World Facts Index > Japan > Kyoto

As the ancient and spiritual capital of Japan, Kyoto affords visitors a mircocosmic view of the country as a whole. Like hustling and bustling Tokyo, there are areas of the city which resemble any other Japanese metropolis, especially the downtown zone. You will find a throng of huge department stores in the vicinity of Shijo, a congregation of fine hotels around Kyoto Tower (pictured left), and exciting nightlife and entertainment at Pontocho in the Gion district.

However, an important historical fact sets Kyoto apart from other urban centers: it was never bombed during the Second World War. For this reason, it is possible to wander the older streets of the city and get a good idea of how life used to be in the medieval days of artisans and courtiers, merchants and samurai. You can still find streets lined entirely by wooden buildings--in the weaving district of Nishijin, for example. Some of these structures are more than a hundred years old, which may seem somewhat surprising considering the susceptibility of such buildings to the dangers of fire, earthquakes and modernization, not to mention the ephemeral qualities that Japanese culture considers a strength, even in architecture. No nails were used in the construction of many of these relics of the past.

Longevity of a different sort can be found in the great Buddhist temples of Kyoto, especially the internationally famous Ginkakuji and Kinkakuji. The latter of these was made even more famous by author-playwright Yukio Mishima, and you may wish to read his novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion before visiting. Other must-see attractions in Kyoto are Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji near Kyoto Station, Nanzenji to the east and Daitokuji to the north. These are functioning temples where you just might encounter a Buddhist ceremony or festival.

It is to see these sights, principally, that visitors come from around the globe. Kyoto has been acclaimed as the second most-visited city on earth, after Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Some 40 million visitors descend here each year. Yet it is rather easy to escape the crowds and have a rewarding time in an out-of-the-way temple or shrine. After all, there are some two thousand of them to choose from. Even Kyotoites themselves will pop into a shrine or temple now and then, to pray or simply to relax for a few minutes before continuing with shopping, studies, business, and life's more mundane tasks.

These historic and religious venues, with their fascinating gardens and artifacts, are not the only places you can experience traditional Kyoto. Vestiges of the past are also to be found in local products, such as damascene, cloisonne, and ceramics. You will find excellent souvenirs in locally produced combs, knives, fans and incense, kimono, woodblock prints and hand-made paper. These can be readily found in stores throughout the city, and particularly at shops between Karamasu and Kawaramachi at the approach to the old Floating World district of the city. Yakata Antiques, for example, carries many such items at its location in Gion's antiques quarter.

Ancient customs can also be experienced at Japanese lodgings, like the elegant Hiiragi-ya. You can travel back in time with local food and drink, too: sake, tofu, noodles, confectionery, vegetarian temple food, or the famous seasonal Kyoto cuisine of delicate flavours called kyoryori. And be sure not to miss tradition as it walks the streets in the form of geisha (properly called geiko in Kyoto), or the occasional kimono-clad housewife. Kyoto people are conservative, indeed: one isn't thought of as a real Kyotoite unless one's family has been living in the city for at least three generations!

The above notwithstanding, Kyoto also concerns itself with things modern. It is the home of world-reknowned manufacturers, like Nintendo and Kyocera. It is also considered one of the top up-and-coming cyber-sites in the world, according to Wired magazine. The modern arts scene is vibrant, and, as far as music is concerned, many people are referring to it as "the new Bristol." Experience this rennaissance city for yourself and see if you don't agree.

If you are like most visitors, you will probably plan to visit Kyoto during cherry-blossom season in April, or at the end of November to see the spectacular colours of the autumn leaves. But it really doesn't matter much which season you come to visit. The rainy season in June is considered the best time to view the mosses at Saihoji Temple. The stepped approaches to Kiyomizu Temple are also thought to look best in the rain. The end of July and August can get pretty muggy. You will be rewarded, however, with sparse crowds at the more famous tourist spots. The beer gardens are also open at this time, as are the decks outside the restaurants overlooking the Kamo River, which cuts through the very heart of town. And in the cold winter months of January and February, you will be able to attend the Yoshida Jinja Setsubun Festival and see the camellias in bloom at Honen-in and other gardens around the city.

History of Kyoto

The city of Kyoto has well over a thousand years of history as a commercial, religious and artistic urban center. As a thriving metropolis developed over centuries, Kyoto has acquired a rich cultural heritage derived from its citizenry of enterprising artisans, entertainers, merchants, and shopkeepers, just as much as from the city's more famous Emperors, warriors, poets and priests. Much of Japan's culture has its beginnings in the city's economic and aesthetic initiatives and achievements over the ages. Kyoto has, over time, inspired both great beauty and spirituality as well as crude violence and destruction.

