The history of Kyoto, Japan’s former capital city, stretches all the way back to the 8th century. The city was created as a home to the Imperial Court, retaining its position for a millennium, until Tokyo became the capital.
Despite being usurped in its role as the Japanese capital, Kyoto is regarded by many to this day as unparalleled in its array of historical sites, monuments, and relics, having retained its charming traditional atmosphere, as well as its stunning historical sites.
Although archaeologists have unearthed finds dating back to the Yayoi and Jomon periods locally, dating back more than 10,000 years, it was not until the 6th century that the region was colonized more permanently. This came with the arrival of the Hata clan from Korea, a people who were adept silk farmers, having amassed significant wealth trading silk products. The Hata people built a family temple in the western part of modern-day Kyoto. Around the same time, other powerful clans started arriving in northern parts of the region.
Kyoto became the Japanese capital in 794. It was originally known as Heian-kyō, meaning “peaceful capital.” The city’s construction resembles that of the Chinese capital during the Tang dynasty. Over the years, Heian-kyō started expanding towards the east, its boundaries smaller than those of modern Kyoto, and plotted as a square city in accordance with the principles of geomancy.
During the Heian period, political power centered around the Emperor and Imperial Family. However, in 1185, the Minamoto clan came to power, creating a new capital city called Kamakura, located 40 kilometers south of modern-day Tokyo. This marked the beginnings of the shogunate, a new political structure with a “shogun” or military leader ruling the nation. When the Kamakara shogunate fell in 1333, power returned to Kyoto, where another shogunate was established. It was during this period that dozens of temples were constructed across the city, many of which survive to this day, although many more were destroyed in a civil war that broke out in the mid-15th century.
In the late 16th century, Kyoto found peace under the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He is credited with commissioning the construction of some of Kyoto’s most beautiful buildings, including Fushimi Castle and Jurakutei Palace, parts of which are still intact today.
Arts and culture flourish
During the Edo period, which lasted from the early 1600s to mid-1800s, political power shifted from Kyoto to Edo, which is known as Tokyo today. The Edo period was relatively peaceful, creating a political and social environment for arts and culture to flourish. During this period and beyond, Kyoto remained an important center for traditional arts and crafts, including fan-making, lacquerware, dollmaking, and ceramics. Indeed, despite having moved the political center, the shogunate continued to borrow money from some of Kyoto’s richer merchants.
After power shifted to Tokyo in 1868, Kyoto embarked on a period of modernization, digging Lake Biwa Canal, the country’s first hydroelectric power plant, and creating some of Japan’s first tram lines. Since Kyoto does not have a harbor like Tokyo and Osaka, modern industries were not in a hurry to settle there. Nevertheless, traditional industries continued to thrive in Kyoto, more so than in other parts of the country.
Today, the city is renowned as a center of higher education, boasting several internationally-renowned universities, as well as important museums. It is also world famous for its high-quality sake.
Rich and sophisticated culinary traditions
As the seat of the imperial court for more than a thousand years, Kyoto’s culinary traditions are rich, sophisticated, and diverse, with local food culture ranging from the vegetarian shojin ryori fare eaten by monks, to simple obanzai homestyle cooking, to aristocratic kaiseki course dinners. Arguably the best place for international visitors to enjoy the authentic flavors of Kyoto cuisine is at one of the city’s high-class ryotei. Here, patrons are immersed in Japanese culture, including the Zen Buddhist ritual of the tea ceremony. Menu items are not tailored to Western palates, presenting an unadulterated taste of authentic Japanese cuisine. Meals tend to be heavy on vegetables and fish, following Japanese traditions, with a strong emphasis on seasonal produce.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is a must-see tourist attraction for any visitor to Kyoto, and one of the city’s most famous attractions, the shrine featuring endless vermillion tunnels leading up the mountainside.
For those keen to avoid the crowds, the dazzling gold pavilion of Kinkaku-ji offers the perfect refuge. Surrounded by pine trees, the pavilion’s reflection in the pond below is breathtaking.
Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple, Kennin-ji, features striking dragon murals on its ceiling and sliding doors. It is adorned with opulent gold-leaf screens depicting the wind and thunder gods.
Finally, no visit to Kyoto would be complete without a visit to Kyoto Imperial Palace. Situated in the heart of the city, surrounded by sprawling parkland, the walled compound is open to the public, presenting the perfect opportunity for visitors to immerse themselves in ancient Japanese history and culture.