京のキー 3) A Short Guide to the History of Kyoto: The Power of the Fujiwara (967-1068).

3) A Short Guide to the History of Kyoto: The Power of the Fujiwara (967-1068).

Kyoto at dusk as seen from the Verandah of Kiyomizu-dera.
Ujigami Shrine is considered the oldest shinto shrine in Japan. The Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine in Yawata, Kyoto. The Uji-gawa was the site of many famous battles.
The River Oi. Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine. Kasuga Shrine, Nara.
Fujiwara no Kamatari changed his family fortunes forever. As long as he could remember he had had wealth and land and influence, but he was trapped in the doldrums, competing to gain the emperor's ear. Then the rival Soga clan made a foolish mistake, they attempted to take over the government and make the emperor a puppet. Kamatari went to the emperor and pledged his aid and support against the evils of the Soga. So it was that Fujiwara, backed by the throne, smashed the Soga and smugly took the role the Soga had seen as their own. But it was here that Kamatari was wiser than his counterparts. Rather than meddling with the throne, he married off his daughters to the sons of the imperial line. The future emperors would have Fujiwara blood running in their veins. The final tightening of the noose for the emperor came in 887. The position of 'Minister' was created, effectively the emperor's right hand man. The Fujiwara filled this role and made it almost hereditary. It was more than a right hand man, it was king maker and puppet master.

As relations between the Fujiwara and Emperor understandably mellowed, the other nobles grew fearful of the power that would be wielded against them. They were right to be gloomy, for a new kind of despotism emerged that they could not hope to overcome*. The Fujiwara were protected by Kasuga Shrine in Nara, a symbol of their strength and authority. Such was their desperation that many people began to pray for heavenly intervention and promoted the cult of Hachiman (the god of war) to counteract the power of Kasuga. At this time the Hachiman Shrines across the nation began to take more prominence, and all those that stood (theoretically if not practically) against the ruling family began to pay tribute to such shrines as Iwashimizu in Kyoto.
Byodo-in Temple in Uji is one of the only buildings left from the Fujiwara Period. The Phoenix Hall is on the back of the 10 yen coin. The hall is said to look like a phoenix with its wings outstretched.
Heian-kyo was a stark illustration of contradictions. The East of the city with its expensive villas, was expanding and growing, wealthy and desirable. The West was dying. One reason is because the designs of the original city had been overly ambitious and the whole construction of the capital had over-reached itself, meaning that it was never fully completed. It had become home to vagrants and bandits, buildings falling into disrepair and roads becoming overgrown. And more than this, the rivers became open sewers and the air unhealthy with nasty vapours. Much of the following diseases and plagues that wrecked the city (something even emperors were not exempt from) were thought to come from the West. It was a common sight to see people fleeing the city at the height of Summer when the danger of epidemics would be at their greatest. The nobility during this time clamboured to take houses closest to the palace, preferably on the Eastern edge where the main roads ran south to Nara and where the roads and drainage was better, but come Summer the capital looked to the healing cool of the hillsides. The truth of the matter is that little in Kyoto has really altered since this time: the West is always a pale comparison to the wealthy Eastern hills.

Gradually the city isolated itself more and more. It believed itself to be the great sun, to which the provinces obediently paid tribute to (a foolish belief as slowly the balance of power was tipping towards the increasingly powerful landowners in the provinces, who were building up organised forces). Imperial exchanges to China ceased and the great flourishing of Japanese culture began, adapting the ideas and art borrowed from their powerful neighbour (the Heian Period can be split in two: the first half involved the importing of Chinese ideas, the second half abandoning them for a more homegrown breed of culture). The nobility disliked traveling any great distances from the city and would fill the positions of provincial governors (bestowed on them in the New Year ceremony by the emperor, there being twelve tiers of rank within Heian government hierarchy) with men in their pay. Fear that being out of sight was out of mind, the nobility rarely left the comfort of their homes close by the palace. Walking was out of the question for the upper classes and the ox-drawn carriages and palanquins were so slow as to make any short trip a laborious nightmare for the aristocracy. So much so that they rarely traveled far at all. The men of the provinces were soon to see that they were free to do as they wished.
The Mifune Festival. Boats gently punt along the River Oi. People dress in traditional aristocratic Heian costumes.

