Ancient Astronomy and Geomancy in Kyoto, Japan

By Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara

March, 1997
(Material Added January, 2001)

Unless otherwise noted, all Photographs by Steve Renshaw

One can quickly become overwhelmed by the large number of treasures related to Kyoto's historical past. Indeed, weeks can be spent in this ancient city absorbing history which dates back some 1000 years. Unfortunately, few relics or sites remain which highlight Kyoto's place as an astronomical center. However, the visitor can still get a sense of ancient Chinese "Astronomy" and Geomancy at work in the city's layout. A traveler who has become confused amidst what seem to be randomly meandering streets in most cities of Japan may be pleasantly surprised when setting foot in Kyoto. In this city, like Nara to the south, thoroughfares are laid out in (at least to "Western" eyes) a more familiar grid of north-south avenues and east-west streets. The reason for this pattern is, of course, due to the fact that both Kyoto and Nara were once the sites of huge palace complexes laid out in Classic Chinese Geomancy during Japan's first and rather lengthy exchange with Chinese and Korean "scholars".

[Heian Kyou Layout in Kyoto]
Grid of Heian Kyo. Only east-west street names remain in modern Kyoto, though one can get an idea of the original layout by noting the landmarks in areas denoted in English. (Adapted from Japan Chronik)

The original Heian Kyo (Heian Capital) was built in 794 upon the capital's relocation to Kyoto. Following principles adapted from the Tan Dynasty, the palace complex (whose original location was somewhat north of the present Nijo Jo) was constructed in alignment with due celestial north. Building progressed in such a way as to insure the emperor's position in a northern Dai Dairi (Inner Enclosure), which included the Great Hall of State, so that ceremony and affairs of state could be conducted from the ruler's corollary position with the north star. Suzaku Oji (Vermillion Sparrow Street named after the god of the cardinal direction) ran due south from the Dai Dairi's Otemon Gate and split the city into its left and right parts. The 5 kilometer (north-south) by 4 kilometer (east-west) city ended at a position (the famed Rashomon gate) somewhat parallel with the southern border of the still preserved Toji temple complex (southwest of Kyoto Station).

The much narrower Senbon Dori (1000 Sticks Street) now roughly follows the line of the old Suzaku Oji, originally some 85 meters wide. This photograph is taken from a point near where the entrance to the Hall of State would have stood in ancient Heian Kyo. The yellow arrow points to the barely visible Funaoka Yama (Ship Hill Mountain), the sacred hill due north of the old city from which the ancient capital's orientation was originally envisioned.

Just off Senbon Dori, only a stone marker shows the location where the original Heian Kyo's Hall of State once stood.

Looking south from Funaoka Yama, modern Kyoto would make it difficult to believe that a Palace Complex (buildings in Vermillion lacquer) and broad avenues and streets once lay before the viewer's eyes. The southern Rashomon gate would have stood approximately where the yellow arrow points.

Virtually nothing tangible remains of the ancient historical site; however, its influence was felt not only through the Heian Period but through centuries of history... even indirectly touching the daily life of modern Kyoto residents. Several east-west cross streets still bear the ancient numerical names (ichijo - first street in the north, sanjo - third street, gojo - fifth street... even kujo - ninth street along the aforementioned southern border). Apart from these "remnants", the only site of the original Heian complex is a small garden located just south of Nijo Jo (Second Street Castle).

A visitor can get some sense of the grandeur of Heian splendor as well as the layout of early palaces by visiting the oft reconstructed "Old Imperial Palace" (Kyoto Gosho to which imperial estates were moved in the 13th century) and the "Heian Shrine" which was built in the late 19th century (Meiji Era) in commemoration of the first and last emperors to reside in Kyoto. These grounds abound in beauty, and every effort seems to have been made to provide a view of Kyoto's Heian past.

Heian Shrine, a reconstruction of the building complex which housed the Great Hall of State in the ancient Dai Dairi is located to the East of the original location. The scale of the shrine's buildings is just over half that of the original. Still, seeing the people in this photograph of the reconstructed Otemon Gate gives some idea of the grandeur of the ancient site.

At the northern extremity of Heian Shrine, and immediately in front of the visitor as he or she enters the Otemon Gate, is the main building of the Reconstructed Heian Shrine, the Great Hall of State.

To the right (the emperor's left) as one enters through the Otemon Gate is the Palace of Spring which is cardinally aligned and on the Eastern border of the Shrine. In the foreground is a purification fountain with an image of Seiryuu, the Azure Dragon of the East and Spring. To the left (the emperor's right) is the Palace of Autumn which is also cardinally aligned and borders the West area of the Shrine. In the foreground is a purification fountain with an image of Byakko, the White Tiger of the West and Autumn. The juxtaposition of continentally derived icons with more indigenous materials for ritual purification is worth noting.

Palaces dedicated to Spring and Fall have lanterns hanging under the eaves of their roofs. In their own way, images formed in the metal construction of these lanterns pay homage to the significance of the heaven/earth relation embodied in the gods of cardinal directions.

One other impact of Chinese Astrology and Geomancy on the old capital is worth mentioning as one tours some of the ancient temples of Kyoto. Enryakuji Temple is located due northeast of the old Heian Capital. This temple was begun before Heian Kyo was constructed, and its geographic position provided it with a role which affected the lives of Kyoto residents for centuries. Both the northwest and northeast were considered "bad" directions in Chinese Astrology, directions from which all manner of evil might come [See Cornering the Bear for more discussion of this]. Due to its position, early imperial rulers of Heian Kyo viewed Enryakuji as a primary "spiritual" defense from such forces as might beset the capital from the northeast "corner". So strong was the perceived power of Enryakuji, that various priests and "warrior" monks from the temple used and often abused their "divine" station to wreak all manner of havoc on the lives of Kyoto citizens, imperial and lay alike. Such power lasted until the perhaps less astrologically convinced Nobunaga Oda burned most of the temple's structures in the Momoyama Era (16th century).

It is sad, in many ways, that more relics of Kyoto's past as a center of astronomical observation have not been preserved. As a case in point, the traveler to Kyoto via train from Osaka will be greeted by a large JR switching yard just prior to entering Kyoto station. This area (located in the southwestern part of old Heian Kyo) was once a site of bustling astronomical activity. As early as the 10th century, the Abe family was entrusted with work for the Institute of Divination and established the official and later somewhat bureaucratic Tsuchi Mikado Observatory on family land in this area. For centuries, until the Meiji Restoration, this astronomical site served as an educational center as well as an observation base for some of Japan's most notable calendar scholars. It is here that Shibukawa and colleagues through careful observation of solar, lunar, and planetary movement, convinced the Tokugawa Shogunate to adopt a more empirically based calendar. Unfortunately, virtually nothing is left of the observation site. Only a couple of stone bases from instruments, having been transported to nearby temples upon dismantling of the observatory, remain. Perhaps only the truly enthusiastic "astro-historian" will want to seek these out.

[Stone from Tsuchi Mikado Observatory]
18th Century Stone from Tsuchi Mikado Observatory now located on the grounds of the Bairinji Temple in Kyoto. This stone was once a base for a very precisely aligned gnomon. When in use, there was also a "sky measuring scale" which extended from the base and was somewhat similar to but much less elaborate than ones which may be found in China (See, for example, E.C. Krupp's description of the Guo Shou Jing in Echoes of the Ancient Skies).

Geomancy and Imperial Position in Nara

Astronomy Among Ancient Tombs and Relics in Asuka


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Steven L. Renshaw

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