Nara’s Heijo Palace

Nara, the capital of Nara prefecture, is a small city with 360.000 inhabitants about one hour south of Kyoto. Today, it is a rather typical Japanese city, but some 1300 years ago, from 710 – 794, Nara was the capital of Japan before the imperial court moved to Kyoto. But in this period of only 84 years – called the Nara period – a truly impressive palace was built: Heijo-kyu.

The Heijo palace was built in accordance with Chinese customs: Since the emperor was seen as the head of state, the palace must lie on the head of the capital city, which means, on the northern end. The rest of the city was placed on a strict grid layout. The main north-south road, called Suzaku dori, an enormous boulevard of 75 m width, led from the southern city gate called Rajo mon up to the palace’s main gate Suzaku mon. And the main east-west road – smaller, but still 37 m wide Nijo-oji – also passed in front of Suzaku mon.Suzakumon from the inside of the palace grounds

This Suzaku gate is a truly impressive building. 25 m wide, 10 deep and 22 m high in two storeys, it was bigger than any other gate of the palace. With its vermillion pillars, white walls and black roof tiles it reminds one of similar buildings in Korea.

It also looks like a smaller version of the Former Imperial Audience Hall, which is situated exactly north of the gate, in an enormous courtyard, where the imperial courtiers had to assemble for official ceremonies like New Year’s celebrations or coronations. The most interesting thing about the Imperial Audience Hall, besides the fact that it is the largest building of Heijo palace with 44 m width, 20 m depth, and 27 m height, is that it has no doors to the south – the lower part of the building is completely open. That means that the emperor could gaze without hindrance over the whole palace and assembled courtiers from his throne in the center of the hall. (In the reconstructed building, glass sliding doors have been installed in the southern wall).

Former Imperial Audience Hall at Heijo PalaceThis whole compound from the early Nara period from Suzaku gate to the Imperial Audience Hall was enclosed in a cloister – a covered walkway with an earthen wall in the middle (and strategically placed gates).

Detail on the Former Imperial Audience HallIn 745, a new audience hall was built a bit south-east of the old one. North of this Latter Imperial Audience Hall, and east of the former one, lay the Imperial Domicile. On this site, an enormous well was found, lined with Japanese cypress – a hollowed trunk of 1.7 m diameter. Apparently, this well was meant for the exclusive use of the imperial family.

The well of the Imperial Domicile at Heijo PalaceNearby were the Ministry of the Imperial Household, the Office of Rice Wine and Vinegars (with another impressively sized well) and a number of other government offices. Those were much more modest buildings with wooden roofs and simple interiors. Interestingly, the smaller government officials – those who had to do all the mundane tasks – at that time sat on chairs and desks as we know them today (probably another import from China) and they wrote on little wooden slats, the top layer of which could be sliced off repeatedly in an early form of recycling.

Actually, recycling seems to have been quite en vogue in that early period. Some of the lower government buildings have been rebuilt six times, probably not for repairs, but for other, hitherto unknown reasons. When the court moved on to Kyoto in 794, some of the buildings were relocated (foremost the Former Imperial Audience Hall). The same probably happened to buildings of lesser value, and some of the building materials may have been used elsewhere. The buildings that were left when Nara was abandoned as capital, either burnt down or simply fell into disrepair and disappeared over time. The land was reused for agriculture and the fact that once there was an Imperial Palace was (partly) forgotten.

Former Imperial Audience Hall as seen from the Suzaku gate (almost). This is the reason why, when you visit Heijo palace today, the most striking aspect of the palace site is the sheer size of it: Once it covered an area of 1 square kilometer, and today it is nothing but a large open field. The current Imperial Palaces in Kyoto and Tokyo may be equally large, but because of all the buildings and trees on the grounds, one doesn’t notice that. In Nara, only from 1959 research, investigation, and excavation on the Heijo Palace grounds have been carried on continuously. The site of the Latter Imperial Audience Hall was only rediscovered in 1974 and reconstruction of some buildings began in 1989. Most remarkable, the Suzaku southern gate and the Former Imperial Audience Hall have been rebuilt in great detail, partly with methods employed in the Nara period itself. Some of the original building materials can be admired in the museums on site.

