In 794 the capital of Japan was officially transferred to Heian-kyō (present-day Kyoto), where it remained until 1868. The term Heian period refers to the years between 794 and 1185, when the Kamakura shogunate was established at the end of the Genpei War. The period is further divided into the early Heian and the late Heian, or Fujiwara era, the pivotal date being 894, the year imperial embassies to China were officially discontinued.
Early Heian art: In reaction to the growing wealth and power of organized Buddhism in Nara, the priest Kūkai (best known by his posthumous title Kōbō Daishi, 774-835) journeyed to China to study Shingon, a form of Vajrayana Buddhism, which he introduced into Japan in 806. At the core of Shingon worship are mandalas, diagrams of the spiritual universe, which then began to influence temple design. Japanese Buddhist architecture also adopted the stupa, originally an Indian architectural form, in its Chinese-style pagoda.
The temples erected for this new sect were built in the mountains, far away from the Court and the laity in the capital. The irregular topography of these sites forced Japanese architects to rethink the problems of temple construction, and in so doing to choose more indigenous elements of design. Cypress-bark roofs replaced those of ceramic tile, wood planks were used instead of earthen floors, and a separate worship area for the laity was added in front of the main sanctuary.
The temple that best reflects the spirit of early Heian Shingon temples is the Murō-ji (early 9th century), set deep in a stand of cypress trees on a mountain southeast of Nara. The wooden image (also early 9th c.) of Shakyamuni, the "historic" Buddha, enshrined in a secondary building at the Murō-ji, is typical of the early Heian sculpture, with its ponderous body, covered by thick drapery folds carved in the hompa-shiki (rolling-wave) style, and its austere, withdrawn facial expression.
Fujiwara art: In the Fujiwara period, Pure Land Buddhism, which offered easy salvation through belief in Amida (the Buddha of the Western Paradise), became popular. This period is named after the Fujiwara family, then the most powerful in the country, who ruled as regents for the Emperor, becoming, in effect, civil dictators. Concurrently, the Kyoto nobility developed a society devoted to elegant aesthetic pursuits. So secure and beautiful was their world that they could not conceive of Paradise as being much different. They created a new form of Buddha hall, the Amida hall, which blends the secular with the religious, and houses one or more Buddha images within a structure resembling the mansions of the nobility.
The Hō-ō-dō (Phoenix Hall, completed 1053) of the Byōdōin, a temple in Uji to the southeast of Kyoto, is the exemplar of Fujiwara Amida halls. It consists of a main rectangular structure flanked by two L-shaped wing corridors and a tail corridor, set at the edge of a large artificial pond. Inside, a single golden image of Amida (c. 1053) is installed on a high platform. The Amida sculpture was executed by Jōchō, who used a new canon of proportions and a new technique (yosegi), in which multiple pieces of wood are carved out like shells and joined from the inside. Applied to the walls of the hall are small relief carvings of celestials, the host believed to have accompanied Amida when he descended from the Western Paradise to gather the souls of believers at the moment of death and transport them in lotus blossoms to Paradise. Raigō paintings on the wooden doors of the Hō-ō-dō, depicting the Descent of the Amida Buddha, are an early example of Yamato-e, Japanese-style painting, and contain representations of the scenery around Kyoto.
E-maki: In the last century of the Heian period, the horizontal, illustrated narrative handscroll, known as e-maki (絵巻, lit. "picture scroll"), came to the fore. Dating from about 1130, the illustrated 'Tale of Genji' represents one of the high points of Japanese painting. Written about the year 1000 by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Akiko, the novel deals with the life and loves of Genji and the world of the Heian court after his death. The 12th-century artists of the e-maki version devised a system of pictorial conventions that convey visually the emotional content of each scene. In the second half of the century, a different, livelier style of continuous narrative illustration became popular. The Ban Dainagon Ekotoba (late 12th century), a scroll that deals with an intrigue at court, emphasizes figures in active motion depicted in rapidly executed brush strokes and thin but vibrant colors.
E-maki also serve as some of the earliest and greatest examples of the otoko-e (Men's pictures) and onna-e (Women's pictures) styles of painting. There are many fine differences in the two styles, appealing to the aesthetic preferences of the genders. But perhaps most easily noticeable are the differences in subject matter. Onna-e, epitomized by the Tale of Genji handscroll, typically deals with court life, particularly the court ladies, and with romantic themes. Otoko-e, on the other hand, often recorded historical events, particularly battles. The Siege of the Sanjō Palace (1160), depicted in the "Night Attack on the Sanjō Palace" section of the Heiji Monogatari handscroll is a famous example of this style.