Shinden-zukuri Estates

of the Heian Period


Anthony J. Bryant


In its original form, this essay was a paper for a course in Japanese Literature at Indiana University in 2000. We have attempted to maintain its format and language with only minor editing since moving it from the original web location.

The shinden-zukuri is a style of architecture that flourished in the Heian period. This was the typical pattern of a noble's estate in the capital, and was doubtlessly duplicated in the provinces. It was marked by its main, central building which invariably faced south, and the secondary buildings surrounding and attached to it by a startling array of different types of covered corridors and bridges.

The central building is the shinden itself, from which the shinden-zukuri (lit. “shinden-built”) style has been given its name. The name literally means “sleeping hall,” stating its purpose. That is, it, rather than any other building in the estate, is the primary residence of the householder.

The buildings in such an estate were single-storey, raised off the ground on wooden pillars, and floored with wooden planks. There was no general tatami flooring, as tatami in the Heian period were moved about as required for bedding or for ad hoc seating purposes. The roofs were all plank construction, with the better models being clad in cypress shingles while some were even thatched instead. There were no tiles on the roof, save perhaps at the ridges.

One of the difficulties surrounding any study of shinden-zukuri architecture is that there is no solid rule on what it must contain. To be sure, there is the architectural Platonic “ideal” of the shinden-zukuri, much in the same way there is an ideal for what constitutes a Queen Anne, a Cape Cod, or a Federal style house, but while surviving illustrations of these estates exhibit various typical details, few seem to display them all.

The key measurement in Japanese architecture, which figures in the description of the various structures in the shinden-zukuri estate, is the space marked off between a pair of pillars. This space, usually translated into English as “bay,” is what determines the size of a room or building, which is invariably laid out on a sort of grid. The bay is measured from the midpoint of one pillar to the midpoint of the next. This measurement in Heian Japan—at least as concerns shinden-zukuri architectural standards—was one , or ten feet. This means the actual interstice between two pillars was nine feet.


The various elements in a shinden-zukuri estate are the shinden, tai no ya (flanking pavilions, or secondary buildings), wataridono (roofed-and-chambered building-linking corridors), sukiwatadono (roofed, building-linking bridges), (corridor “wings”), and tsuridono (fishing pavilions). Each of these will be treated below.

There are, of course, other outbuildings and support structures such as store houses, kitchens, stables, lavatories, bath buildings, and so on, but these are not the defining elements of the estate. Rather, it is the layout of the principal buildings that is key.


The heart of an estate built in the shinden-zukuri estate is the shinden itself.

At the central area, at the core of the shinden, is a space called the moya or moya no hi no omoshi, which is two bays deep and typically five bays wide. The moya is divided into two sections. One end of the moya is taken up by a two-bay­by­two-bay chamber called the nurigome. This is the inner sanctum of the home, and is where any family treasures are usually kept. It also can function as a private sleeping chamber for the householder. Unlike all other parts of the shinden, this is the one chamber that has encircling, immovable walls, as they are solid and plastered, with a single door for an entrance. Although I have not found any rule on this, all the reconstructions of shinden I've been able to find place the nurigome in the west-end of the moya.

The rest of the moya serves as the primary living space for the head of the house. If the householder had the appropriate standing, it is in here that his seat of state (michōdai) would be placed, wherein he might also sleep. This space is typically framed along the north and open side with removable sliding painted shōji door panels. The south seems to have been left open to the hisashi.

It must be noted that what are today called fusuma, that is, doors covered solidly with wood lattice and overlaid with paper (often painted or patterned) on both sides, were historically called “shoji,”—so when in this essay that word is used, it refers to these solid, opaque doors. Translucent panels of paper allowing light to come in were not in common architectural use when shinden came into being.

The moya is surrounded by a one bay-wide space called the hisashi, which is a step lower than the moya. The north, south, east, and west hisashi are termed kitabisashi, minamibisashi, higashibisashi, and nishibisashi, respectively. Hisashi could be broken up into ad hoc “rooms” with the placement of standing screens or curtains of state, with tatami laid on the floor for seating.

