The modern city of Kyoto was originally called Heian-kyō, "capital of peaceful tranquillity." Also known as Miyako, this city was the imperial center of Japan since its founding in 793 until 1868 when the Meiji Emperor was restored to the throne and moved the capital to its present location as the "Eastern Capital," that is, Tokyo.

‍   Heian-kyô was a planned city, and its plan was a symmetrical rectangular grid modeled on the Chinese city of Chang-an. To its founders, the geography of the site looked auspicious: great rivers to the east and west, mountains to the north, marsh to the south. Emperor Kammu, who directed the original move from the old capital of Nara, called the topography a natural sanctuary. The main drawbacks of the large plain thus defined were climate and drainage. Even today people feel they have to endure the extremes of summer and winter in exchange for the brief glories of spring and fall.

‍  The entire city was theoretically surrounded by an earthen wall roofed with tiles, pierced by imposing gates at crucial points. In many places, however, the gates were built for show, and the walls nonexistent. A broad avenue lined with willow trees, called Suzaku-dōri (now, Senbon-dōri) ran from the south central gate (The Rashômon gate) to the palace compound at the north. It bisected the city into east and west sections. 

Six great streets ran parallel with it, and the city was crossed by nine great numbered avenues. Low, packed-earth walls lined these major thoroughfares. Within the regular rectangles produced by the intersections of these major streets ran smaller streets lined by ditches and narrow paths called "dog runs" (inubashiri).


‍ Emperor Kammu built his palace compound at the north central section of the city. This "greater imperial palace" compound (Daidairi) occupied an area about four-fifths of a mile long by three-quarters of a mile wide. It was surrounded by an 8-foot-wide moat and 25-foot-wide embankment of packed earth-although, like the walls of the city itself, they were sometimes non-existent, with splendid gates constructed just to give an ambitious Chinese aura to the place. (It is tempting to imagine that an actual Chinese person visiting Miyako might have felt he were in a Las Vegas Bellagio-style re-creation of a Chinese city.)

In the ninth and tenth centuries the city of Heian-kyō was probably one of the most populous in the world. The planned symmetricality of the city never quite worked out, though, and city life kept listing to the east. By Murasaki's day the grand official halls of state had fallen out of use at the palace. Courtiers preferred to use the east side gates to the imperial compound rather than the official south facing gate, because it was faster to get to the imperial living quarters that way. Thus all the important family mansions clustered on the east side of the city, and the west languished.

‍   There were so many fires at the imperial compound that it became quite common for the emperor and empress to take up residence in various privately owned mansions, which would be designated sato-dairi, or temporary palaces. In Murasaki's case, during her entire period of court service, the emperor was in one or another of these temporary palaces, and so Murasaki herself never actually lived in the true imperial compound. Over the centuries, Miyako suffered from destruction by civil war and many terrible fires. The imperial palace was destroyed countless times, and countless times rebuilt-although not always in the same place. The present day imperial palace (goshō) of Kyoto is located in the area of the old Tsuchimikado Mansion that figures so prominently in Murasaki's Diary—quite to the east of the location of the original palace.

modern Kyoto with overlay showing original area of Heian-kyō

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