The classic architecture of the aristocracy of Heian period Japan was a matter of single-story sprawling mansions connected by covered walkways to various other subsidiary buildings, enclosing a garden with a pond and rivulets, and surrounded by an wall of paced earth and stone. This style of architecture is called shinden-zukuri, after the main pavilion, or "shinden".

Built according to imported Chinese Feng-shui rules of geomancy, the shinden was always oriented facing south, with a staircase opening onto a garden built to contain a hill and pond. Typically there would be a small island in the pond, reachable by a garden bridge. Behind the main hall was the northern pavilion, reserved for the main wife (who was known as the kita no kata, "northern personage"). The eastern and western pavilions were also connected to the main hall by roofed galleries. Similar walkways led out to a "fishing pavilion" built over the pond, and artificial streams were often directed to flow under the walkways and buildings.

The buildings were roofed in layers of cypress bark, like those seen in traditional Shinto shrine buildings, the original inspiration for this style of architecture. A section of the estate at the northern edge behind the buildings was enclosed as the garbage dump.

The shinden could be divided into as many as 9 or as few as 4 "rooms," (spaces temporarily defined by blinds and curtain-stands) the central one called the "moya", and the outer ones the hisashi, or "eaves." Servants, such as Lady Murasaki Shikibu who were themselves members of the aristocracy, slept in these outer "eaveschambers".

Built to be airy with deep shady recesses for refuge from the dense summer heat of Heiankyo, these buildings were drafty and cold throughout the winter.

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