Given the length of the moya and the two flanking hisashi, the total length of the typical shinden (excluding the surrounding veranda) was seven bays (some 70 feet, not counting the width of the veranda) and its depth was five (50 feet). Sometimes, shinden were larger, and the only way to accomplish increasing the size was adding more bays. This was not done in a random manner, however.

There might be a single secondary hisashi, called a magobisashi, which runs the full length of the building and is one bay wide. If there was a single magobisashi, it was located on the far side from the courtyard (that is, on the north side of the shinden, the west side of the eastern pavilion, and the eastern side of the western pavilion). Magobisashi could also frame the other sides, but typically not the side open to the courtyard. The magobisashi could be set apart from the other hisashi with shōji or more temporary screens and curtains.

In the rare case that the secondary hisashi was made two bays wide (in instances of exceptionally large shinden), a two-bay­wide hisashi (called a hirobisashi) takes the place of the magobisashi between the hisashi and the veranda. Like the magobisashi, the hirobisashi need not circle the entire structure. The Shishinden, for example, only has hirobisashi on the north and south sides of the hisashi. A shinden with hirobisashi on all sides expands the size of the building to eleven bays in length and eight in depth.

The hisashi (or hirobisashi or magobisashi) was encircled by a further floored section another step down called the sunoko, or veranda, which is technically "outside" the building although it is still under the eaves. The flooring in sunoko was often spaced slightly so that just in case rain bypassed the eaves the water would run through. It also allowed for seating and functioned as a general gallery when events were going on in the courtyard.

The main stair descends from the center front of the sunoko. This stairway, a full bay wide and with a floored platform on ground level, was called the kizahashi. It is here at the foot of the five-step stair that honored guests would descend from their carts or carriages.

Off the head of the stair and back from the sunoko, in the central bay of the hisashi, is a space called the hashigakushi no ma. This would function as a sort of “reception” space where the head of the household could sit “in state” and greet guests or observe any activities going on in the central courtyard. A couple of tatami would be placed on the floor for a seat, and then would be flanked by some combinations of curtains of state, screens, or shelves.

Several bays at the junction of the hisashi and the sunoko are spanned by doorways. These tsumado take the form of a pair of solid wooden doors swinging outward on hinges. The tsumado come in matched pairs at either side of the hisashi facing east and west, leading to the open corridors that connect the shinden to the tai no ya. If there is a tai no ya in the north, another pair of doors may also be on the back of the shinden.

All the other bays—that is, those without tsumado—outside the hisashi have no permanent walls. They could be sealed off from the sunoko with shutters (kōshi or shitomido). These were solid, taking the form of plastered wooden planks sandwiched between black-lacquered wooden lattice. Depending on their placement, they came in two varieties: one, called ichimai kōshi (“one-leaf kōshi”), covered the entire bay, floor to lintel; the second, called nimai kōshi (“two-leaf kōshi”), was divided horizontally into two sections. The upper section was attached to the lintel where it was hinged, and it could be opened out and secured to the underside of the roof over the sunoko. The bottom could either be left secured in place with pegs, or removed. In this way, either the top, bottom, or both sections could be left in place. In the day, and perhaps on hot summer nights, they were left open, but most nights and in cold or otherwise inclement weather they were closed and secured in place. When the shutters are closed, the only way into the building is through the tsumado.

There was one more screen between the hisashi and the sunoko, though. That was the blinds, or misu, which were more or less identical to the modern sudare. Misu were attached to the lintels just in inside of the hinges of the two-part shutters, while they were hung on the outside the lintel of the removable shutters. Misu were more than just attractive visual features. With the shutters removed, the misu would serve to allow light into the dark interior while theoretically preventing prying eyes from seeing in.

Tai no ya

The tai no ya, usually translated by the term “pavilion” but also translated with the slightly more literal “opposed house” (owing to its position vis-à-vis the shinden) are secondary buildings attached to the shinden via one or another form of covered corridor (either wataridono or sukiwatadono or a combination of the two). In this way, they are identified by their location relative to the shinden: the higashi no tai (“eastern pavilion”), for example, is to the east of the shinden; the nishi no tai to the west; and the kita no tai to the north. The nature of the shinden-zukuri layout prohibits a southern pavilion. If there is a secondary tai no ya off to the east, it is called the higashi ni-tai or “second eastern pavilion,” and likewise any to the west.

