The History of Kyoto

In December, 2011, as part of a project on my old blog, I created a massive video detailing the history of Kyoto––abridged, certainly––that tried to focus more on the cultural elements rather than the political. I’ve decided to repost that video here, as I find myself going back to it every now and then. Even though the audio is fairly poor, I’m still proud of this project, and may someday go back and redub it.

Transcript from the episode:

Within the eastern hemisphere inside the country of Japan and nestled by the Kansai region is a city known as Kyoto.

Kyoto City is home to 1.4 million people, and is situated to the east of the Tamba Highlands, also known as the Yamashiro Basin. It is surrounded on three sides by the mountains Higashiyama, Kitayama and Nishiyama and has three major rivers as well. The most famous of these, the Kamo River, is Kyoto’s central river, running through the main vein of the city, with the Katsura River flanking the west and the Uji River running in the south. To the east is the largest lake in Japan, Lake Biwa, measuring some 670 square kilometers (or about 416 square miles). Kyoto’s official trees are the weeping willow, Takao maple and Katsura pine tree and the Azalea, camelia, and cherry blossom are its official flowers.

The climate of Kyoto is typical of cities found within basins. It is a humid, subtropical climate and experiences all four seasons. The city is famous for its plum and cherry blossoms in spring, while Summers are incredibly humid. In late fall, the leaves change into deep reds and yellows. In winter, it often snows in the north.

Kyoto City’s crest is a pictogram of one of the kanji used in its name (京), meaning capital. The purple wheel it is set against represents the wheel of a court carriage, and the purple and gold symbolize the old capital. Kyoto City is still greatly respected today for its imprint on Japanese society and culture.

Although Kyoto was established as the capital of Japan in 794, at the end of the nara period, many places in the city predate this, including Shimogamo Shrine, believed to have been established in the 6th century, several hundred years before its sister shrine, Kamigamo, which was founded in 678 by the Hata clan. As well, in 711, Fushimi Inari Shrine was established.

An interesting fact is that the Kojiki, an Imperial  work recording Japanese mythology and legendary history, was written in Nara during 712 under the request of Empress Genmei, the 43rd Emperor of Japan.  There have only been 6 empresses in its entire history.

Emporer Kanmu’s decision to move the capital to Kyoto was spurred on by Kyoto’s auspicious topography, easy river and road access, as well as strategic natural defenses in the form of mountains and rivers. Of course, in this time period, Kyoto was known as Heian, which may be translated as “Tranquility” or “Peaceful Mind”. Heian period saw the height of Buddhism and Taoism before they both had major reforms in the Muromachi period.

Nonetheless, it is for the Imperial Court which Heian is most famous, both for its art, poetry and literature, as well as the gripping struggles among the Imperial house and the Fujiwara Clan. It was also during this period that the Samurai class began to emerge.

Heian Period’s literature is considered to be the golden age of Japan’s classical literature, with works such as The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu. This year, Genji Monogatari has hit the big screen in its newest adaptation (name). The Tale of Genji is an important work of literature for the world, as it is considered by many to be the oldest piece of writing composed in the form of what is considered ‘the novel’.

Other works from the period include the waka poetry anthology known as the Kokinshu, or Kokin Wakashu, a followup to the Nara period’s Manyoshu, which was also the first Imperially requested poetry collection, and Makura no Soshi, Sei Shonogan’s Pillowbook, a collection of humorous diary entries, lists and essays on life in the emporer’s court. One of the most famous folktales of Japan was also written during this time, The tale of the bamboo cutter. In late Heian, the pangram poem, Iroha, was composed, which contains every single character of the Japanese syllabry exactly once.


Iro wa nioedo
Chirinuru o
Wa ga yo tare zo
Tsune naramu
Ui no okuyama
Kyō koete
Asaki yume miji
Ei mo sezu.


In the realm of art, Heian saw in its Buddhist art and architecture the introduction of elements from Vajrayana buddhism, including mandalas and stupas, which were integrated into its Chinese Pagoda structures, such as the pagoda at Ichijo-ji in Kyoto and Muro-ji in Nara. e-maki was also being developed, most well noted for the artistic style it presented in conveying the Floating World and Japan’s historic battles, as well as its extensive use of gold leaf. Other crafts of the period include Yuzen dying, a textile product using stencils and rice paste, Lacquer (pause), and paper-making (an important aspect of Heian’s poetic court).

The Heian period ended in 1185 with the defeat of the Taira by the Minamoto clan in the Genpei wars, and ushered in the Kamakura Period, which would continue until 1336. At this time, the capital moved to Kamakura, which is near modern day Tokyo. The stories of this war are romantically recounted in the epic poem The Tale of Heike, another important work of Japanese literature. This was the beginning  of the shogunate in Japan.