Corner of a Roof, reconstructed with excavated roof tiles.However, whatever building you see at the Heijo palace site is merely an educated guess. There are no historical paintings from that time, and scholars had to piece together information from excavations on the site, from temples built in the same period, or from descriptions of the few historical documents that do exist of or refer to that time period.

All in all, if you don’t mind walking around, Heijo Palace is worth a visit. The sheer vastness of (empty) space is impressive, and museums and excavations, even though far apart, are very interesting – and often even come with English translation. And photography is allowed pretty much everywhere, if you turn off your flash.

Kisen de Oden

Sorry for not writing on Sunday. First I was occupied and later incapacitated…

A friend of mine took me out to Otsu, some 30 minutes east of Kyoto. Otsu is the capital of Shiga prefecture and the largest city situated on Lake Biwa which in its turn is the largest freshwater lake of Japan. Both Otsu and Lake Biwa are popular day trip destinations from Kyoto, and there is even a path over the mountains from Kyoto to Lake Biwa, but it is probably not for the weak of limb…

Anyway, we went to Otsu on Sunday evening for a Kisen-de-Oden. Oden is a soup or rather a hot pot that is eaten throughout Japan during winter: in a light broth various types of fish cake are boiling, together with a whole egg, some daikon radish, and konyaku. It’s a bit like shabu-shabu with the difference that the ingredients are already pre-cooked and just heated in the hot pot.

Kisen means boat in Japanese, and Kisen-de-Oden thus means that you eat Oden while riding in a boat somewhere on the lake. Well, it didn’t work out like that exactly, but still: There was a short trip by boat from the main harbour of Otsu to the little landing at the old Biwako Otsukan hotel. This is a lovely building situated directly on the lake with a beautiful garden right next to it. Of course, when we arrived it was dark already and neither the building nor the garden could be seen. However, Otsu lies on the southern tip of Lake Biwa, and surrounds a good part of it, so there was a wonderful view of lit up Otsu from Otsu across the lake.

Old Otsu Hotel at Lake Biwa(photo by 663highland on Wikimedia commons)

The Oden was an interesting mix of French and Japanese cuisine. We had cooked beef in sauce, some hearty egg pudding, and foie gras as appetizers. Then the pot for the oden was heated on our table, and we were supposed to eat it – and top it off with the grated cheese that was provided. When the oden was finished we put a fried, plain onigiri rice ball into the remaining soup to make our own risotto. My overall impression was: interesting combination, but delicious.

With these sort of things I am never sure whether they are meant for the food or for the drinks. Together with the ticket, you got three coupons for free drinks (I chose three glasses of wine) plus an additional glass of hot wine on the trip plus another additional glass of wine upon arrival. That’s 5 glasses of wine – within 90 minutes, not for the weak of stamina… Of course, as usual in Japan, the whole evening was minutely planned, and executed as well, and while the waiters held themselves in the background, you still had the feeling of being rushed a little. 30 minutes more would not have been amiss.

After 75 minutes in the restaurant we had to leave and were taken by boat back to Otsu harbour again. My friend forgot to order dessert (which was a good thing because there wasn’t time enough for another course anyway), so we went to have pancakes in a Hawaiian restaurant (of all places) near the train station.

Altogether I had a nice evening in Otsu. The place looks peaceful in the night and worth examining further. I have been there before for Otsu matsuri (with the same friend) and this time we kinda sorta got invited to return for the Otsu fireworks in summer. But that’s still five months to go, and with a bit of luck I will go there earlier.

Tokyo Trip

I had a great time in Tokyo the last weekend. I went up on Friday afternoon by Shinkansen and went to the embassy’s party. There is a new Austrian embassador (I don’t know how long they hold such a position), and the place was packed. Luckily, the embassador kept his predecessor’s chef (a Japanese trained in Austria) and so all my culinary dreams came true: Schwarzbrot und Liptauer, Schweinsbraten und Serviettenknödel, Sacherschnitte und Schlagobers as dessert. And cheese – a whole table full of glorious Austrian cheese…

It is always a bit difficult going to such events alone with only your introverted self, so I left once they had run out of chocolate cake and cream. There were probably some 250 people at the party, which would be half of the Austrian population in Japan. The party was nice, and I was glad not to be required to sing our national anthem – we listened to a tape recording, as well as to the recording of the Japanese anthem.