The eastern and western pavilions are usually situated at ninety-degree angles from the shinden, with their shorter sides to the south (the main façade) of the complex. The northern pavilion parallels the shinden. This is not a hard and fast rule, however, as surviving drawings of shinden estates show all manner of layouts.

When tai no ya are oriented in the same direction as the shinden (that is, the kita no tai, or perhaps even a kita ni-tai), it is built along the same lines as the shinden. When the tai no ya is rotated ninety degrees, however, as in the case of higashi and nishi no tai, the southern most section of the hisashi is left open, and the walls of shutters actually begin a full bay into the structure. This forms a sort of proscenium facing the courtyard.

There is no hard and fast rule as to how many tai no ya a shinden-zukuri estate would have. Some reconstructions afford a single tai no ya either to the east or west of the shinden (the east seems to be the preferred location for single structures), others put a tai no ya on either side of the shinden. The northern pavilion, oddly, seems to be the last one to be added to the layout, despite the common application of the term “kita no kata” (for the lady of the house, implying that the northern pavilion is her domain).


Wataridono are verandas backed by walled chambers. Essentially, they take the form of a combination of open and enclosed corridors that link the shinden to a tai no ya.

The length of the wataridono is determined by the distance between the shinden and the tai no ya. The only determination of length is aesthetics, so a four or five bay wataridono seems to be the standard. Its width is two bays; one bay is the corridor open to the south, while the second is enclosed completely by walls in all four directions, with a tsumado (doorway), a yarido, or a solid, sliding, slatted door opening onto the walkway.

The enclosed sections of the wataridono—which don't seem to have had a special name as separate from the outside walkway section—are used for personal office space or more commonly as residence chambers for ladies in waiting. We know from her diary, for example, that Murasaki Shikibu lived in a wataridono space.

The north face of the chamber was a solid, plastered wall, while the southern face was actually a combination of plastered walls and kōshi shutters which could be removed opening the “enclosed” space to the veranda section.


Sukiwatadono are roofed “bridges” joining the shinden to a tai no ya. Often they are arched or stepped to provide some visual interest; such an arch is not required for structural or topographical reasons. When a pair flank the shinden, one may be arched and the other left flat. Sukiwatadono parallel the wataridono, to the south of which they are located.

Like the wataridono, the sukiwatadono has no set length, but its width is one bay.

The open space between the sukiwatadono and the wataridono forms a tsubo, a small, square courtyard of a sort, which is ringed therefore on all four sides by a railed walkway made up of the bridge, the corridor, and the verandas of the tai no ya and shinden. There is no evidence that there was ever a set of stairs into the garden, but if there were any, the logical placement would be on the wataridono.

In the Tale of Genji, Yūgiri was crossing the sukiwatadono when he spied Murasaki after the typhoon hit Rokujō Palace, and the tsumado was blown open.

The pairs of corridor “wings” coming off the tai no ya and thrusting south across the estate toward the southern garden were called . Like the rest of the shinden structures, they had an elevated plank floor. The wing corridor on whichever side of the estate held the main entrance gate was apparently enclosed in a combination of solid and shuttered walls. (I favor the possibility of solid lower walls and shuttered upper halves.) Nishi and Hozumi suggest that the various offices of the household staff were located in the enclosed chambers along the main . While access to the chambers in the may have been gained via tsumado, but it is more likely that the opening was a yarido.

The on the other side may have had only waist high railing spanning the bays, although it, too, may have been built to enclose chambers. Many reconstructions, however, indicate it may have been little more than an enclosed walkway with no outer veranda.

Either way, the on the main entrance side had a sunoko running its length (facing the courtyard) and perhaps also on the outside (facing the estate's outer walls). About the middle of the was a break about three bays long forming the inner gates, or chūmon. This provided access from the outer estate to the inner courtyard, and was ground level, necessitating stairs both north and south to allow one to climb up or down between the veranda and the ground.

