In 794, at the beginning of the Heian Period, the Japanese court moved its capital to Heian-kyō (present-day Kyoto). During this period, there were three different kinds of gardens; palace gardens and the gardens of nobles in the capital; the gardens of villas at the edge of the city; and the gardens of temples.
The architecture of the palaces, residences and gardens in the Heian period followed Chinese practice. Houses and gardens were aligned on a north-south axis, with the residence to the north and the ceremonial buildings and main garden to the south, there were two long wings to the south, like the arms of an armchair, with the garden between them. The gardens featured one or more lakes connected by bridges and winding streams. The south garden of the imperial residences had a specially Japanese feature; a large empty area of white sand or gravel. The Emperor was the chief priest of Japan, and the white sand represented purity, and was a place where the gods could be invited to visit. The area was used for religious ceremonies, and dances for the welcoming of the gods.
The layout of the garden itself was strictly determined according to the principles of traditional Chinese geomancy, or Feng Shui. The first known book on the art of the Japanese garden, the Sakuteiki, written in the 11th century, said:
"It is a good omen to make the stream arrive from the east, to enter the garden, pass under the house, and then leave from the southeast. In this way, the water of the blue dragon will carry away all the bad spirits from the house toward the white tiger."
The Imperial gardens of the Heian Period were water gardens, where visitors promenaded in elegant lacquered boats, listening to music, viewing the distant mountains, singing, reading poetry, painting, and admiring the scenery of the garden. The social life in the gardens was memorably described in the classic Japanese novel, the Tales of Genji, written in about 1005 by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting to the Empress. The traces of one such artificial lake, Osawa no ike, near the Daikaku-ji Temple in Kyoto, still can be seen. It was built by the Emperor Saga, who ruled from 809 to 823, and was said to be inspired by Dongting Lake in China.
A scaled-down replica of the Kyoto Imperial Palace of 794 A.D., the Heian-jingū, was built in Kyoto in 1895 to celebrate the 1100th birthday of the city. The south garden is famous for its cherry blossoms in spring, and for azaleas in the early summer. The west garden is known for the irises in June, and the large east garden lake recalls the leisurely boating parties of the 8th century.
Near the end of the Heian period a new garden architecture style appeared, created by the followers of Pure Land Buddhism. These were called "Paradise Gardens," built to represent the legendary Paradise of the West, where the Amida Buddha ruled. These were built by noblemen who wanted to assert their power and independence from the Imperial household, which was growing weaker.
The best surviving example of a Paradise Garden is Byōdō-in in Uji,near Kyoto. It was originally the villa of Fujiwara Michinaga, (966-1028), who married his daughters to the sons of the Emperor. After his death, his son transformed the villa into a temple, and in 1053 built the Hall of Phoenix, which still stands. The Hall is built in the traditional style of a Chinese Song Dynasty temple, on an island in the lake. It houses a gilded statue of the Amithaba Buddha, looking to the west. In the lake in front of the temple is a small island of white stones, representing Mount Horai, the home of the Eight Immortals of the Daoists, connected to the temple by a bridge, which symbolized the way to paradise. It was designed for mediation and contemplation, not as a pleasure garden. It was an lesson in Daoist and Buddhist philosophy created with landscape and architecture, and a prototype for future Japanese gardens.
Notable existing or recreated Heian gardens include:
Kyoto Imperial Palace