Growth of Cities

The development of urbanism in Japan can be traced back to the Yayoi period when markets appeared, and large settlements such as Yoshinogari in Fukuoka prefecture. Some archaeologists have even argued that the large Jomon settlements, such as Sannai Maruyama in Aomori prefecture, were urban in form. Much depends on how urbanism, towns and cities are defined. Chinese models of urban planning, incorporating temples, palaces, markets and administrative centres appeared in the 8th century AD, with the creation of some very new urban forms, with grid-pattern streets. In this module we explore what archaeology and historical documents tell us about the development of Kyoto, founded over 1300 years ago, and home to the Imperial family until the 1860s.


The capital of Heian-kyo, later known as Kyoto, was established in 794 AD by Emperor Kammu. The original site was 5,200 metres from north to south and 4,500 metres from east to west. It has been estimated that the population was about 100,000 in the Heian period and increased to around 240,000 at the beginning of the Meiji era. In 2010, the population was 1,470,000.

The city was planned on a hierarchical grid system.  Heian-kyo consists of 3 sectors: Heian-kyu (the Imperial Palace), Sakyo (left sector when viewing from Heian-kyu, sometimes mentioned as the western sector) and Ukyo (right sector or eastern sector). Sakyo and Ukyo were divided into square blocks. The basic unit is the cho. One cho is approximately 120 metres square. A block of 4 cho is 1 ho, and a block of 4 ho forms 1 bo.

The Heian Period

The Heian period has 3 sub periods:

  • Early (8-9th century)
  • Middle (10-11th century)
  • Late (12th century)

The Late Heian is also known as the cloister period after the practice of Emperors abdicating and continuing to rule from their retirement cloister.

Part 1: The archaeology of Kyoto

There have been over 20,000 rescue excavations conducted by the Kyoto city government from 1979 to 2000. Yamada Kunikazu made distribution maps from these in order to investigate the development of Heian-kyo. The distribution maps prepared by Yamada, shown in the figures below, based on a grid of 1 cho units, the number of excavated locations in which features or artefacts of the Heian period were identified. Different  tones on 1 ho units show different densities of archaeological finds. Heavy shading indicates a ho-unit including at least 3 locations with a feature or artefact of the Heian period. Light shading corresponds to 2 locations. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

Can we understand how archaeology and history collaborate to study the past?

Fig. 01 – Topographical plan of Heian-kyo

1: Topographical plan of Heian-kyo

The city of Heian-kyo was located on a broad river plain between the Kamo River to the east and the Katsura River to the west, both tributaries of the Yodo River, which gave access to the sea to the west in Osaka. The city was laid out using Chinese cosmological principles and taking into account all of the topographical features of the landscape.

Fig. 02 – Plan of excavations in Heian-kyo city that have found Early Heian material

2: Plan of excavations in Heian-kyo city that have found Early Heian material

Carefully looking at the plan, we can see that it is more difficult to find remains in Sakyo (the eastern sector). Empty areas in the north-east and south-east corner in Sakyo, and parts of the west end of Ukyo, imply that those were undeveloped zones. Archaeology has revealed that few roads had been built in some parts of Ukyo and these areas remained undeveloped.

Fig. 03 – An Early Heian building under excavation in Ukyo

3: An Early Heian building under excavation in Ukyo

The area of the city underwent many changes during its long history. Where an Early Heian period building once stood, fields were later created. A lack of disturbance in later periods means that postholes of buildings in the early Heian period are often found in Ukyo (the western sector).

Fig. 04 – An Early Heian building under excavation in Sakyo

4: An Early Heian building under excavation in Sakyo

Postholes of buildings from the Early Heian period are usually disturbed by later building after the Kamakura period. At this site, many buildings from the Heian to the Edo periods overlap each other.

Fig. 05 – Plan of excavations in Heian-kyo city that have found Middle Heian material

5: Plan of excavations in Heian-kyo that have found Middle Heian material

Empty areas during the Early Heian period were still empty in the Middle Heian period. We can also see that there has been a steady development of Sakyo and stagnation or relative decline in Ukyo. Comparing figure 03 with figure 05, we can see that Sakyo sector has 55 ho-units in total (19 ho thick and 36 ho pale) in the early period, and 68 ho-units (34 thick and 34 pale) in the middle period. Ukyo sector has 45 ho-units (24 ho thick and 21 pale) in the early period, but only 44 units (30 thick and 11 pale) in the middle period.

Fig. 06 – Excavated foundations of a pagoda

6: Excavated foundations of a pagoda

New urban quarters developed in the suburban areas in the late Heian period. Shirakawa was a new urban quarters on the east bank of Kamogawa river. Written documents reveal that the Hoshoji temple there had a nine-storied octagon-pagoda, 81 metres high. In excavations at Kyoto City Zoo, they found part of an enormous octagonal hole, 1.5 metres deep, packed with tamped clay and large stones. This is thought to be the remains of the foundations of a very tall pagoda mentioned in historical records.

Fig. 07 – Distribution plan of medieval finds from Kyoto

7: Distribution map of medieval finds from Kyoto

This distribution map, also prepared by Yamada (Figures 03 and 05), shows the spread of occupation during the medieval period, when Kyoto was often racked by warfare. The densest occupation is in the Sakyo area, as shown by the darker grey shading.

Student Activity:

Key question

  • Can we understand how archaeology and history collaborate to study the past?

Secondary questions

  • What discrepancies can we see between historical and archaeological records?

