Heian Period Art & Architecture in Japan

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, explore a time of development for a local Japanese taste: The Heian Period. Learn about the architecture for the nobility and for the clergy, the paintings and writings that were created and discover other forms of art from this time.

The Heian Period

The Heian period was a time of strong social separations. The nobility enjoyed times of peace and a quiet life, promoting the development of different arts. However, they lived separated from the common people, often ignoring the problems outside the capital.

In 794 CE, Emperor Kanmu moved the capital from Nagaoka to Heian-Kyo, marking the start of the Heian period. The city was the seat of power for almost 400 years, until 1185 CE, when a military regime was established and the capital was moved again. This period is named after Heian-Kyo, which translates as Capital of Peace, which was located in modern-day Kyoto.

The New Capital, Heian-Kyo
The New Capital, Heian-Kyo

It was a time of peace. The royal court and a small aristocracy controlled the wealth, but a mismanaged government caused the country to become poorer, and military landlords eventually started to control the provinces. It was also a time of growth for Buddhism and religious art flourished. Also, Chinese influences gradually diminished, awakening the appreciation for local products and starting a native Japanese style.


The architecture of the Heian period was mainly related to the construction of the new capital and the structures for the nobility living in it.

The New capital

Heian-Kyo was inspired by the Chinese capital of the time, Chang'an. Unfortunately, there are almost no remains of the ancient city. It was planned following a grid layout with a wide main avenue at the center, ending in the royal palace.

Most buildings for the public administration were built along the main avenue and were wood structures, with a row of columns on the front. Usually, the wood was painted red, and the roofs were covered with green tiles and had raised ends. The buildings of the royal palace were built similarly. The private homes were smaller, often without tiles on the roof and usually built entirely out of wood.

The Heijo Palace, part of the Heian-Kyo Royal Palace
The Heijo Palace

Shinden-zukuri Estates

The residences for the aristocracy were built as large symmetrical houses with one long wing on each side, often enclosing a pond or a garden. This style became known as Shinden-zukuri. The structures were made out of wood, they had one story and were often raised above the terrain. Wood was also used for the floors. The roofs were covered in tiles. The central building had the dormitories of the house lord and the other areas were located next to it. The wings were usually long corridors, opened to the central garden or sometimes used as entryways.

Model of a Shinden-zukuri House
Model of a Shinden-zukuri House

Buddhist Temples

The emperor wanted to keep the Buddhist clergy far from the royal palace. Therefore, only two Buddhist temples were allowed in the new capital, on the surrounding hills. As a result, the structures became more modest. The layout of the aristocratic houses was adapted for the temples. They had fewer Chinese influences and some native elements were incorporated, like wood planks flooring and the hidden roof, formed by an outer stepped decorative roof and a second structure underneath, serving as ceiling and hidding the drainage fixtures.

The Phoenix Hall is a well-known example of a Heian Buddhist temple. It has they layout of an aristocratic, adapted for being a temple. The buildings is a wooden structure consisting of a center hall with two large symmetrical wings, supposedly resembling a bird with open wings, thus the name.

The Phoenix Hall
The Phoenix Hall


Many religious paintings were created during this period. The motifs were usually images of Buddha and circular representations of the universe, known as mandalas. They were painted on the walls of temples, on paper and also on fabrics like silk. Paintings were used for religious ceremonies and for decorating the temples.

Painting of Buddha over Dark Silk
Painting of Buddha over Dark Silk

The royal court also promoted the creation of paintings for themselves. The decoration of screens and sliding doors was common. Handscrolls were also created. Paintings had bright and vivid colors and depicted natural motifs, like seasonal changes and the mountain around the royal city. Many paintings also illustrated the literature of the time.


Writing became popular among the nobility and both literature and calligraphy evolved. A significant development was the adoption of the Kana script, facilitating the writing of Japanese.

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