Life was mostly secure inside the city and continued at the slow pace it always had. Certain festivals appeared at this time. Mifune Matsuri (the 3rd sunday of May, starting out from Kurumazaki Shrine) in Arashiyama perfectly exemplifies Heian-kyo life with its elabourate costumes, gentle punting and poetry competitions. It was originally begun in celebration of a visit by Emperor Uda to the area. Buddhism, so rigorously controlled by Kammu, began to seep into the city. But this Buddhism was much changed, an alien breed than had existed in Nara. The Shingon Sect continued to centre around To-ji (founded by Kukai, who went on to build Ishiyama and temples on Koya-san in Wakayama), while up on Mt. Hiei the Tendai Sect (founded by Saicho) of Enryaku-ji remained violent and often troublesome, exterminating any competition to their domination. The emperor often had a lot to fear from this massive complex of temples, as their monks were often well trained warriors and their ranks swollen from the influx of bandits and criminals fleeing punishment in the capital (the temple's precincts were on sacred ground, thus warriors and the pursuing authorities were not permitted entrance). Both Kukai and Saicho had been sent on religious training to China by Kammu and returned with very different ideas about the path to salvation. It was eventually to be said that Tendai was for the royals and Shingon for the aristocrats. Soon Zen would emerge for the warrior class and finally the Pure Land Sect for the masses.

The Phoenix Hall (Byodo-in) in Uji, that small temple on the back of the 10 yen coin, represents a rather new sect of Buddhism. That of Amida Buddhism (also known as Pure Land Buddhism), salvation through faith alone (and the mere calling upon Buddha's name). Pure Land was a religion of the streets, democratic and open to all. Most of Byodo-in's halls were destroyed by fire and war, but miraculously the central hall has survived up to the present and is one of the only original temples from the Fujiwara Period left untouched (1053). The temple was originally Fujiwara Michinaga's villa, who reigned from 995-1028 at the height of his family's power and who was father-in-law to four emperors, grandfather to two more, great-grandfather to another, and astonishingly even great-great-grandfather to a last before his death. Michinaga's son (Yorimichi) transformed the villa in to a temple in 1052 and placed the bones of his father inside the statue of Buddha that sat in the Phoenix Hall. Like many of his time, Michinaga died with a twine tied between his hand and a statue of Amida, hoping to speed himself on his way to paradise and showing us the importance of buddhist sculpture as a tool for salvation. It was a time when men were trying -literally- to recreate heaven on earth.

*On a side-note, the statesman Sugawara no Michizane should be mentioned. In fact it was he who proposed abandoning missions to China. Michizane was a talented scholar who found himself in favour with the Emperor. As the second most important figure at court, it was the first time anyone outside a small circle of aristocrats had risen so high. The Fujiwara were furious. Rumours emerged that Michizane was plotting against the new Emperor (Daigo) and he was forced into exile. After a mere two years, he died. Soon after, a series of disasters struck the capital: drought dried up the wells, an earthquake struck, lightning hit the Imperial Palace, and his chief enemy suddenly died of a mysterious illness. If this was not bad enough, a little while after these events the Emperor Daigo himself died. Many believed it to be the spirit of the wronged statesman. In 942 a woman dreamt that Michizane had asked to be enshrined with the god of thunder at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. He was thus deified as Tenjin (Spirit of the Sky) in recognition of his ability to direct lightning. The deity took the attributes of the scholar and became a god of learning, literature and calligraphy. Following Michizane's death, the Fujiwara maintained their throttle-hold for 300 years.

Remember personal info?

Emoticons / Textile

To make sure that you are a real person, we have to ask you this silly question before your comment can be put on the site. Sorry

  (Register your username / Log in)

Hide email:

Small print: All html tags except <b> and <i> will be removed from your comment. You can make links by just typing the url or mail-address.


Rhod and Ki's tour of life in Kyoto, Japan.

Kyonoki Gallery

View our easy to navigate galleries