Part 2: Differences between buildings that reflect social status

The exterior of buildings is important for showing social class, and therefore we can distinguish between the class of buildings by the archaeological remains of these exteriors. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

Can we understand the relationship of social class to different kinds of buildings?

Fig. 09 – Model of the Burakuden (Hall of Prosperity and Happiness)

9: Model of the Burakuden (Hall of Prosperity and Happiness)

Buildings in Heian-kyo comprised government offices and the imperial residence. The Emperor held banquets in this building, the Burakuden (Hall of Prosperity and Happiness). Important buildings were constructed on platforms made of piled-up stamped earth, faced with shaped stones.

Fig. 10 – Green glazed roof tiles and golden gilt ornaments

10: Green glazed roof tiles and gilt roof ornaments

Roof tiles and ornaments such as these indicate that the building they came from was for high class people.

Fig. 11 – A model of the shinden-zukuri style of Heian period palatial architecture

11: A model of the shinden-zukuri style of Heian era palatial architecture

The shinden-zukuri style was used by the high aristocracy. The model is of the Higashi-Danjo-Dono, a palatial residence for the Fujiwara family (the most powerful family in imperial court politics in the Heian period). This is a good representative of this style. As shown in the reconstructed miniature, the shinden main building and other buildings were connected with corridors. A garden with a pond is located to a south of the main building, and a south garden is enclosed by right-and-left corridors with gates. These buildings had raised-floors and cypress bark roofing (hiwadabuki). The area of the site is two cho (one cho, is approximately 120 metres square).

Fig. 12 – Excavated remains and reconstruction drawing of commoners’ houses

12: Excavated remains and reconstruction drawing of commoners’ houses

Common people lived in small houses. These were post-built buildings with earthen floors and were 3.6 metres wide and 5.4 metres long.

Fig. 13 – Plan of the residence in Edo of the Lord of the Kaga domain

13: Plan of the residence in Edo of the Lord of the Kaga domain

The feudal domain of Kaga in Hokuriku district was under the lordship of the Maeda family. It had two sub-fiefs of Daishoji and Toyama. All feudal domains had residences in the city of Edo where they stayed to fulfil the terms of what was known as the ‘sankin-kotai’, or ‘alternate residence’. This was a legal obligation to live in Edo and their own home region in alternate years to show their loyalty to the shogun. The Kaga residence was located in Hongo, north of Edo castle. This site now lies underneath the Hongo campus of Tokyo University. From the 1980’s,10% of the campus has been excavated in advance of new buildings and other developments. Over 56,000 square metres spread across 43 locations have been investigated by archaeologists, giving an unprecedented picture of one of the feudal elite residences in the Edo capital. According to a pictorial map drawn in the 1840’s, the Kaga residence was divided into five sections; lord’s living area (pink zone), garden (green zone) and three living sectors for officials arriving from the domain.

Fig. 14 – Excavation plan of part of the Kaga palace in Edo

14: Excavation plan of part of the Kaga residence in Edo

Excavations of this part of the Kaga residence revealed a complex of buildings, the long-since disappeared wooden pillars for which would have stood on a series of closely-spaced flat stone bases. The long double lines of these stones marked out where a corridor was located. This complex of buildings is thought to have been the Umenogoten (Plum Pavilion) depicted on pictorial maps of the time.

Fig. 15 – An excavated Noh stage at the Kaga residence

15: An excavated Noh stage at the Kaga residence

Excavations in the area that formed part of the private area used by the lord produced remains of a rectangular area and approach path with a white plaster surface. These are the remains of a Noh stage and the corridor connecting it to the backstage area. We can imagine the lord, his family, close retainers and privileged guests enjoying Noh performances here.

Fig. 16 – Banqueting dishes from the excavations of the Kaga residence

16: Banqueting dishes from the excavations of the Kaga residence

A variety of precious ceramic bowls for the tea ceremony was excavated. Blue and white porcelain and antique bowls from China were favoured at that time. Fine domestic porcelains from Hizen in Kyushu including Nabeshima style and imported porcelains from Turkey were also found. These included large dishes over 30 cm in diameter and a set of dishes for a banquet.

Fig. 17 – Dishes for a banquet held in 1629

17: Dishes for a banquet held in 1629

A large quantity of unglazed dishes with traces of gold leaf were used for the banquet held on April 26 in 1629 (Kanei 6th). We know this because a mokkan (wooden writing tablet) was found with the dishes, with the date written on it of ‘Kanei 6, 3 gatsu (March), 19 nichi (day)’.

Fig. 18 – Rows of small rooms excavated at location 23 at the Kaga residence

18: Rows of small rooms excavated at location 23 at the Kaga residence

Row houses can be divided into three grades according to the width of the rooms. On Figure 13, houses in the right blue area are the first grade and room size is larger than other categories. Second grade houses were located in the yellow zone. Third grade, small houses, are shown in purple. Rows of small rooms at Location no.23 are examples of the third class. The outlines of small houses can be traced by small base stones, and are about 3.6 metres wide and 5.4 metres long. These were shared by a couple of low-class officials. Some of the small base stones have marks of thin wooden poles, suggesting that these supported thatched or board roofs.

Fig. 19 – Cheap mass-produced porcelain bowls and dishes

19: Cheap mass-produced porcelain bowls and dishes

Cheap pottery is of a totally different quality from porcelains found in the elite part of the residence. The large quantity of porcelain bottles might be for drinking sake to withstand the stress of living away from home while on an official assignment.

Student Activity:

Key question

  • Can we understand the relationship of social class to different kinds of buildings?

Secondary questions

  • What are the characteristics of the buildings and artefacts that would illustrate social status?