Taking a Closer Look: A Map of Kyoto as the Imperial Capital of Japan

The June 3 auction of Maps & Atlases, Natural History & Color Plate Books is marked by a number of unique or exceedingly rare examples of cartographic material and decorative graphics. Among a selection of maps of Japan is a masterpiece of urban cartography: an impressive 17th-century manuscript map of Kyoto as the imperial capital, mounted on a six-panel screen. 

Manuscript map of Kyoto as the imperial capital of Japan, mounted on a six-panel folding screen, 17th century. Estimate $60,000 to $90,000.

The map shows Kyoto as it looked centuries before 1600, in approximately the 10th or 11th century. 

Kyoto was established as the capital of Japan in 794 AD. From roughly that time until the 13th century, the city featured the large Heian Palace Complex at its northern end. This served as the seat of imperial power. The complex was destroyed by a fire in 1227 AD. The present map depicts the complex in extraordinary detail, going as far as to label individual trees within its confines. 

The grid layout of the city is based on the regimented Jo-Bo system of urban planning, which the Japanese had adopted from China and used for the early development of Kyoto. The number and width of each street is noted. Suzaku Avenue is shown proceeding south from the palace to Rashomon Gate. 

There is color-coded key in the lower left corner that differentiates buildings used by the imperial household, magistrates, Shinto and Buddhist clergy, military retainers, and commoners. Many buildings – most of those not owned by commoners – are individually labeled. 

Dying for a closer look, cartophiles? A large version of the full map image is available for perusal here, or stop by the preview! More information on the auction can be found in our catalogue.