Tuesday, January 29, 2013



I think that it is fundamentally necessary for people to be able to gain an understanding of their position in the present, as a section of time between the past and the future. They can gain it from the urban environment.
Kevin Lynch

Until the eighth century capitals in Japan tended to be relocated following the emperor's death. This was a very expensive tradition, but had an important relationship with Shinto religion and its relationship with nature and landscape. When Buddhism was imported from China, a new city model, centralized, geometric and regulated by Feng Shui (or Zōfuu Tokusui, as it was locally called) took place in Japan.

Hasedera, Nara. Japanese architecture favored the relation with nature, a tradition that continued after the import of Buddism

The Japanese capitals were modeled after Chang'an , but with one important difference: the absence of walls. In that sense, the relationship between urban planning and landscape geomancy had a closer relationship.

The structure and composition of the landscape, as defined by Feng Shui principles, delineated by Saitou and compiled by Higuchi contain the following characteristics:

 1) The mountains are located the north, “like the seized head of the turtle-serpent, with undulations of the dragoon and bows of the tiger coming from the east and the west”. These mountains define a natural barrier and a space dominion that they protect.
 2) A body of water exists to the south, and the slope develops smoothly towards that direction.
 3) This configuration establishes a clear directionality according to the cardinal points and clearly is related to the solar movements, the resulting effects of light and the wind direction.

Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto, it is located on the eastern hills of the city.

Chang An was copied in Japan in capitals as Heijo kyo (Nara) and Heian Kyo (Kyoto), but also in cities like Naniwa, Shigaraki, Kuni.

Reconstruction of Heijo kyo, the first Japanese capital modeled after Chang'An, now in Nara.
Photo courtesy of Nara Prefecture

 Chang An was copied in Japan in capitals like Heijo kyo (Nara) and Heian kyo (Kioto), but in addition in cities like Naniwa, Shigaraki, Kuni. 


Towards 794, in an area known as Yamashiro, a man was walking on a plain surrounded by mountains in the north, east and west. Between the mountains two streams flowed into a "Y" shaped junction to form a river that ran from north to south. In the south there was a large pond  (that was filled and reclaimed for urbanization in the1970s).

That man was the emperor's assistant chief of geomancy, who had been secretly sent to inspect the site along with a group of planners. This group decided that this was the ideal place to draw the new capital, as a perfect fit with the requirements of Feng Shui. I envy this man, for he saw that which is impossible to see today. He idealized the city's master plan and the relationships between the city and its environment, between man and nature.

By all means, the reasons to move the capital from its previous location in Nara were not aesthetic, but political. The great power which the priests had acquired and their physical proximity to the court of the emperor Kammu, was an important obstacle for the imperial power.

Drawing the Heian Kyo city and its main buildings 
Image by Tan Hong Yew. Source: Introduction to Japanese architecture.

The new capital’s border was the Kamo river and was surrounded by mountains: to the north, dedicated to Genbu, the turtle black serpent; to the east, home of the one of Seiryuu, the green dragoon and to the west, dedicated to Byakko, the white tiger. To the south, there was a water body, the Ogura pool, where the bird Suzaku lived.

The protective guardians

The design of the capital was similar to that of Heijō kyō. It extended 5,5 km in north-south direction and 4,7 km in East-West direction.

Reconstruction of Heian Kyo

Urban location of the Imperial Palace

 In the north the imperial palace was located, that was a compound of 1,4 km * 1,2 km, which enclosed a series of buildings, such as the Great Hall State or Daogokuken, whose 2/3 scale replica stands on the  Heian Shrine.

Replica of the  Daigoku en, Heian Shrine, Kyoto.

In the center of the city, a huge 80 meters wide avenue called Suzaku Oji run from the Imperial Palace to the north to the enormous Rajomon Gate to the South.

Suzaku Oji Avenue and Imperial Palace

The Rajomon or Rashomon measured 32 meters wide by 8 of depth and reached a height of 9 meters. It communicated with the city through a bridge. It was a famous door, where heroes as Taira Masamori were received with pomps and honors. Nevertheless, at the end of the Heian period the district of Ukyo was deteriorated, and the porch became ruins and mulberry of malefactors and thieves, as it is portrayed in the famous film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa (1950) .

