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The fascination of the Heian Period (794-1185) lies in the fact that in all world history there is nothing quite like it. It would be hard to imagine a culture more exclusive, more fastidiously refined, more smugly incurious about the unknown, more unwarlike, more tearfully melancholic, more sensitive to beauty, more closed to the outside world, more morally ambiguous — the list of superlatives goes on and on. Perhaps none has ever existed, writes Michael Hoffman.

No one seems to know just why, in the year 784 under the Emperor Kammu, the decision was made to remove the capital from Nara, where it had been fixed since 710. One theory is that the leading Fujiwara family — de facto rulers despite their outward obeisance to the emperor — wanted to shake off the stifling influence of the Nara-based Buddhist clergy.

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