Telephone area code: (0)75
Automotive symbol: 京都市
Surface area: 827,83 Km2
The ideograms that represent Kyoto literally mean “capital city,” and this was actually the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, right up to 1868 when the capital was moved to Edo, which was subsequently renamed Tokyo, meaning “eastern capital.”
The city, which was modelled on Chang’an, the Chinese capital under the Tang Dynasty, was built on the model of a chess-board which is somewhat reminiscent of the ancient Roman cities which were built on the models of thistles and the Decumanus style of city planning
The horizontal streets cut across the River Kamo which is the city’s main conduit and together with the other two rivers, the Katsurakawa and the Ujikawa water reservoir, in the past, provided a navigable waterway. The subsoil is still well irrigated and in the northern part of the city, the palaces are still intermingled with rice paddies and you can hear the frogs croaking during the rainy season.
Kyoto still maintains its fundamental ancient structure and the roads that run from west to east have kept their old names which follows the progressive numbering from Ichijo, the first street, to Jujo, the tenth street.
These ten parallel streets are in turn crossed perpendicularly by important roads which themselves constitute the main traffic arteries of the city.
The area between Sanjo (third street) and Shijo (fourth street) bordered by the perpendicular Kawaramachi street and Karasuma street are seen as the centre of the city and are home to both the city’s night-life and its shopping centre.
Also of particular importance is the area between Shichijo (seventh street) and Hachijo, (eighth street) where the station is located.
A visit to this city requires a minimum of two days due to the presence of so many places of great historical and cultural interest within the city and its immediate surroundings. For those who only have one day available, you will need to juggle your preferences depending on your interests, the time of year or maybe by concentrating on one area rather than another.
The eastern side of Kyoto is particularly rich in temples and places to visit. One of the most important temples is Kiyomizudera, (literally meaning “Temple of Pure Water from an interior waterfall).
This became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1994 along with another group of monuments in Kyoto. The temple’s main room was built without using any nails.
Particularly well known for the display of cherry blossom in spring time and the acers in autumn, these are flood-lit (illuminating the trees and glimpses of the temple) at nightfall which is a very popular excursion to experience.
The water from the three springs inside is held to be beneficial for everyone for different reasons: love, studies and longevity.
In the central room of the temple, Kannon of the eleven faces is venerated.
The National Museum
Also in the same area and of particular interest is the National Museum of Kyoto which, together with the Tokyo, Nara and Kyushu museums is amongst the four most important museums in the country. Here you can see a vast collection of artistic masterpieces and artefacts representing various periods throughout Japanese history. There are also frequent exhibitions which are also worth visiting. The museum building itself is a wonderful example of western-style architecture from the Meiji period.
Sanjusangendo was originally built in 1164 and subsequently rebuilt a century later after it was destroyed by fire. The main room of the central building, with a length of 120 metres, is the longest in Japan. The original name of the temple was Rengeo-in (temple of the Lotus King). The name Sanjusangendo refers to the 33 spaces between the principal building’s pillars, (33 being a sacred number in Buddhism).
In the main building, the large statue of Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy, is flanked by 1000 statues (500 on either side) which are each the size of a human being.
The Kannon of Sanjusangendo is the Kannon of 1000 arms and 11 faces. According to Buddhist iconography, the 11 faces are looking in all directions to see where help is needed and the thousand arms represent the many ways and forms which help can take (each statue has 42 arms, which, when multiplied by the 25 worlds minus two arms, gives a total of 1000).
Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji
The golden pavilion or Kinkakuji is an iconic location and one of the most popular in Kyoto. Commissioned by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1408 it is an elegant building on three floors. The two uppermost floors are covered in gold leaf.
The Kinkakuji stands on a beautiful large pond and has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over. The last time was in 1955 after it was burned down by a monk with psychiatric problems.
After the death of Yoshimitsu by his own hand, it became a temple of the Zen Rinzai sect.
The silver pavilion was commissioned by Yoshimasa, the grandson of Yoshimitsu, in the eastern part of the city.
The name of the beautiful pavilion is linked to the golden pavilion but derived its name from the silver reflections of the moon that were mirrored in the pool rather than because of any use of silver in the building’s construction.
The Ginkakuji was the centre of a refined artistic and cultural movement that was under the influence of Zen Buddhism which has had an enduring influence on Japanese culture.
In the northwest of the city is the home of the most famous Zen Rock Garden in Japan. Of enigmatic significance, there are those who say that the rocks represent a tigress and her cubs. Whichever position you look at the 15 rocks from, at least one cannot be seen.
