The Japanese word "Heian" evokes an image of Japan's history and literature as they developed in this capital city from the eighth to the twelfth century. The name "Heian" means "Peace and Tranquility," words which in fact describe the political order, social stability, and rich cultural development which we now associate with Japan's Heian period. The site of Heian on the Kamo River was chosen by Emperor Kanmu (r. 781-806), who took the bold step of moving the massive imperial bureaucracy to Heian from the former capital at Nara in 794. While earlier capital city sites can be seen scattered over the plains and valleys of Japan's Kansai region, depicting the instability of political power within the imperial court before Emperor Kanmu came to power, the move to Heian would be a permanent one. Heian, now called Kyoto (which means "capital city"), would remain Japan's capital for more than a thousand years.
Like Japan's earlier capitals, Heian was built to resemble magnificent Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), the Chinese capital during the Tang dynasty. During the Taika (645-650) and Nara periods (Nara period spanned 710-784), Japanese envoys (called Kentōshi) had visited Tang China and had witnessed its place at the center of Chinese political power and culture. They had returned to Japan and reproduced Changan's layout and architectural features, putting the emperor and his court at the center of Japan's political, religious, and social life.
The site of Heian was considered an excellent one for several reasons. The Kamo River joins the Yodo River which flows into the Inland Sea, permitting good access from the main island of Honshu to the southwestern islands of Shikoku and Kyūshū. The move to Heian also facilitated intercourse with China and Korea, although Japan's cultural borrowings from East Asia were largely completed during the Nara period. Missions to China would cease after 838, largely due to the deteriorating and ever more dangerous political situation on the Asian mainland. By hindsight it now seems clear that Heian Japan, therefore, was now free to begin a long and leisurely process of adapting Chinese and Korean technologies, political institutions and philosophies, and religious beliefs and customs to accommodate Japan's very different circumstances. Japanese literature, for example, would develop along paths which were quintessentially Japanese.
The city was flanked by mountains to the north and east. It was constructed as a grid of intersecting streets with the major wide avenues separated by several smaller streets. The imperial palace and government buildings, situated in the northern part of the city and facing south, were approached by a wide avenue. This grid work plan came from the Chinese example, but the Japanese penchant for a closeness to nature and, in particular, for the beauty of the hills surrounding the capital soon led to the creation of temples and villas on the northern edges of the main part of the city itself. Most of the great monuments of Kyoto's long and distinguished culture remain there today, rather than in the middle sections of the city, which have often been destroyed by fire and warfare over the centuries.
The court society was a literate society and much of what we know about this Heian Japan rests on the great literature and art of the period, some of which still exists and can read in translation today. A topic that was of particular interest to the elitist court society of the time concerned places in and around the capital that had special meaning. Place names and associations are almost always found in the poetry and diaries of courtiers who wrote for one another. The Tale of Genji, an eleventh-century work of fiction by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, is replete with the names and descriptions of places where her stories unfolded and which were associated with earlier events, positive and negative connotations, and symbolic meanings.