Kagurazaka main street by nightSaturday morning I went to the Imperial gardens. The palace is nearby Tokyo Main Station and it is enormous! Most of the palace is off-limits for visitors of course (except for the emperor’s birthday and New Year’s) but the East Gardens are open almost daily and can be visited for free. This part of the palace is already huge – I got lost several times – but right now, not very interesting, because it is too late for flowers and too early for the momiji. I also noticed that although the roads were asphalted and wide enough for two cars to pass each other, there were hardly any benches to sit down and enjoy the view. I wonder if it is allowed to sit on the ground and have a picnic – but since these gardens are called “the emperor’s private gardens”, I don’t think many Japanese would dare step on the lawn in any case.

spider in imperial gardenAfterwards, I went to the science museum nearby, but I was a bit disappointed. It was geared towards kids – not a bad thing as such – but still felt a bit sterile somehow. The fact that everything inside was labeled and explained only in Japanese did not really help my enthusiasm either. They did have a nice section on light and aurorae though.

Yasukuni ShrineIn the afternoon I met a friend at nearby Yasukuni Shrine, and we took a stroll around its grounds. It is the shrine where Japanese war heroes are worshipped – plus some of Japan’s war criminals as well, a sensitive topic with Korea and China especially. My friend says Yasukuni shine is a popular place for hatsumode – the first shrine visit of the year – and the shrine is crowded and has almost a matsuri feeling at that time. Since we wanted to have fun, we did not visit the war museum located at the shrine grounds, but there you can see one of the planes that were used for kamikaze attacks, if you are interested.

Kagurazaka back streetInstead, we took a taxi to Kagurazaka, an area of Shinjuku with many little shops, small cafes and old houses. We took a walk around the small backstreets there, and I almost had the impression of being back in Kyoto. We also visited the local Zenkokuji temple and the Akagi shrine, which is now a very modern compound situated on top of a two-story parking garage for the apartment building next door. It does sound odd, but the place still has a good, almost organic feeling to it – the modernisation was well done.

Akagi Shrine, ShinjukuI went home in the early evening. This time I did not buy a traditional ekiben, but rather two western type sandwiches from a cafe in Kagurazaka we stopped by. My omiyage are more traditional though: A pack of Tokyo bananas, a small, very soft cake filled with banana custard and shaped like a banana – a real treat if you ask me!


Last Thursday I went to Kibune with friends of mine. Kibune is a tiny little village situated in the mountains north of Kyoto. Okay, it’s not really a village – there is not space enough for that. Essentially there is a mountain, then a river, a road, and another mountain. Along a rather short part of the river/road, maybe 4 kilometres, houses were built wherever they could fit – and there is not much space left for this.

Front entrance of Kifune shrineThe fact that there is not much space has led to the biggest attraction of Kibune: its kawadoko dining. From June to September, platforms are built over the river where people can sit and have lunch or dinner – always enjoying the natural air-conditioning of the cool water flowing right underneath their seats. Kibune can be as much as 5 degrees cooler than Kyoto, which makes it a welcome retreat for people plagued by the unbearable August heat. Riverside restaurants are expensive since most of them serve kaiseki – Japanese Haute Cuisine – but there are also a few on the other side of the road. There are also a couple of ryokan for people to stay overnight, but since the valley is not very wide, the river is very noisy in parts, and I wonder if you actually can get some rest there.

Kawadoko dining in KibuneThe other great attraction of the village is Kifune Shrine (yes, with an F for some reason). According to myth, it was founded in the early 5th century by the mother of the legendary first emperor Jinmu. She took a yellow boat (Ki-fune) up the river from Osaka, and where she landed, she founded a shrine. It is dedicated to the deity of water and rain, and since the 9th century, people have been worshipping Takaokami-no-kami exclusively as the god who could send rain or withhold it. To appeal to the deity, horses were offered to the shrine, black ones to make it rain, and white ones to stop it.

