Discover Kyoto: Preserver of Japanese History

11/14/2022

For more than 1,000 years, Kyōto served as Japan’s official capital — housing emperors and government buildings — making literal its meaning of “capital city.” Part of the “Kyōto fu” prefecture, Kyōto today is the nation’s cultural capital. With its preserved architecture, intact city planning from 794, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and vibrant history, Kyōto preserves Japanese culture for its citizens and global travelers alike. 

Drawing travelers eager to immerse themselves in Japanese history and culture, Kyōto is located in the Kansai region on the island of Honshu. The city is about an hour and a half by bus or train from Osaka airports (Itami or Kansai), which can be reached by flight from Tokyo with ANA. 

 

A Walk Through Japanese History

In 794, Kyōto was laid out based on the model of Chang’an (now known as Xi’an) — the capital of China’s Tang dynasty. This plan was incredibly unique because it called for a rectangular enclosure with a grid street pattern following very specific measurements: 3.2 miles (5.1 km) north to south and 2.8 miles (4.5 km) east to west. At its center sat the imperial residence and surrounding it were numerous government buildings. This grid system organized the city into 1,200 uniform blocks, and while the city has expanded over the years, the grid remains. 

Over time, wars and shoguns gradually shifted power from the capital city to Edo, present-day Tokyo. Edo grew in size and power largely due to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s decision to establish the Tokugawa Shogunate there in 1603. By the early 1700s, Edo was the most populated city in the world. When the final shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, gave up his power to the Emperor in 1867, Edo was also relinquished to the Emperor. Rather than trying to shift power back to Kyōto, the Emperor took over Edo Castle — which today is the Imperial Palace — officially making Edo the capital of Japan. In 1868, the city was renamed Tokyo, meaning Eastern Capital.

Preserving the Spirit of Japan

As the center of traditional Japanese culture and of Buddhism, most Japanese people try to visit Kyōto at some point in their life. So much so that approximately one-third of the country’s population visits annually. Travelers come from near and far to experience the mindfully preserved town, with its ancient buildings and deep cultural significance. 

While serving as the nation’s capital and home to the Imperial family, Kyōto became a preserver of the Japanese spirit. Traditions that are canon in Japanese culture, such as the tea ceremony, are still taught at specialized schools within the city. Kyōto is also home to schools for ikebana (a special form of flower arranging), the theatrical arts of Noh, Kabuki and traditional dance, as well as calligraphy, painting, sculpture and architecture. 

The town is so replete with cultural significance that individual people have been named ningen kokuhō  or living national treasures. A ningen kokuhō is someone who has truly exceptional skill in traditional arts and crafts. With such a concentration of artisans and cultural preservers, it’s no wonder that Kyōto has hundreds of designated national treasures and important cultural objects.  

Kyōto has five districts that are home to geishas and shikomi, or geishas-in-training. These young women preserve Japanese culture through intensive training that typically begins when they are just 14 or 15 years old. They are trained in the traditional arts like ikebana, playing the shamisen, calligraphy and theatrical arts. 

The city has long been a hub for creatives. Known for its silk weaving, pottery, lacquerware and even sake — Kyōto itself seems to foster creativity. After all, it is the birthplace of traditional Japanese drama and continues to host theatrical productions.  

 

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Kyōto has preserved Japan’s culture with such dedication that it is home to 16 historical sites, part of Japan’s World Heritage Sites. This distinction is given to landmarks or natural areas to provide legal protection and is issued by an international convention administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Not just any building or location can earn this title and protection. World Heritage Sites are “designated by UNESCO for having cultural, historical, scientific or other form of significance.” Each World Heritage Site “must be of outstanding universal value” and meet at least one out of ten additional selection criteria in relation to uniqueness, mastery, cultural tradition and more. 

Visiting Kyōto calls for a visit to at least one of these incredible locations.

 

Shimogamo-jinja Shrine

This Shinto shrine is one half of a pair, the other half being the Kamigamo-jinja Shrine. Collectively, they are known as the Kamo Shrines and were built in the sixth and seventh centuries to ward off evil spirits. 

 

Kamigamo-jinja Shrine

Located north of its partner, the Shimogamo-jinja Shrine, this shrine is one of the oldest in Kyōto. It holds significant purpose in numerous festivals, such as Aoi Matsuri, or Hollyhock Festival, in May. 