There is no set length for the ; rather, they were as long as they needed to be, and some terminated before the artificial pond while some extended out over it. In many cases, they were even of different lengths. The terminated in small pavilions called tsuridono.


The tsuridono are open pavilions at the south end of the corridors jutting out across the yard from the tai no ya. There may be one or two; typically, each corridor will terminate in some sort of structure bearing this name. It is so named as the pavilion either is built over or abutting the artificial pond at the south of the courtyard, and those in the pavilion might use it for fishing.

Tsuridono were frequently used for moon-viewing parties and spending hot evenings out in hopes of catching a faint breeze.

Ground Layout

The estate of a nobleman in Heian-kyō was a square, 120 meters to the side, taking up a total of some 3.5 acres (a space of one chō). The estate is encircled by thick, earth walls called surfaced in wood and roofed over. A main gate—called seimon—is on one wall (east or west); opposite it on the far wall is the secondary, or “back” gate, the uramon.

Visually, the estate can be divided into three units north to south. The south was taken up by an elaborately designed garden and artificial pond complete with islands and bridges linking the islands and the “mainland.” The middle third was the courtyard and main and secondary buildings of the estate (namely, the shinden, the tai no ya, and ). The northern third, the private part of the estate where few guests ever went, was taken up with support structures such as storehouses, treasure houses, pavilions housing support staff, etc.

To a lesser extent, three distinct sections seem to emerge when considering the east­west plot. The east and west sections, beyond the long corridors, were beehives of activity as buildings like stables and carriage houses jut out from the corridors and fill the space. The central area, between the corridors, is the open great courtyard.

What all this means is that the shinden-zukuri estate with its south-facing main building and flanking corridors centered around that open courtyard and the view to the garden beyond. It was there in the courtyard that games of kemari (a type of kickball) and gitchō (a vaguely hockey-like game) were played. It was in the courtyard that festivals and religious observations like dances would take place.

The small enclosed spaces surrounded by the tai no ya and shinden at the sides and the wataridono and sukiwatadono to the south were also landscaped. These tsubo, or small courtyard spaces, allowed the women living in the shinden to see the seasons pass from their rooms on the sides. Often small trees were planted there, with a single dominant tree. This was what gave the nicknames to the women occupying rooms or pavilions facing the courtyard, and is the origin of such names in the Genji Monogatari as Kiritsubo (lit. “pawlonia courtyard”) and Fujitsubo (lit. “wisteria courtyard”).

The pond at the heart of the south of the estate was “fed” by a small stream called a yarimizu which meandered about the side of the courtyard. It usually passed under the wataridono and sukiwatadono between the shinden and the higashi no tai, and was spanned at several points by bridges.

Since the shinden-zukuri estate was always oriented the same way and always faced south, the main entrance to the compound was either the east or west gate, depending on which faced a broader avenue. On whichever side was the “main” side, inside the walls between the gate and the were situated several structures for the accommodation of guests' conveyances. The inner gateway (the chūmon) was located on the and lined up with the gates in the outer wall and afforded access to the central courtyard. It generally seems to be bad form as a formal visitor to have entered a shinden from anywhere but the central staircase.

Shinden Structures Today

Unfortunately, no true shinden-zukuri buildings survive. Outside of location sets for a film or television work, there is no place one can go to see a full, real example of the shinden. There are a few old buildings, however, that display some elements of the architectural style. Typically the comparison is drawn more for the placement of the buildings in the complex, rather than the design of the buildings themselves.

When one investigates shinden, names that usually turn up include the Sanpō-in, the Byōdō-in, and the Shishinden. Let us briefly look at them to determine their value in seeing vestiges of shinden construction.

The Sanpō-in, part of the complex at Itsukushima Jinja, does not really look like a shinden at all. Its system of corridors, however, linking the buildings as they jut out over the water, are likened to those of the shinden. Indeed, there is some similarity, but it is only cosmetic.