Another important destination in Kyoto is the Shinto Shrine of Inari, the god of rice cultivation and commerce. Particularly impressive is the alley made up of 1000 Shinto torii, (gateways) which you have to walk along in order to reach the main place of worship.
Daigoji and Toji
Are both very important temples of two branches of Shingon Buddhism and they are both designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the first, which is not far from the station of Yamashina, there is a particularly beautiful garden, especially in the autumn. The five-storey pagoda within the temple area was built in 951 and is the oldest building in Kyoto which has remained intact without having to be rebuilt.
The Toji Temple to the south of the central station was built shortly after the founding of the new capital and dedicated to Kobo Daishi, the founder in Japan of the Shingon sect.
This pagoda, also on five storeys, with a height of 56 metres, is the largest pagoda in Japan and is a building that is symbolic of Kyoto.
The Royal Palace and Nijo Castle
The Imperial Palace was the Emperor’s seat before the court moved to Tokyo in 1868. The various buildings are situated in a large park that is open to the public which is often visited for its beauty alone. It is not possible to enter the buildings in order to see inside. Nijo Castle was commissioned by the Tokugawa as their residence when they were staying in Kyoto. Its closeness to the Imperial Palace wasn’t an accident but deliberate because of the prestige and control over the imperial court that being nearby afforded.
As part of UNESCO’s endowment, it is considered to be one of the best-preserved castles in the whole of Japan.
The Gion district is at the top of Shijo between the Kamo river and Higashiyama-oj, (one of the wards of Kyoto). It is a quaint neighbourhood that is made up of traditional houses that are typically Japanese.
A lot of tourists make a trip to Gion in the hopes of seeing a geisha or a maiko (an apprentice geiko).
Due to the beliefs focussed on contamination, the Japanese tended to change the seat of their capital on the death of the Emperor or at times that coincided with events that were considered to be unlucky such as famines or epidemics.
When the administrative structure started to become more complex and the cities grew larger, this custom became extraordinarily expensive and, also thanks to the influence of Chinese culture, a fixed location for the capital became a matter of stability.
Due to this, the court established itself at Nara which remained the capital for more than fifty years.
The Emperor Kanmu ascended to the throne in 781 A.D., and wanted to free himself from the interference of the powerful Buddhist clergy of Nara, so he moved the capital first to Nagaoka, not far from Kyoto and then in 791, he founded Heian kyo (the capital of peace and tranquillity) in the valley of the river Kamo. Heian kyo would subsequently be known as Kyoto (capital city) or Miyako (which is another word for “capital”).
The following four centuries would be known as the “Heian period” taking the name of the capital for this period of history.
The city is a natural fortress protected by three mountains to the north, east and west, (Kitayama, Nishi yama and Higashiyama) and by the presence of three rivers: the Kamo which crossed the heart of the city, the Katsurakawa river to the west and the Ujikawa to the south which guaranteed a means of transport and the provision of water.
The Heian period lasted from the foundation of Kyoto in 794 until 1185 with the foundation of the Shogunate of Kamakura (1185 – 1333).
Kyoto always maintained her role as the capital and the seat of the Emperor even when the political power moved to Kamakura.
When power passed into the hands of the Ashikaga family, the centre of power moved back to Kyoto again (albeit during this period it was impossible to speak of a very strong central power).
The Muromachi period which lasted from 1392 to 1573, takes its name from the district to the north west of Kyoto which is where the general headquarters of the Ashikaga had been in earlier times.
Although this was a period of political instability, the Muromachi era was a colourful period in which the economy was developed and there was a consolidation of the arts that had become known as a “traditional” part of Japanese culture such as that of the gardens, Noh theatre and the tea ceremony.
The strengthening of the local lords brought about a civil war which was known as the Onin war which resulted in the destruction of a large part of Kyoto.
The city was rebuilt by Hideyoshi, one of the great unifiers of Japan, towards the end of the period during which the states were warring (1467-1603)
During the Edo period, Kyoto remained as the imperial seat and a religious centre of great importance.
When the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1865, the city was still at the forefront of the process of innovation but was now better known above all as a centre for education.
The first elementary school was started in Kyoto followed by numerous universities and schools. Even today, it is second only to Tokyo for the number of educational institutions and universities.
Being spared from the bombings of World War II has enabled Kyoto to maintain intact a large part of its artistic heritage and to still be for the Japanese, the place that is symbolic of their traditional culture and craftsmanship.