kita ōji; 一条北大路) at the northern edge of the capital down to Kujō Avenue (Kujō ōji; 九条大路) at the city's southern boundary. Between North Ichijō Avenue and Nijō Avenue (Nijo ōji; 二条大路) -- the wide thoroughfare onto which faced the Greater Palace Compound -- lay South Ichijō Avenue (Ichijō minami ōji; 一条南大路), which afforded access to the central western gate of the imperial compound. North Ichijō Avenue and South Ichijō Avenue formed a unique pair in that they shared the designation of being the "first" of the major east-west avenues.

The main north-south avenues started their symmetrical numbering a block from Suzaku Avenue (four squares on the map), so that to the west lay West Ichibō Avenue (Nishi ichibō ōji; 西一坊大路) through West Shibō Avenue (Nishi shibō ōji; 西四坊大路), while to the east ran East Ichibō Avenue (Higashi ichibō ōji; 東一坊大路) through East Shichibō Avenue (Higashi shichibō ōji; 東七坊大路), with the western boundary of the Outer Capital at East Shibō Avenue (Higashi shibō ōji; 東四坊大路).

  1. Saidaiji (西大寺): Founded in 765 by command of Empress Shōtoku (Empress Kōken; r. 749-758), marking a high point in the use of Buddhism to promote the unity of the state. Razed by fires, the temple declined in importance during the Heian period, but it was rebuilt in the Kamakura period as a center for Ritsu Buddhism (most structures now date from the Edo period). The current headquarters of Shingon-risshū Buddhism.
  2. Sairyūji (西隆寺): A temple for nuns (amadera) established in about 767 by command of Empress Shōtoku (Empress Kōken; r. 749-758). It had fallen into disuse by the Kamakura period and is no longer extant.
  3. Hōgeji (法華寺): A temple for nuns (amadera) founded during the Tempyō era (729-749) by Emperor Shōmu's principal consort, Empress Kōmyō (701-769), who for that purpose converted the former mansion of her father, Fujiwara no Fuhito (659-720). It was intended as the headquarters for all such state-supported nunneries (kokubun niji; 国分尼寺). The Japanese-cypress Eleven-Headed Kannon statue installed in the main hall -- dating from the early Heian period -- has been designated a Japanese National Treasure.
  4. Tōdaiji (東大寺): Founded in 745 under an edict issued by Emperor Shōmu (r. 724-749) as the headquarters of the state-sponsored network of provincial temples (kokubunji) meant to consolidate imperial authority. The 752 "eye-opening ceremony" (kaiganshiki) of the temple's huge gilded statue of Vairocana -- the Daibutsu, or Great Buddha -- was one of the signal cultural and political events of the Nara period. The temple serves as the headquarters of the Buddhist Kegon sect.
  5. Sugawaradera (菅原寺): A Hossō Buddhist temple founded in 721 by the priest Gyōki (668-749). The name was officially changed to Kikōji (喜光寺) by Emperor Shōmu in 741, but the earlier appellation continues in common use.
  6. Kōfukuji (興福寺): Originally established in Yamashina as the Hossō Buddhist temple Yamashinadera in 669 by Kagami no Ōkimi (d. 683), consort of Fujiwara no Kamatari, it was eventually relocated to its present site and renamed by Kamatari's son Fujiwara no Fuhito in 710. It prospered as the clan temple of the Fujiwaras, and its holdings include an exceptionally large number of National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. The current buildings all date from the Kamakura period or later.
  7. Gangōji (元興寺): A Kegon Buddhist temple said to have been founded by Soga no Umako in 596 shortly after Buddhism was introduced into Japan and known by a variety of other names. Most of the original buildings have been lost to fire over the years.
  8. Tōshōdaiji (唐招提寺): Founded in 759 by the Tang priest Ganjin (687-763), this was the first temple devoted exclusively to administering the precepts of the Ritsu sect of Buddhism. Its main hall is considered to exemplify the imposing architectural style of the Tenpyō period (729-749).
  9. Saeki'in (佐伯院): The presumed location of the Saeki-clan temple where Kūkai (or Kōbō Daishi; 774-835) -- one of the most celebrated priests in Japanese history -- lived after coming to the Heijō Capital from Sanuki Province in 788 to study at the Bureau of Higher Learning (Kūkai was born into the Saeki family).
  10. Kidera (紀寺): Reconstituted during the Heian period as Renjōji (璉珹寺), this was originally a temple sponsored by the Ki family that was moved from Asuka to Heijō once the new capital was established. The temple owned a large number of chattel slaves (nuhi; 奴婢), an important if sometimes neglected aspect of pre-Heian Japanese society.
  11. Yakushiji (薬師寺): Built first in Asuka in 689 by Emperor Tenmu (r. 673-686), this Hossō-sect temple was relocated to the Heijō Capital in 718. The only structure left standing from the Nara period is the Eastern Pagoda, a 12-year restoration project for which was completed in December 2020.
  12. Daianji (大安寺): A Shingon Buddhist temple said to have been originally established as Kumagorishōja (熊凝精舎) in the Kumagori area of Yamato in 617 by Empress Suiko (r. 592-628) and her powerful regent Prince Shōtoku (574-622). It was relocated and renamed more than once before being renamed again when it was moved to the Heijō Capital in 716 or 717. It is counted as one of the seven principal temples (shichidaiji; 七大寺) of the time, along with Tōdaiji, Kōfukuji, Saidaiji, Gangōji, Yakushiji, and Hōryūji.
  13. Nishi no Ichi (西の市): The West Market, one of two markets established on either side of Suzaku Avenue.
  14. Higashi no Ichi (東の市): The East Market, one of two markets established on either side of Suzaku Avenue.
  15. Kanzeonji (観世音寺): A Hossō Buddhist temple established by the priest Chitsū (dates unknown) sometime after his return from Tang China by about 673. Chitsū, who had been dispatched to China as a court-appointed envoy in 658, is thought to have been the second individual to introduce Hossō-sect Buddhism into Japan. The temple itself no longer exists.

