Kyoto: A Brief History of a Timeless City

Kyoto: A Brief History of a Timeless City

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Kiyomizudera in Kyoto
Picture: adigosts / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Learn about the history and tradition behind the temples and shrines that make up Japan's largest cultural tourist attraction.

The former capital of Japan, Kyoto is still recognized today as the center of ancient Japanese culture. It is one of the few areas of Japan that has retained its historical traditions and appearance. Home to about 20% of Japan’s National Treasures and 15% of Japan’s Important Cultural Properties, it is easy to see why so many flock here annually for a trip back in time to experience the history of Kyoto.

Kyoto is the birthplace of many of Japan’s traditional arts, many of which are still actively performed and practiced. Yet while many are aware of the famous shrines, temples, and traditional arts of Kyoto, how many people understand the significance of these places?

There are way too many beautiful and historic landmarks in Kyoto to cover in a single article. However we will take a look at some of Kyoto’s most important cultural structures, as well as the depth of history beyond their aesthetic appeal.


Temples & Shrines of Kyoto

Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion) in winter. (Picture: Tara-san / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Kyoto is the city in Japan that houses the most temples and shrines in a single place. There are over 1,600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto shrines. Many of Japan’s most famous spiritual structures live in Kyoto, most of which still retain their old-fashioned architecture. 

The most well-known of these are Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, and Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion, as well as Kiyomizu-dera, Tenryu-ji, and the Yasaka Pagoda, amongst many others. Of course, there is also Kyoto Imperial Palace, which dates back to around 1855. We will take a look at some of these structures by period in a moment.

Most of the buildings you see today are recreations and restorations of the originals. Most of the originals succumbed to disasters such as wars, earthquakes, and fires. Nonetheless, each restoration has always remained true to its original style. This is why even the most recently reconstructed buildings look just as authentic as the old. There may not even be a difference to the untrained eye.

These shrines and temples are also home to some of the most important artworks of Japan. Many of these, both the structures and the artworks, are also National Treasures . You can sometimes find some of the artworks on display at one of Kyoto’s numerous museums or cultural centers.


A History of Kyoto by Period

Heian Period (794~1185)

The history of Kyoto goes back for centuries, before it was even Kyoto. The city served many different roles throughout history, sometimes under different names. Years 794 to 1185 marked the Heian Period. At this time, it was Heian-kyo. Heian-kyo served as the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years. 

While archaeological records show signs of civilization from before this period, we know very little about them. The Heian Period marked the beginning of Kyoto’s documented history, beginning with the Korean settlers who brought sericulture and silk craft to the Japanese people.

Understand the Heian Period in 5 Minutes

The oldest existing Shinto shrine in Japan dates back to this time period: the Shimogamo Shrine. Though the exact date is unknown, it dates back to the 6th century, and is one of the seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto. It is the older of a pair of shrines (by about 100 years), the other named Kamigamo Shrine.

The oldest temple, Koriyu-ji, also dates back to the same period (603). The Ho-o-do (Phoenix Hall) of Byodo-in Temple is another Heian structure that still retains some of its original architecture from 1052.

In 794, then-emperor Kanmu reconstructed the layout of the city, modeling the roads in a grid layout that still exists today. This layout was based on the Chinese model of the Tang Dynasty, strategically positioning the Imperial Palace as well as surrounding buildings in areas of  protection, from both outside attacks, as well as evil spirits, according to superstition, 

However, regardless of the strategic placements and strong protection, the ruling Taira clan’s power would eventually end with the Genpei War (1180-1185), ushering in the Kamakura Period under Minamoto Yoritomo in 1192.

Kamakura Period (1185~1333)

The Kamakura Period extended from 1185-1333. This period marks Japan’s transition from its “medieval” times to a more modernized government. For Japan, this meant moving from an Imperially controlled system to one ruled by the new samurai warrior class. 

After a fight for power between the two most powerful clans, the Minamoto Genji and Taira Heike, the Heike seized control of Kyoto, and all of Japan. Around 1220, another struggle emerged between the rulers of Kyoto and Kamakura. During this Feudal Period of Japan (1192-1886), power would shift between the warlords and the shogun.

The citizens of old built some of the most important and oldest structures that still exist today during this time. Kennin-ji stands as one of Kyoto’s Five Great Zen Temples of the Gozan Mountain System, originally built in 1202. 