This is also the case of the Byōdō-in. When viewed from any of the elevations, it is hard to see any concrete relationship to the shinden. It is only when one looks at the plan for the Byōdō-in that the basic layout of the shinden-zukuri estate is hinted at. The main building is the stand-in for the shinden, while the flanking corridors that sweep out left and right then come forward evoke an image of wataridono and . Any comparison with shinden-zukuri, as with the case of the Sanpō-in, is only illusory.

The Shishinden, the main building in the Imperial Palace compound in Kyōto, at least has the basic structure of a shinden, albeit at a greatly enhanced scale.


While there is no place one can go in Japan to see a real shinden-zukuri estate, there are several scale models (variously based on reconstructions of famous mansions) in museums throughout Japan. The single most elaborate shinden model is the Genji Spring Palace display at the Fūzoku Hakubutsukan, 1:4 scale model of the shinden and the higashi-no-tai, complete with dolls dressed in Heian garb and equipped with a full complement of Heian furnishings. Much of it is on the web, and you can see photographs of the reconstruction here. This is the English-language site, where one can see many photographs of the reconstruction.

Several others over the years have diagrammed or to an extent built models based on Genji's palace. It is an object of some amusement that the most reconstructed shinden-zukuri structure in Japan is one that never actually existed.

South elevation of a typical shinden estate

West elevation

East elevation

Many books, including those listed in the bibliography, include an artist's reconstruction of a shinden estate. Sometimes they are less easy to understand than others. They often seem to be taken from other sources without any clear understanding of the architectural design or construction methods, so the diagrams are confusing at best.

For this essay, I tried to recreate the central compound buildings in such a way that they would be understood by a layman without any grounding in architecture or specifically Japanese architecture. The reconstruction is intended to represent the quintessential shinden-zukuri, complete with all three flanking tai no ya and no extraneous magobisashi or hirobisashi to confuse the issue. I'm reasonably certain that, while this may not be an exact replication of any given Heian mansion, a Japanese nobleman of the tenth century would recognize the layout for what it is and be comfortable with it.

My reconstruction is below:



Abe Takeshi. Heian kizoku no jitsuzō [The true image of Heian aristocrats]. Kyōyō no Nihonshi series. Tokyo: Tokyodō, 1993. 1995 3rd printing

Bowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: Diary and Poetic Memoirs: A Translation and Study. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univeristy Press, 1982,

The Cambridge History of Japan, vol. 2. Heian Japan. Ed. Donald H. Shively and William H. McCullough. Series ed. John Whitney Hall, Marius B. Jansen, Madoka Kanai, and Dennis Twitchett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Genji monogatari rokujō-in no seikatsu [Genji Monogatari: Life in the Rokujō-in]. Ed. Fūzoku Hakubutsukan. Kyoto, 1999.

Genji monogatari zuten [Illustrated dictionary of the Genji Monogatari]. Ed. Akiyama Ken , Komachiya Teruhiko; illust. Sugai Minoru. Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1997, 1999 fourth printing.

Kokugo kokubungaku techō: The Guide to Japanese Literature. Ed. Shōgaku Zusho Gengo Kenkyūjō. Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1990, 1995 fourth printing.

Life at Genji's Palace Rokujo-in. Costume Museum. Macromedia, Inc. [CD-ROM] 1999.

Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. New York, London, Tokyo: Kodansha International Press, 1964, 1994 printing.

Murasaki Shikibu. Murasaki Shikibu Nikki [Diary of Murasaki Shikibu]. Before 1025. Ed., trans. and annot. Nakano Kōichi. In Shinhen Nihon Koten Bungaku Zenshū, vol. 26. Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1994. 115­272

Nishi, Kazuo, and Kazuo Hozumi. What is Japanese Architecture? Trans., adapted H. Mack Horton. Tokyo, New York, and San Francisco: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1983.

Shintei kokugo zusetsu [Newly revised illustrated guide to the Japanese language]. Ed. Shintei Kokugo Zusetsu Henshū Iin Kai. Kyoto: Kyoto Shobō, 1997, 1999 seventh printing.


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