Founded in 794, after the capital first moved from Nara and then to Nagaoka, Kyoto's river basin location, surrounded on all but its southern side by forested mountains, was deemed both propitious and strategic. A grand capital, Heian-kyo (capital of peace and tranquility), was constructed on a rectilinear grid-iron pattern modelled on the Chinese capital, Xian. This early attempt at urban planning can still be seen in the street patterns to this day. However, little still remains from the glorious Heian period (794-1185), when Japanese culture first began to flower after its previous seeding from China and Korea. The sites of Shimogamo and Kamigamo shrines as well as Koryuji actually pre-date the founding of the capital but Byodoin in Uji, dating from 1053, and Shimo Daigo are two of the few structures in the city to survive from the Heian period unscathed by Kyoto's twin curses--fire and war.

The Heian era in Kyoto is associated with aristocratic and courtly elegance, art and poetry, literature and religious learning. Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji, the world's first novel and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagun are enduring literary masterpieces of the period. Nison-in still commemorates the Heian literary heritage in its annual festival. The Tendai and Shingon sects of early Buddhism have their roots here, too. Tendai has its headquarters at Enryakuji on Mount Hiei whereas Toji Temple is an important Shingon establishment. Heian Shrine is a reduced replica of the original Imperial Palace, and Kyoto National Museum holds many artworks and sculpture from the period.

The intervening Kamakura (1185-1333), Muromachi (1333-1573) and Momoyama (1573-1598) periods are referred to as Japan's medieval age. They are a time of both calamitous destruction as well as stunning cultural achievement and growth. During the upheavals of the Kamakura period, which included the aborted invasions of the Mongols in 1274 and 1281, the differing Buddhist sects of Zen, Jodo, Jodo Shin and Nichiren mark their appearance. Kenninji was the first of Kyoto's many influential Zen Buddhist temples which include Nanzenji, Myoshinji and Daitokuji. Chion-in, with its massive gate is the headquarters of the Jodo sect and dates from 1234. Nishi Honganji founded later, in 1272, is now the center of the vast and prosperous Jodo Shin sect.

The Muromachi period began with Kyoto under the control of the Ashikaga shogunate. It represents a further high point in Kyoto's cultural patronage and aesthetic achievement. The beautiful and lavish Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji, pictured above), the more contemplative Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji) as well as many of Kyoto's most famous arts, such as ikebana flower arrangment, Noh drama, tea ceremony and landscaped gardens, including the exquisite Daisen-in date from this time. Unfortunately, the end of this epoch saw the destruction of much of the city in the disasterous Onin War (1467-77).

The brief and violent Momoyama period commenced with warlord Oda Nobunaga seizing power in Kyoto and beginning the process of pacifying and uniting the country before his assassination in Honnoji Temple in 1582. He was followed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu who completed their predecessor's work of stabilizing the nation by the brutal expedient of eliminating all possible opponents. Again, this brief period of strife and political intrigue gave rise to another great explosion of cultural achievement and artistic production, with emphasis this time on lavish color, flamboyance and opulence, particularly in the fine arts and in artecrafts, such as textiles and ceramics. Hideyoshi began the rebuilding of the previously devastated city by moving many of the surviving temples to the area of town now known as Teramachi (home of Shokokuji), and his successor Ieyasu completed the massive and sumptuously decorated Nijo Castle as a symbol of his new authority and wealth.

The Edo period (1600-1868) may have witnessed the transfer of political power to Edo (later Tokyo) but the long years of peace and stability saw Kyoto grow as a cultural and commercial center, as the merchant class organized themselves into self-sufficient communities known as cho or machi and began to develop and patronize the arts and crafts for which the city is forever linked. Architecture, ceramics, confectionary, cuisine, dolls, gardening, geisha, incense, kabuki, kimono-weaving, lacquerware, paper-making, sake-brewing, tea ceremony and wood-block printing all flourished during this time, until a large part of the wooden city was again destroyed, this time by a freak fire, in 1788. The collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate saw more violence and destruction in and around Kyoto between the return of a resurgent West in 1853 and the new order of the Meiji period (1868-1912).

The capital was formally transferred to Edo (now Tokyo) in 1868, but Kyoto was not left behind in the wave of modernization and industrialization that was sweeping the country, as the many fine surviving Meiji-era buildings and monuments testify. Thankfully unlike much of the rest of Japan, Kyoto was spared destruction in World War II. For the visitor today, the ancient temples, gardens, inns and palaces remain like delightful microcosms to delight the traveller in search of the aesthetic wonders of the Japan that was...and still is in Kyoto.


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