History of Kyoto

Mother Earth Travel > Japan > Kyoto > History

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.