Kiyomizudera - Kyoto, Japan
Photo by Espen Faugstad via Flickr

Once the Imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, Kyoto still stands as the Heart of Japan despite Tokyo taking on the title as the country’s capital. The city’s history has seen the rise and fall of several Japanese shogunates and saw the construction of some of the country’s most important shrines and temples.

The history of Kyoto survives today and offers a glimpse into traditional Japanese culture. It is here where many of Japan’s cultural arts began and where they can be still be experienced today. Let us look at the journey Kyoto has taken from its humble beginnings to becoming one of Japan’s most beloved cities.

Early Beginnings

Archaeological evidence suggests humans were present in modern day Kyoto as early as the Paleolithic period, although little is known of these early peoples. Around the 6th century, the famous Shimogamo Shrine was believed to be constructed, one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan.

The 7th century saw the construction of the Kamo-jinja shrine, the Yasaka-no-to pagoda, and Kyoto’s oldest temple known as Koryu-ji. The 8th century was largely known as the Nara period, a time period where Heijō-kyō (currently Nara) was Japan’s capital. Japanese society was village-based and focused on agriculture and a religion that worshipped natural spirits known as kami.

法隆寺 Horyuji temple
Photo by ume-y via Flickr

In 794, Emperor Kanmu relocated the capital to Heian-kyō which would later become known as Kyoto. This began the period referred to as the Heian Period which would last until around tfive-year the 12th century.

Kamakura Period: 1185-1333

The five year long Genpei War fought between the Taira and Minamoto clans would lead to the end of the Heian Period and begin the Kamakura Period when the Minamoto would prevail in the battle of Dan-no-ura.

During the Kamakura Period, the Kennin-ji Zen Buddhist temple was built. Today it stands as one of the Kyoto Gozan, or five most important Zen temples of Kyoto. You also saw the reconstruction of the Kozan-ji temple which was destroyed numerous times by fire and war. Other notable temples founded during this time period include Hongan-ji and Tofuku-ji. The Kamakura Shogunate would be defeated around 1333, giving rise to the Muromachi Shogunate.

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Photo by Karen Eliot via Flickr

Muromachi Period: 1336-1573

It was during this period that the iconic Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, was constructed. You also saw Hosokawa Katsumoto create the famous Zen rock garden found at Ryoan-ji temple.

The once divided Northern and Southern courts became reunited in 1392 after a period of instability which saw the continual destruction of Kyoto. Famine, economic distress, and a succession dispute led to the 10 year Ōnin Civil War. Sadly many of Kyoto’s historic treasures were destroyed during the war.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period: 1573-1603

In 1573 the Muromachi Shogunate would fall when Oda Nobunaga would overthrow the Muromachi bakufu and gain control over all of Japan. The Battle of Sekigahara took place in 1600, a battle which saw 40,000 men die in a fight between the forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu and his opponents. After his victory, Tokugawa Ieyasu would become the shogun of Japan, thus establishing the Tokugawa Shogunate that would last until 1868. This became known as the Edo period.

Edo Period: 1603-1868

This period brought about 250 years of stability within Japan, a time without war. Cities like Kyoto flourished and saw large population increases along with an increase in transportation infrastructure and agricultural production.

Japan became a closed country in terms of severely limiting trade with the outside world along with expelling outsiders. Christianity bacame outlawed and Japan’s own citizens are not allowed to travel outside the country.

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Photo by hans-johnson via Flickr

Matsuo Bashō became the master of the Haiku poetry and the period gave rise to professional sumo wrestling and modern day sushi. Many great fires also ravaged the city during this period including The Great Tenmei Fire, a fire that broke out in the Kyoto Imperial Palace in 1788. Most of the city was engulfed in flames and many temples, shrines, and other structures had to be rebuilt.

Meiji Period: 1868-1912

During the Meiji Period, Japan began its assimilation of Western civilization and the Emperor would move the imperial capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. Telecommunication lines were constructed and locomotives began running. Dress and style became more westernized and Ito Hirobumi became Japan’s first prime minister when Japan adopted a cabinet system of government.

Kyoto Prefecture was created in 1871, with Kyoto being named as its capital. Lake Biwa Canal is built along with the creation of today’s cherry blossom viewing center known as Maruyama Park.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Heian-Jingu Shrine was built and Jidai-matsuri festival was created to honor the founding and history of Kyoto.

Kyoto Today

Kyoto is one of the few Japanese cities that thankfully avoided bombing during WWII but modernization now threatens to replace historical architecture with newer construction. Still though, ancient traditions seem to hold on and blend harmoniously with modernity.

Sunset in Kyoto
Photo by Chris Yiu via Flickr

Large international brand hotels tower over the city beside traditional Japanese inns known as ryokans. The city is well maintained, has up to date facilities, and offers a wonderful transportation system. It is a city where one can enjoy many authentic Japanese cultural experiences with all the modern conveniences.