Rashomon, Akira Kurokawa. Press here to see the movie (English subtitles)

Rashomon was destroyed and in its place there is only a memorial stone.

Place where once stood the Rashomon

To the sides of Rajomon had two major temples with their respective pagodas : the Temple of the West or Saiji and the Temple of the East or Toji . The first one is gone, but Toji still stands as the highest pagoda in Japan.

Toji Pagoda

 Heian Kyo was destroyed during the bloody wars in the Japanese middle age. The original layout of Heian Kyo is gone, buried up to 3 meters under the level of the present Kyoto. The plot of the present city is much smaller to the one of the one of Heian kyo, but it is still in general, a squared plot (different to most of Japanese cities). Also, the direction of the layout, the tradition of some streets and the natural surroundings are important references in the spatial perception of the city.

Location of Heian Kyo in the current Kyoto
Image: Wikipedia

 Feng shui or Zoufuu tokusui was later used in the construction of temples, gardens, palaces and castles, some of which have been and will be commented in this blog. Also, the visual and symbolic relation of the city with mountains has been and is an important concept in the historical development of Kyoto. Numerous temples have been consecrated to the mountains (which were attributed magical and religious properties)and still today many festivals resemble this tradition. For example,  Gozan non Okubiri is a Buddhist celebration in which great bonfires are made in form of special characters, located in slopes of hills, containing prayers for the dead. This celebration is carried out in the evening of each 16 of August, and its most symbolic element is the Daimonji, that contains the Chinese character 大 (big).

Daimonji the fire festival.
Photo courtesy of Noboru Ogata

During the rest of the year these symbols remain as silent witnesses to the pact between the city and the mountains.

Daimonji in the snow.
Photo Carlos Zeballos. 


Watching the Dai Monji with my dear friends, the Perujines. We avoided the crowds from a "secret" place at the Yoshida hill. Great view, but we had to fight the mosquitoes!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Xian, China.


Feng Shui is an ancient Chinese art that intends to channel the energy of the earth and the environment for the benefit of humans. In that sense, Feng Shui has recently achieved remarkable diffusion in the West through texts, magazines and the Internet as a set of frequently used concepts in interior design and decoration. However, the application of Feng Shui techniques, dating back 4,000 years, were closely linked to the architectural and landscape design and fundamentally to ancestral urban planning.

Feng Shui (风水) (pronounced fong shway) is a Chinese concept that means "wind and water". The Japanese voice Zoufuu Tokusui (蔵风得水) gives a more specific description as it means "keep wind, get water." The idea behind this principle is that "mankind can avoid calamities and ensure their own welfare by determining the divine will with respect to different places and then acting upon them" (Higuchi, 1983).

Some authors define the Feng Shui as geomancy, ie a "kind of magic and divination that uses landscape features or lines, circles or points made ​​in the earth." But the truth is that Feng Shi involves much more than just a form of art or geomancy, is a way of life that analyzes the environment and their relationship with humans. The truth is that, "magic" or not, there are places that are more conducive to human settlement than others, providing better sunlight, best channeled winds in winter and summer, ensure efficient water supply and provide a comfortable micro climate.

The basis of Feng Shui is the vital energy that resides in all things, called Chi (气) in Chinese and Ki (気) in Japanese. (In that sense, there is an interesting parallel between the chi and the Apus, the spirits that, according to the Incas, lived in the elements of nature and were also considered in urban planning. I'll discuss about that in a future post. Instead , the genius loci or "guardian spirit of the place" in Roman mythology, and was also an important influence on European landscape design, has a more abstract character)
According to Guo Pu, a historian of the Jin Dynasty, the chi is the energy of the universe that is carried by the wind and the retained by water. However, the chi could be either positive or negative. By manipulating the quality of the wind and water as well as studying the properties of a space or territory and human behavior, it was possible to benefit from this energy flow.

A fundamental concept in Feng Shui is that the universe is governed by the existence of opposing forces, but complement each other for their existence and development. This concept is known as Yin and Yang. As can be seen in the Taijitu, yin (meaning "shady location, north hill" is the force receptive, feminine, dark, passive) is complemented by the yang (means "a sunny, south hill", is the creative force , male, light and active), there being a continuous flow between them. Moreover, the yin has within himself part of yang and vice versa.