This time period also brought about the famous Tofuku-ji Temple in 1236. The main Sanmon Gate is a registered National Treasure, and the oldest Zen main gate in Japan. (Restored in 1425 after a fire). The temple’s Honbo Garden is also a designated “National Site of Scenic Beauty.”

Muromachi Period (1336~1573)

The Zen garden of Ryouanji (竜安寺) in Kyoto. (Picture: gandhi / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

The Muromachi Shogunate came into power in 1336 and lasted until 1573. The Muromachi Period got its name from the district of Kyoto (still Heian-kyo) where the rulers established their headquarters at the Imperial Courts. Though a period of political unrest, Japan saw great cultural advancements. Many of these were directly influenced by Zen Buddhism.

Some of Kyoto’s most notable temples date back to this 200 year period. The famous Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) are popular examples, built in 1397 and 1490 respectively. (Kinkaku-ji underwent reconstruction in 1955.)

Other notable temples and Zen structures of this time period are the Ryoan-ji Zen temple (1450), famous for its beautiful Zen garden and a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site; and the Daitoku-ji Temple.

Daitoku-ji Temple was originally a smaller Zen temple (1319). After facing destruction in a fire, Zen Master Ikkyu Sojun restored the temple to its former glory, several times larger than its original form. It is now known as one of the structures that houses temples within temples. Inside the vicinity you will also find the Ryogen-in Temple, Zuiho-in Temple, Koto-in Temple, Daisen-in, amongst several other temples, shrines, and Zen rock gardens.

Hosokawa Katsumoto: The Architectural Genius Behind the Temples

Hosokawa Katsumoto was a deputy to the shogun during the Muromachi Period, and a member of the family that served the Ashikaga shogunate from 1338 to 1573. He is famous for his architectural genius, as well as his powerful military role during the Onin War.

Hosokawa was also an architectural genius, famous for the temples and structures he built under the influence of Zen Buddhism, which he devoted the later period of his life to. Hosokawa was responsible for much of the beautiful Zen architecture we see in surviving temples today. Having studied under a tea master, he was also famous for his tea ceremony rooms.

Though the Muromachi Period was a time of great construction, Kyoto also faced great destruction. The Onin Civil war lasted for about 10 years. During this time, many of Kyoto’s great, historic building experienced heavy damage, including the Imperial Palace and much of the city itself.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573~1603)

The Azuchi-Momoyama Period lasted from 1573 to 1603, and was the last part of the Sengoku Period. It began after Oda Nobunaga seized control and established himself in Kyoto, and continued through a series of civil wars and battles for power.

NIshi-Honganji is one of the structures of this time period, a Buddhist Temple and one of two Buddhist complexes in Kyoto. (The other is Higashi-Honganji). Though established in 1591, its origins date back to the 14th century. Kotoin Temple, a sub-temple of Daitokuji Temple, was constructed by Hosokawa Tadaoki in 1601, and is home to several National Treasures. It is notable as a center of Zen spirit and Japanese tea ceremony culture.

The period saw its end during the year 1600 Battle of Sekigahara, when Tokugawa Ieyasu became the new shogun of Japan. He then established the Edo Period, which lasted until 1868.

Edo Period (1603~1868)

One of Kyoto’s most popular tourist attractions: the line of gates (torii) leading to the Fushimi-Inari shrine. (Picture: gandhi / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

The Edo Period at last brought some long-awaited peace to Japan. The political center shifted from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo) as the new Imperial Capital. For nearly 250 years, the city could flourish in peace, and civilization made many advancements. 

For Kyoto, the development of traditional cultural and arts took precedence. With the entire country now closed off to foreign influence, Japan greatly advanced in terms of traditional arts and cultural developments.

Even the transportation and communication systems improved under the Tokugawa rule. Kyoto marked the western end of the Tokaido Road that connected both cities. This road also lead to the development of Japan’s modern-day postal service.

During the Edo period, a custom began in which people would donate a torii gate to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine, and request a prayer to be granted. The Fushimi-Inari Shrine is one of the most famous shrines in Japan. Though it was originally built in 711, the main hall was constructed in 1499. This shrine honors Inari, the deity of rice.  There are currently about 1,000 torii gates leading up the path.

despite the temporary disappearance of war in this time, Kyoto still experienced several hardships that would see the demise of several cultural structures. The Great Tenmei Fire of 1788 once again destroyed the Imperial Palace and many other important structures, leading the once again to the need of reconstruction.

