Shinden-zukuri is a style of architecture used in aristocratic mansions in the Heian period. The main building called shinden (seiden) is built facing a south garden with two subsidiary buildings called tainoya to the east and west of the shinden, and two corridors called wataridono connect the shinden and the two tainoya, from which the wataridono corridors extend south and end in tsuridono, or fishing pavilions.
A shinden is a house on stilts with its roofs thatched with Hiwada (bark of Japanese cypress). It has an open structure separated from outside with only shitomido (hinged plank doors). A garden was created in front with a pond and tsukiyama (small hills). The study of Sakuteiki (Treatise on Garden Making) and other materials shows that the typical style was generally for high-ranked aristocrats higher than the sani rank, and each site is one cho (120 m) square, based on Jobohocho-sei of Heiankyo (town demarcation plan of the then Capital Kyoto in the tenth century) surrounded by Tsukiji (mud walls), usually having gates other than on the south. The main gate is either on the west or on the east, called 'reimon' or 'hare mon' according to their use. The character of the gates is closely related to the allotment of the garden and the buildings, each building being connected with wataridono and together surrounding the garden called tsuboniwa. Corridors run to the south from each tainoya, east and west, with chumon (a central gate) at the halfway point, and the courtyard in front of the shinden flanked by these corridors is called nantei (south garden), where white sand was laid. This courtyard and the pond form the main part of the garden.
Shinden faced south and had a south courtyard, but had no south gate, which is different from the style of mansions in China. Many kinds of annual ceremonies took place in the courtyard.
Inside Shinden-zukuri is one room with no separating structures, so portable partitions such as kicho, byobu and tsuitate were used, but as the outer sides of the building have no walls and the interior and exterior become one space when the shitomido are raised, there is a panoramic view of the whole garden.
The view from the shinden-zukuri consists of hills and water, and miniatures of scenic places from all over the country. The pond, depending on its size, contains several islands called nakajima reached by soribashi (a carved bridge) with red-painted railings placed at an angle on the north side, and hirabashi (a flat bridge) to the next island or on the south side. At one end of a corridor with a chumon is a tsuridono extending over the pond, which is part of the architecture of the garden and was used for boarding a pleasure boat, or for enjoying the coolness in the evening, moon viewing, or snow viewing. On the other side of the pond a gakuya (a music stage) added fun to the pleasure of a boat trip. Ponds were usually fed by a stream from the northeast of the compound following the geological shape of Kyoto, and the stream ran between the shinden and the east tsuinoya, south toward the pond. Inmyo Gogyoshiso (Yin-Yang Wu-Hsing Idea) then considered the stream a favorable current called yarimizu, and it was designed to be a shallow stream. The current was guided alongside the buildings to make waterfalls and yarimizu, and an atmosphere of fields such as at Sagano and Murasakino was created in the tsuboniwa between the shinden and the tsuinoya, with gently undulating mounds called nosuji, planted wild flowers, and insects, to make a landscape.
The paths of the yarimizu and its river walls of rocks were delicately designed to make changes in the flow, fascinating white bubbles on the rocks, and pleasant sounds.
A rich spring, if any were in the grounds, was used as the water source, also forming an important source of coolness in summer. The Higashi Sanjoden of the FUJIWARA family, known as a typical shinden-zukuri of a very wealthy family, had a spring called 'senkan izumi,' around which rocks were arranged, and the corridors floored with boards on the north and the south sides of the spring were called izumiro.
Although there are no remains of this mansion from the Heian period, we can imagine how it was by studying records on old picture scrolls and diaries of aristocrat ministers and their retainers. Shinden-zukuri were typically depicted in picture scrolls of annual events and 'the Picture Scroll of the Tale of Genji,' and they characterized the graceful lives of aristocrats.
Being made to be full of natural beauty, these gardens were not only there to appreciate, but also to use as a space to conduct ceremonies. Records in diaries and picture scrolls mentioned above show that many kinds of important annual events took place at dignitaries' mansions at that time. The guests first stood in line at the south courtyard to greet each other, then the host beckoned them or stepped down to the garden to guide them to enter the shinden from the south. Music and dances were performed on a stage set in the garden. These events played a political role in those days. The apparatus set up in the garden varied depending on the ceremony, so the performances also varied.
Recent excavations indicate some examples of ponds placed at the side or at the back of the shinden. Kayain had ponds at all sides of the shinden, some had only yarimizu without ponds, and at Sanjoin, ponds were intentionally not built to create a noble atmosphere with the indigenous trees. Some did not have ponds because pond layout strongly depended on natural land forms. Some had only yarimizu, because they had grounds that were too small to have ponds.
The present Kyoto Imperial Palace was built in the Edo period using old architectural methods of the Heian Period following Yusokukojitsu (traditional usages or practices of the court). The buildings of the imperial palace of the Muromachi period were transferred and rebuilt at Daikaku-ji Temple (Saga gosho) and at Ninna-ji Temple (Omuro gosho) in Kyoto, so they show signs of shinden-zukuri. Higashi Sanjoden and Kayain mentioned above, and also Horikawain are well known for their magnificent buildings and elaborately designed gardens, because they are depicted in records, such as 'Shouki,' FUJIWARA no Sanesuke's diary.
Although the design of samurai houses in the Kamakura period is sometimes called 'bukezukuri,' accepted theory in architectural history says it is not an original style but a simplified version of shinden-zukuri.