The Taijitu, representative figure of Yin Yang

An octagonal diagram called Pa Kua or Bagua identified a direction according to the four cardinal points (north, south, east and west), and their intermediate variations (NE, NW, SE, SW) and associated them with symbolic elements:

* North - water
* South - fire
* This - wood
* West - metal
* Northwest - metal
* Northeast - land
* Southwest - land
* Southeast - wood


According to Akita Nariaki, "the four directions belong to the Green Dragon (east), the Crimson Bird (north), the White Tiger (west) and the Black Snake-Turtle (south); mountains, hills, buildings and houses are represented by these beasts. By studying the configuration of mountains and rivers, a site is selected where the vital energy that flows through the land is confined by water and not dispersed by the wind, and that place becomes propitious for building houses for the living and tombs for the dead. If one follows this principle, their descendants will nourish on the vital energy of the earth and obtain wealth, happiness and long life. "


With so clearly identified symbolic elements associated to the cardinal points, the grid emerged as a favorite urban pattern. The grid layout has been a scheme used throughout history to facilitate efficient territorial occupation. The Romans used it in their military camps, drawn from cardum and decumanum, the Spaniards used it in the foundation of cities during the Reconquista or their expansion in the Americas, and subsequently the grid-iron pattern was used in cities like Chicago or La Plata. But in the case of Feng Shui, the grid was used to symbolize magical principles, a representation of a celestial order on earth.

The grid model was first used in Chang An, the capital of the Han Chinese and widely replicated in cities such as current Kyongju in Koreaor Heijou  Kyou (Nara) and Heian Kyo (Kyoto) in Japan.

Old capital Chang An


The city of Chang'an (长安 meaning "lasting peace"), currently known as Xi'An was the capital of Tang Dynasty in China from 618 to 907. It was founded long before by Liu Bang in 202 BC, creator of the first unified Chinese empire in the Han Dynasty. But it was during the Tang Dynasty where the city was at its height, being the largest city in Asia, equivalent to Rome in the West.

3D Reconstruction of Chang An

The shape of the city is a rectangle where the city exactly aligned to the cardinal points. All elements of the city were arranged according to Feng Shui principles: the separation into functional areas, the location of urban cults to the gods, ancestors and the heavens.

The rigid geometric order was also a symbol of the concentration of power and hierarchy of the mystical figure of the emperor. The scheme was generally symmetrical with the palace located north looking south, followed by an administrative area. Two major markets were located on either side of the city.

This market. Image courtesy of National University of Singapore

In the south, there was a large pond in the middle of a garden of hibiscus . The city was defended by walls that made even clearer the geometric scheme, interrupted only by  majestic gates, such as the Gate Ming Te.

Home Ming Te. Image courtesy of National University of Singapore

Chang'an was destroyed at the end of the Tang Dynasty and reconstructed  as Xian, and while maintaining the geometric pattern of the ancient capital, today there is little that can be recognized from the original city. Important historical areas were demolished to make room to anonymous modern buildings during the Mao era, as it also happened in Beijing and many other Chinese cities.

In addition, the development boom in the Chinese economy is destroying the rich heritage of this city at breakneck speeds. A pity.

Walls of Xian

Xi'An today. While retaining a geometric pattern and orientation toward the cardinal points, as well as a large wall and a surrounding ditch, the city does not have the magnificency of old Chang An.
See location Google Maps 

For a virtual reconstruction of Chang'An click here.

  • Higuchi, T. The Structure of Visual and Spatial Landscape. 1983.
  • Leung, S. Feng Shui: An Ancient myth in an Urban Modern Settlement. Chinese University of Hong Kong.
  • Clark, V. Understanding Feng Shui. 2001.
  • Feng Shui in Wikipedia. Spanish / English
  • Kostof, S. The City Assembled. Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History. 1991.

In Xi'An with Prof. Kobayashi, just five minutes before some pickpocket took away my wallet.
Well, I took the positive side of things ... very few times you can have a tour around Xian ... in a police patrol car!