Meiji Period (1868~1912) and Beyond

During the Meiji Period, Japan’s doors opened once again. The Meiji Emperor continued his residence in the new capital, Edo, and used his new influence to advance technologically and assimilate more western ideas. Amongst these changes were the structure of the government, and the layout of the cities. New transportation methods and communications developed. 

The 2,000 Buddha statues of the Adashino-Nenbutsu-ji Shrine were also gathered during this period, between 1981 and 1991. Each Buddha statue is unique from the others, carved by different sculptors. 

Though currently located in the Arashiyama area, the Adashino-Nenbutsu Shrine was originally founded in Higashiyama in the Heian Period (around 770) by Empress Shotoku. It was reconstructed and relocated to its current location after a flood destroyed the original grounds. The main hall dates back to the Kamakura Period.

WW2 and Present-Day Kyoto

Though much of Japan faced destruction during WW2, Kyoto remained untouched through most of the war. Because of this, many of its historical treasures also survived. In a sense, Kyoto now exists as a cultural oasis for the rest of Japan.

Today, Kyoto has maintained much of its traditional atmosphere in its old-fashioned buildings. Even the streets have kept their original grid pattern of numbered streets and avenues. Many of the structures have even been granted National Treasure and Important Cultural Heritage status by UNESCO.

Culture and Commerce

Kyoto has seen many cultural and economical developments since the beginning of its time. Today, it is one of the centers of the Keihanshin Industrial Region. 

The history of Kyoto developed on thousands of small, mostly family-run businesses. Even to this day, traditional handicraft, silk weaving, textile and fabric, embroidery, and other small businesses abound. Many of these have survived for generations, and are now intertwined as one individual facet of culture. Even the performing arts still active within the ever-flourishing entertainment district in the city of Gion. 

Gion is another one of Kyoto’s spots that have retained its historic image, as well as Pontocho District. You can still find many of the authentic, traditional arts that were born here, including geisha and maiko.

Because of the abundance of small businesses and historical influences, the economy of Kyoto is heavily reliant on tourism. The sad fact is that many of these businesses are obsolete. If it weren’t for its attraction to “outsiders,” it would be very difficult to keep Kyoto thriving without completely modernizing.

Culture and Tradition

The residents of Kyoto have great pride in their culture. Residents have taken great measures to keep their economy running without risking tradition. One of these ways is through preservation of their culture and arts.

One example is Ajiki Alley. Ajiki Alley is one of the backstreets of Kyoto, still maintaining its old-fashioned style.  In order to keep it running, the owner of the property now rents out the residences to young artists. This helps preserve both the culture and the economy.

A stroll through the alley today will reveal plenty of small, personal and family-owned businesses. Most are operated by people under 35. The landlady hopes that this movement will not only keep the economy alive through these small businesses, but also to inspire young creatives to continue their traditions.

The Performing Arts

Kyoto is still an active center for theatrics and performing arts. This would make sense, considering it is where traditional Japanese drama, such as Noh and Kabuki, were born. You can still experience authentic performances of each of these in one of the many theaters in the vicinity. 

Minami Theater traditionally holds an annual opening ceremony to welcome the new Kabuki season. There are many other celebrations and festivals throughout the year in Kyoto as well, in honor or these and other types of traditional Japanese arts.

Professional sumo wrestling and Haiku poetry, pioneered by master poet Matsuo Basho, are amongst some of the other forms of art and culture born out of Kyoto.


Despite seeing rapid industrialization since the end of the war, Kyoto has managed to keep its historical aesthetic intact. Even today, Kyoto stands as one of Japan’s most important cultural and educational centers. 

Though heavily reliant on tourism to keep the economy strong in spite of its old-fashioned atmosphere, Japan has taken certain measures in order to prevent tradition becoming lost in modernization and over-tourism.

By learning more about the history of Kyoto and the cultural importance of its beautiful structures, we too can play a part in preserving its traditions, even if that part is simply to educate ourselves and make an effort to respect and share it.

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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