Other notable works of literature in this era include Kamo no Chomei’s Hojoki and Yoshida Kenko’s Essays in Idleness. Both show an intense departure from the flowery Buddhism of Heian Period. They are both examples of zuihitsu essays, a type of free-form writing which were often drafted in self-imposed isolation. At the same time, renga, or Japanese linked verse, began to appear, as well as the stylings of Noh theatre, which saw its greatest expansion in the Muromachi period,

The art of this era saw superb improvements in sculpture, of which Kyoto prefecture has many well-preserved examples. Perhaps some of the most famous are the wooden statues at Todai-ji in Nara by Master Unkei of the Kei school of sculptors. As well, improvements in metalwork allowed for a more stylized sword, or katana, for soldiers of the period.

The failed Mongol invasions during Kamakura  helped the evolution of the blade into something narrower, which allowed the Japanese military to cut through the Mongol’s light armor. Though, the threat of the mongols was short lived, as the Mongol armies were swept away by typhoons slicing up along the Japan Sea both times they tried to invade.

In 1333, the Kamakura shogunate was destroyed after 150 years in power by Nitta Yoshisada, those years having been besought by war, earthquakes, typhoons, and tsunamis. Directly following was the startling brief Kenmu Restoration, in which the capital was returned to Kyoto and the seat of power was handed back to the emporer. This ended abruptly at the start of the Muromachi Period in 1337, four years later, when a messenger from Ming China arrived in Japan announcing Ashikaga Yoshimitsu as the ruler over all of Japan.

During this period, Kyoto saw another surge of temple constructions via the Ashikaga clan, including Tenryuji Temple, Muromachi Palace, Kinkakuji, Myoshin-ji Ryoanji and Ginkakuji. To put this into perspective, Myoshin-ji was being built during the time when the Black Death was spreading across Europe, and Ginkaku-ji was built only ten years before Columbus sailed to America.

At the same time, Noh was flourishing under Kanami, with his son Zeami. In 1500, the Gion Festival was ressurected by the people of Kyoto. As well, Japanese Tea ceremony was being developed by Sen-no-Rikyu. Parts of the grounds within which Sen-no-Rikyu took his own life under the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi can be found at Nishi-Honganji in southern Kyoto.

Nishi-honganji is in fact a relocated castle from Osaka, and was taken apart and rebuilt in Kyoto by Hideyoshi in 1591. In the same year, Hideyoshi also sanctioned the building of an entire town comprised of temples, Teramachi, and three years later, the construction of Fushimi Castle. However, two years later, The Great Keicho Earthquake caused much damage to Kyoto and then, in 1600, in the Battle of Sekigahara, Japan was unified for the first time under the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

As one of his first acts as Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu constructed Nijo Castle, which is one of the best preserved castles in the Kansai area. This was also the beginning of the Edo Period, which meant a great decline for landmark historical moments within Kyoto. Kyoto got along quietly for over 100 years following the beginning of Tokugawa’s reign, though in 1788, the Great Fire of Tenmei destroyed most of the city.

This fire began on March 6th at 3am, raged uncontrolled for 2 days, and was not fully extinguished until heavy rain fell on March 11th. The entire imperial court fled the city, and the Imperial palace was destroyed. In the aftermath of the fire, no other re-construction was allowed until the palace was rebuilt.

86 years later, in 1864, another fire resulting from the Hamaguri-Gomon battle left two thirds of the city destroyed. Three years later, formal political power was restored to the emperor after the assassination of Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro at Nijo Castle. Sakamoto Ryoma is an important figure in Kyoto, as he was the leader of the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate. He died at the age of 33, and is buried at Ryozen Gokoku Shrine, a shrine which honors the heroes of Japan. Statues of Ryoma can be found all throughout Kyoto.

At the start of the Meiji Era in 1868, power was restored to the emperor, but the capital remained in Tokyo. The Meiji era saw many educational advancements for Kyoto, including Japan’s first public art school, first public girl’s school and the first primary school in Japan. The Lake Biwa Canal was also completed, and Kyoto’s Keage area was the first place in Japan to begin the transmission of electricity.

In 1895, the first Jidai Matsuri, or festival of the ages was held. This was in part due to Kyoto’s concern that her former glory would be forgotten with the move of the emperor to Kyoto, and so Heian Shrine was also built, for the purpose of enshrining Emperor Kanmu’s spirit. The festival is a parade enjoyed by thousands every year, who flock to Kyoto to see the procession of people dressed in authentic costumes and representing feudal characters in Japan’s history.

Towards the end of the Meiji period, the Kyoto City Zoo was opened, being the second zoo in all of Japan. It is still a popular destination for children today.

In Showa, Kyoto saw much more modernization, especially in the transportation sector with their buses, trolleys and subways. Kyoto was the first city in Japan to assemble a Symphony Orchestra as well and implement a stricter code for recycling.

Now, in the Heisei period, Kyoto is regarded as one of the most culturally and historically important places in Japan, holding an impressive 17 World Heritage Sites, many of which have been discussed here. It is a city of the old and the new, and holds fast to its roots while inviting many other cultures under its wing. This is Kyoto, truly Japan’s heartland.

5 thoughts on “The History of Kyoto

  1. Thank you! I'm glad you like it! ^__^ It took forever to make (over a month because I kept getting discouraged) and I'm only satisfied with the voice over until 2:02, but it's not bad for a first try! Hahaha.


  2. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment
    but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr…

    well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless, just wanted to say fantastic


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