To-ji Temple

Meaning East Temple, the To-ji Temple was built after the capital was moved to Kyōto in the late 700s. Kukai (known posthumously as Kobo Daishi), the founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, was appointed head priest of To-ji — making it one of the sect’s most important and treasured temples. 

 

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Located in the hills of east Kyōto at the Otowa Waterfall, this temple was established in 780. Its main building and large deck, which overlooks a wild expanse of trees as well as the city, were built without nails. The name Kiyomizu translates to pure water.

 

Daigo-ji Temple

This temple complex stretches across an entire mountainside and features iconic Momoyama architecture. In the lower area of the complex stands a five-story pagoda — Kyōto’s oldest surviving structure. Built in 951, the pagoda has been spared from numerous fires that have devastated the temple complex over time. 

 

Ninna-ji Temple

Numerous wars and fires mean that none of the Ninna-ji Temple’s original buildings are still standing. However, the temple was rebuilt in the 1600s — keeping its history alive. Many visitors stop at the former Goten, or residence of the head priest, as it was built in the style of an imperial palace and features beautiful rock and pond gardens.

 

Byodo-in Temple

Byodo-in’s Phoenix Hall may look familiar to visitors who have exchanged their currency — it is immortalized on the 10 yen coin. Located in the town of Uji, just outside of Kyōto but within Kyōto prefecture, the temple is an exquisite example of the Heian period’s aristocratic art.

 

Ujigami-jinja Shrine

Believed to be Japan’s oldest existing shrine, Ujigami-jinja’s exact age is unknown. Located near the Uji River, Ujigami sits amid a small alcove against the hills of southern Kyōto and is considered a prime example of the most classic of Shinto architecture.   

 

Kozan-ji Temple

Located in a mountainous forest overlooking the Kiyotaki-gawa river valley, the Kozan-ji Temple is home to the oldest tea field in Japan. The priest’s residence holds significance all its own, with its thatch roof and shingles, as it is one of few remaining examples of Kamakura Period architecture. 

 

Saiho-ji Temple  

More commonly known as Koke-dera, meaning moss temple, Saiho-ji Temple is home to 120 different varieties of moss. It began as Prince Shotoku’s villa before becoming a temple, and then in 1339, it became a Zen temple under priest Muso Soseki — who is believed to have curated the moss gardens.  

 

Tenryu-ji Temple

Ranked first among Kyōto’s five great Zen temples, Tenryu-ji has its own school within the Rinzai Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism. While the buildings were destroyed by fires and rebuilt over the years, the garden has survived in its original design. 

Kinkaku-ji Temple 

Also known as The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji Temple is iconic because its top two floors are entirely covered in shimmering gold leaf. Sitting over a serene pond, the structure was originally a retirement villa for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. In his will, he asked that it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect, which it did in 1408. 

 

Ginkaku-ji Temple 

As the retirement villa for the grandson of The Golden Pavillion’s owner, this structure was modeled after its predecessor — and dubbed The Silver Pavilion. During its heyday in the 1480s, it was the center of contemporary culture. Just like Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s villa, this was also willed to become a Zen temple.   

 

Ryoan-ji Temple

Owned by the Myoshinji school of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, the Ryoan-ji Temple is home to Japan’s most famous rock gardens. The garden’s age and designer are unknown, adding to the location’s serene mystic.  

 

Nishi Hongan-ji Temple

Located in the heart of Kyōto, Nishi Hongan-ji is one of two temples that serve as the headquarters of the Jodo-Shin sect, or True Pure Land — one of Japan’s most popular Buddhist sects. It is home to the Hiunkaku Pavilion — one of the few surviving masterpieces of architecture from the Azuchi-Momoyama and early Edo Periods. 

 

Nijo-jo Castle

Home to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period, Nijo-jo Castle is a symbol of prestige. The castle’s construction began in 1601 and took 25 years to complete. Along with the garden, it was opened to the public in 1939 and tells a rich history of both Ieyasu’s life and the region.

 

Kyōto has long been a vibrant city. Home to royalty, government officials and religious leaders, for more than a century it has fostered and preserved Japan’s creativity and culture. Its history is both captivating and dynamic. It continues to protect and honor traditional crafts, religious monuments, and Japanese culture as a whole so that generations to come can experience the fullness of Japan.