Geomancy and Imperial Position in Nara, Japan

By Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara

March, 1997
Revised September, 2002

Perhaps more than in Kyoto, a sense of Chinese Geomancy and use of Chinese Divination by the stars can be found in the remains and partial reconstruction of Nara's Heijou Kyo (Heijou Capital). The streets and avenues of Nara are laid out in much the same fashion as those of Kyoto and for much the same reason. However, unlike the lost Heian Palace of Kyoto, much of the site of the original Heijou Palace of Nara has been saved from urban construction. Heijou Palace was constructed in 710 A.D. following principles of the Tan Dynasty. It remained Japan's Capital until a brief but aborted stint (10 years) in Nagaoka (now a suburb in the southwest area of Kyoto) and a more permanent move to Heian Kyo in Kyoto (794 A.D.). The visitor who enters Nara from the West using the Kintetsu Rail Line, will find that the train traverses the southern part of the old Heijou Palace grounds.

[Heijou Palace Layout at Nara]
Outline of Heijou Palace. Actually two palaces were constructed at the site during the Nara Era. Archaeological markers allow one to sense the interplay of Chinese Astrology and Geomancy with Imperial Position and Ceremony. (From Nara National Cultural Properties Research Institute)

At present, a visit to these old palace grounds will probably not reward the average visitor with the beauty and grandeur of other historical sites in the Nara area. While reconstruction of some dwellings and walls is ongoing at present, only archaeological markers may be found for many of the streets, buildings, and gardens of the old palace and environs. In places, these have been marked with concrete posts and platforms; in others, they have been marked by careful planting of trees and shrubs.

The old and beautiful pagodas and buildings of Todaiji, Koufukuji, Horyuji, Kasuga Shrine, and other historical sites in the Nara area are certainly the highlight of the city's historical past. However, an archaeoastronomer may find a visit to Heijou Palace rewarding for a somewhat phenomenological experience of ancient Chinese Geomancy and Divination at work in early Japan. Such an experience will, of course, also present the visitor with a good sense of the weather of the historic Yamato plain. It is quite hot in summer, and the palace's large environs are devoid of many air conditioned stops or amenities. A visit in the winter will no doubt be tinged with the legendary strong and cold Yamato north wind, and one can quickly feel a sense of barrenness and void amidst remains of what was once the center of one of Japan's first international cities.

One significant aspect of a visit to Heijou Kyo is the fact that one can sense the precise layout and once grandeur of the city. For example, in the western palace grounds, one can discern the wide north/south "Suzaku" street which originated at the imperial palace in the north (the emperor's earthly manifestation of celestial grandeur, the imperial palace mirroring the emperor's celestial ties). This street once traversed the city all the way to the southern Rajoumon (gate of outer environs) some 4.8 kilometers to the south. A similar sense is difficult to achieve in Kyoto due to its somewhat violent past and modern urban development. The Suzaku street of Nara's Heijou Palace can be seen to divide the imperial city into a district of the "right" (western side) and a district of the "left" (eastern side, right and left being seen from the emperor's perspective in the north).

Restored Suzaku Gate of Heijou Palace as viewed from South looking North up Suzaku Oji (Photo by Saori Ihara)

Close up of Restored Suzaku Gate of Heijou Palace (Photo by Saori Ihara)

Sites of the Dai Goku Den (Great Hall of State) are definitely worth noting and visiting. The north star was often called Tai Kyoku Sei and is found in the Shibien or purple palace area in the center of the small "universe" painted in the earlier constructed tomb of Takamatsu Zuka Kofun in the Asuka area. What the great Tai Kyoku Sei was to the heavens, the emperor was to the earth... what the great Shibien was to the heavens, the Dai Goku Den was to Heijou Kyo and the "earth" administered therein.

Somewhat following Chinese precedence, the emperor would sit at the south entry of the Great Hall and greet visitors or stand at moments of ceremony facing south from his position in the north. Within the grounds south of the Great Hall, markers with seven dou ban were placed. These drapings were indicative of the splendor of the emperor's domain, and they were also manifestations of celestial icons of yin-yang relationships including the sun, moon, and cardinal directions.

Reconstruction of possible configurations of dou ban including emblems for the sun (with images of a crow), the moon (including both a toad and a rabbit), and images of the cardinal directions (Seiryuu-Spring-East, Suzaku-Summer-South, Byakko-Fall-West, Genbu-Winter-North). [From National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Nara]

General information about Nara may be found at the prefecture's Nara Information for more information on historical Nara.

Ancient Astronomy and Geomancy in Kyoto

Astronomy Among Ancient Tombs and Relics in Asuka


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Steven L. Renshaw

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