Statues of white and black horses at Kifune ShrineAnother, more grisly ritual connected with Kifune shrine is the legendary Ushi-no-toki-mairi. It started out as innocent worship at the shrine in the hour of the ox (between 1 and 3 am), but it changed into a practice to lay a curse on a person. Still done at the same hour, people were supposed to wear headgear with candles and drive nails into a nearby tree – preferably through a straw effigy of the person to be cursed. There are a number of legends dating back to the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and there is even a Noh-play dramatising the story of a scorned woman who, after heeding the advice received at Kifune shrine, turned into a demon to take revenge.

Back entrance of Kifune shrineEven if you don’t seek revenge on anyone, Kibune is worth a visit. The mountains are covered in cedars and cryptomerias, and they are so enormous, that there are places where they reach across both river and road to form a roof of leaves. At this time, the greens are lush and beautiful, but there are also maple trees, which must be a wonderful sight during koyo. It is a bit tough to get there though without a car. The Eizan railway has a stop at Kibune-guchi, and from there it is maybe a 30 minute walk uphill to the shrine. It is worth it though I think, especially in the off hours when there are not many people, the whole setting is very quiet and energising.


Uji is a small city between Kyoto and Nara with about 185.000 inhabitants. It lies on the Uji river, an important waterway of olden times, which one can travel up until Lake Biwa. The first settlement in Uji was established in the 4th century, and in the 7th century the first bridge across the river was built.

The town, with its mountains coming up to the river, was a popular destination for outings of the nobility that lived in Kyoto and served in the palace there. The last ten chapters of the most famous Japanese novel – the Genji Monogatari, which was written around 1000 CE – take place in Uji. Some people claim it was even written there when Murasaki Shikibu retreated to a monastery for a while, but then others dispute her having written those chapters altogether. There are at least two statues of Murasaki near the river, and a museum devoted entirely to the Genji Monogatari.Genji monogatari statue at Uji river.The most famous attraction of Uji, however, is Byodo-in temple. It was originally a villa, built in 998 by a high-ranking court official, but only some 50 years later it was turned into a Buddhist temple by his son. The main hall or Phoenix hall, is supposed to resemble the palace in the Land of Happiness. It is a bit hard to see in the photo below, but the building is essentially a T-shaped structure, where the left and right parts of the horizontal stroke represent the wings, and the vertical stroke the tail of a phoenix. Where the two strokes meet, the head of the bird is supposed to be, and there is placed a large statue of Amida Buddha.Byodo-in templeByodo-in was designated as UNESCO World Heritage in 1994, and an image of it is prominently featured on the 10 YEN coin. One of the phoenixes on the roof – national treasures, by the way – is depicted on the 10.000 YEN bill of Japan. There is a large museum in Byodo-in showing Buddhist art that was made for and used in the temple. Even if you don’t buy the extra ticked to get you into the main hall, you can still get a feeling for how it would look inside.Phoenix on the roof of Byodo-in templeOn crossing the river, there are the two main shrines of Uji, the Uji shrine at the bank of the river, and the Ujigami shrine a bit up the hill. Until the Meiji restoration, they were a unit, but now they are separate entities; and in 1994, Ujigami shrine was also registered as UNESCO World Heritage. Entrance of Ujigami shrine

Both the prayer hall of the shrine – the image right below – as well as the main hall are Japanese national treasures. Ujigami shrine, built around 1060 as a guardian shrine to Byodo-in temple, is the oldest original shinto shrine in Japan, quite a feat in a country where many so-called ancient buildings have burnt down and were rebuilt several times.Prayer hall of Ujigami Shrine

Another thing Uji is famous for its green tea. It is one of the first places of Japan where matcha green tea was cultivated, and from the 12th century until today, the quality is excellent. On the road from Uji station to Byodo-in temple, there are numerous shops that sell anything tea related, be it ever so vaguely: matcha chocolate and cookies, matcha Baumkuchen and soba,… but also utensils for Japanese tea ceremony, and cups and beakers. There are numerous different types of green tea, of course, from the cheap daily varieties to the expensive ones served only at tea ceremonies on special occasions. But, this is a topic for another time…