A Dis-Integrated Urban Landscape: Making Kyoto Medieval

A Dis-Integrated Urban Landscape: Making Kyoto Medieval

By Matthew Stavros

Meiji University Ancient Studies of Japan, Vol.3 (2011)

Introduction: This essay attempts to characterize the defining spatial traits of Kyotoʼs medieval urban landscape and then explores how early Ashikaga shogunal leaders interacted with the cityscape and its paradigms. To begin, we must ask the question, “what was ʻmedievalʼ about medieval Kyoto?” Like the era itself, there is an inclination to characterize the medieval city as being in a state of transition between its less ambiguous counterparts, the classical-era imperial city of Heian-kyō 平安京 on the one hand, and Kyotoʼs manifestation as an early-modern castle town on the other. Both the classical city and the castle town exhibited spatial traits that reflected distinctly the social and political circumstances of their respective periods. In the case of Heiankyō, the centrality of the imperial palace, the regularity of the rectangular grid-road system, and the overall symmetry, all bespoke the cityʼs role as the seat of a strong, centralized, emperorcentric government, based upon Chinese imperial models. On the other hand, early-modern Kyotoʼs centrally located castle (Nijō-jō 二条城) and its status-based zoning scheme were both characteristics indicative, respectively, of the Tokugawa periodʼs (1603-1868) warrior domination and strictly codified status system.

The first section of this chapter outlines Kyotoʼs spatial transformation from the unified, mononuclear city of the classical era, into what, by the medieval era, is perhaps best characterized as a loose conglomeration of disparate nodes of urban development. The gridroad system began to break down in the tenth century when the western half of the old city, Ukyō 右京, failed to thrive and was eventually converted almost entirely into farm land. Concurrently, the eastern half of Sakyō 左京 enjoyed rapid population expansion, eventually leading to urban sprawl extending to the north and east beyond the boundaries of the original city. It is possible to trace from about this time the formation of two distinct residential districts in the east, each with its own unique sociopolitical flavor. Kamigyō 上京, in the north, was home to the capitalʼs civil aristocracy as well as several successive reigning and retired emperors. In the south was Shimogyō 下京, where clustered the homes, business, and workshops of the cityʼs many commoners. From the twelfth century, the capitalʼs original spatial structure underwent further change with the emergence of private institutions of wealth and power (kenmon 権門). Many of these kenmon, including retired emperors, temples, and eventually, warriors, built large bases of power on the cityʼs outskirts. Thriving communities formed around these centers of wealth, and in time, the people of each came to orient their lives more toward their respective kenmon centers than to the capital itself.

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