The capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, KYOTO (京都) is endowed with an almost overwhelming legacy of ancient Buddhist temples, majestic palaces and gardens of every size and description, not to mention some of the country’s most important works of art, its richest culture and most refined cuisine. For many people the very name Kyoto conjures up the classic image of Japan: streets of traditional wooden houses, the click-clack of geta (traditional wooden sandals) on the paving stones, geisha passing in a flourish of brightly coloured silks and temple pagodas surrounded by cherry blossom trees.

While you can still find all these things, and much more, first impressions of Kyoto can be disappointing. Decades of haphazard urban development and a conspicuous industrial sector have affected the city, eroding the distinctive characteristics of the townscape. However, current regulations limiting the height of new buildings and banning rooftop advertising indicate that more serious thought is being given to preserving Kyoto’s visual environment. Yet, regardless of all the trappings of the modern world and the economic realities of the lingering recession, Kyoto remains notoriously exclusive, a place where outsiders struggle to peek through the centuries-thick layer of cultural sophistication into the city’s traditional soul.

The vast amount of culture and history to explore in Kyoto is mind-boggling, yet it’s perfectly possible to get a good feel for the city within a couple of days. Top priority should go to the eastern, Higashiyama, district, where the walk north from famous Kiyomizu-dera to Ginkaku-ji takes in a whole raft of fascinating temples, gardens and museums. It’s also worth heading for the northwestern hills to contemplate the superb Zen gardens of Daitoku-ji and Ryōan-ji, before taking in the wildly extravagant Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. The highlight of the central sights is Nijō-jō, a lavishly decorated seventeenth-century palace, while nearby Nijō-jin’ya is an intriguing place riddled with secret passages and hidey-holes. Also worth seeing are the imperial villas of Shūgaku-in Rikyū and Katsura Rikyū, and the sensuous moss gardens of Saihō-ji, in the outer districts. Take time to walk around the city’s old merchant quarters; one of the best is found in the central district, behind the department stores and modern shopping arcades north of Shijō-dōri, and across the river in Gion you’ll find the traditional crafts shops, selling everything from handmade bamboo blinds to geisha hair accessories, and beautiful old ryokan for which the city is justifiably famous.

The spirit of old Kyoto reveals itself in surprising places. The key to enjoying this ancient city is to leave the tourist haunts behind and delve into the quiet backstreets, to explore age-old craft shops and distinctive machiya houses or seek out the peaceful garden of some forgotten temple. However, the city is not all temples and tradition; the recently opened Kyoto International Museum of Manga, alongside the increasing number of innovative designer shops and stylish cafés, are examples of Kyoto’s modern spirit, showing how the city manages to combine its heritage with contemporary culture.

Spring and autumn are undoubtedly the best times to visit Kyoto, though also the busiest; after a chilly winter, the cherry trees put on their finery in early April, while the hot, oppressive summer months (June–Aug) are followed in October by a delightful period of clear, dry weather when the maple trees erupt into fiery reds.

Brief history

Kyoto became the imperial capital in the late eighth century when Emperor Kammu relocated the court from Nara. His first choice was Nagaoka, southwest of today’s Kyoto, but a few inauspicious events led the emperor to move again in 794 AD. This time he settled on what was to be known as Heian-kyō, “Capital of Peace and Tranquillity”. Like Nara, the city was modelled on the Chinese Tang-dynasty capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an), with a symmetrical north–south axis. By the late ninth century Heian-kyō was overflowing onto the eastern hills and soon had an estimated population of 500,000. In 894, imperial missions to China ceased and earlier borrowings from Chinese culture began to develop into distinct Japanese forms.

The city’s history from this point is something of a rollercoaster ride. In the late twelfth century a fire practically destroyed the whole place, but two centuries later the Ashikaga shoguns built some of the city’s finest monuments, among them the Golden and Silver Pavilions (Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji). Many of the great Zen temples were established at this time and the arts reached new levels of sophistication. Once again, however, almost everything was lost during the Ōnin Wars (1467–78).

Kyoto’s knight in shining armour was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who came to power in 1582 and sponsored a vast rebuilding programme. The Momoyama period, as it’s now known, was a golden era of artistic and architectural ostentation, epitomized by Kyoto’s famous Kanō school of artists, who decorated the temples and palaces with sumptuous gilded screens. Even when Tokugawa Ieyasu moved the seat of government to Edo (now Tokyo) in 1603, Kyoto remained the imperial capital and stood its ground as the nation’s foremost cultural centre.

In 1788 another huge conflagration swept through the city, but worse was to come; in 1869 the new Emperor Meiji moved the court to Tokyo. Kyoto went into shock and the economy foundered – but not for long. In the 1890s a canal was built from Biwa-ko to the city, and Kyoto, like the rest of Japan, embarked on a process of industrialization. However, the city narrowly escaped devastation at the end of World War II, when it was considered a potential target for the atom bomb. Kyoto was famously spared by American Defence Secretary Henry Stimson, who recognized the city’s supreme architectural and historical importance.

Sadly, Kyoto’s own citizens were not so mindful and post-World War II many of the city’s old buildings were sold for their land value and replaced by concrete structures or car parks. Despite continued modernization, however, a more enthusiastic approach to strengthening the city’s traditional heritage is now being adopted by its residents, not least in efforts towards attracting foreign visitors. In particular, many younger Japanese are becoming interested in not only preserving but also developing this historical legacy, evidenced by the growing number of businesses set in traditional townhouses, or machiya.

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