Burial mounds

Three ancient burial mounds (kofun) are shown on the map. All take the distinctive keyhole-shaped (zenpō kōen) form common only in ancient Japan. The following descriptions apply, moving from north to south:

  • Uwanabe Burial Mound (Uwanabe Kofun): One of the largest of an extended cluster of 18 burial mounds in the vicinity, eight of which display the distinctive zenpō kōen shape. The mound was recently (December 2020) estimated to be between 270 and 280 meters in length, ranking it as twelfth in size among such burial mounds in the country. The Imperial Household Agency has designated the tumulus -- which appears to date from the first half of the fifth century and is surrounded by a broad moat -- as the possible site of the tomb of Yatanohimemiko, the empress of Emperor Nintoku, Japan's 16th emperor according to the eighth-century Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan). Consequently, archeological research has been severely restricted in scope and the tomb's actual occupant is unknown.
  • Hōraisan Burial Mound (Hōraisan Kofun): This tumulus dates from the last half of the fourth century and is 227 meters in length (like many other zenpō kōen burial mounds, it was -- and still is -- surrounded by a broad moat). Since the Imperial Household Agency has designated it as the tomb of Emperor Suinin (Suinin Tennō Ryō), the purported eleventh Yamato emperor, detailed archeological studies have not been permitted, and the actual occupant is unknown.
  • Sugiyama Burial Mound (Sugiyama Kofun): A keyhole-shaped burial mound 154 meters in length dating to the later half of the fifth century and located within the original precincts of the Daianji temple. It was one of a small number of burial mounds that remained unleveled as the Heijō Capital was established. It is not known who was buried here; the Imperial Household Agency has not designated it as the site of an imperial tomb, and it is publicly accessible (with some restrictions). The original moat no longer exists.

The above map was started using a layout diagram of the Heian Capital uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Sakumiya Kaoru and is therefore subject to the same Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The layout diagram was extensively modified with graphics-design software to conform primarily to the diagram of the Heijō Capital provided by the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties on the Nara Palace Site Historical Park website, although other reference sources were consulted and some inconsistencies remain; the result was then exported as an image. Notification of any errors or misunderstandings may be sent to the webmaster's contact address.