Kyoto is considered the repository of ancient Japanese culture.Despite modernization, Kyoto lives on as the spiritual home of the Japanese people. As Japan’s fifth-largest city, Kyoto is blessed with far more religious buildings than any other Japanese city. Towering skyscrapers juxtapose next to medieval castles, palaces, temples, shrines and beautiful gardens throughout the city. Elegant timber buildings — both religious and domestic — cluster within the urban environment as a walk down any narrow street will reveal. Because of its historic importance Kyoto was spared the destructive firebombs of World War II, unlike neighboring cities in the Kansai region. There are hundreds of Shinto shrines and well over a thousand Buddhist temples preserved in Kyoto, many of them officially designated as national treasures or housing national treasures.
Kyoto was the political seat of power to emperor and shogun alike. In most dynasties the emperor was controlled by the shogun military elite, a succession of powerful families who exercised absolute control from medieval times until 1868. Among Kyoto’s many famous landmarks is the old Imperial Palace, which for more than a millennium, from 794 CE to 1868, was the capital of Japan and home to the omnipotent emperor. Though simply designed and decorated, the palace has a rich history. The city and palace came alive during the lavish ceremonies when emperors were enthroned. The emperor was historically the spiritual leader and the most respected individual in Japan. The present Imperial Palace dates from 1855, rebuilt after the previous buildings were destroyed by fire. The present complex was reconstructed exactly the same as before, thus preserving their national heritage. In sharp contrast with the rather bland Imperial Palace is the elabo-rately decorated Nijo Castle. Built in 1603 by Tokugawa Ieyasu, it contains priceless paintings and decorations. A unique feature of the castle is a specially constructed floor near the inner apartment of the shogun. The floor emits a high, sighing sound when stepped upon to ward off anyone approaching, or “anti-assassination whispers.” The exquisite landscape inside the Nijo Castle walls is especially renowned.
Nationally regarded sacred temples abound in Kyoto. Two of the city’s most photographed buildings are the Kinkakuji, or Golden Pavilion, and the Ginkakuji, or Silver Pavilion. These two famous structures were originally the residence of local shogun, but they have since been converted into Buddhist temples. Almost as popular as the two metallic-covered buildings themselves are the gardens attached. Nearly every structure of note in Kyoto, including the Imperial Palace and Nijo Castle, features a lovely garden, and Kyoto gardens are famous through-out the country. Perhaps the most renowned garden is attached to the Ryoanji Temple, a landscape that contains no trees or plants. It achieves its design by the artistic placement of rocks and stones on a field of white sand. Another garden, totally different in concept, is attached to the Heian Shrine, one of the most important buildings in Kyoto. Built in 1895 to commemorate the 1,100 th anniversary of the city, the shrine is patterned after the first Imperial Palace and the buildings are brightly colored and decorated. The charming garden at Heian Shrine is noted for its cherry trees and irises. Most Japanese people consider the cherry tree to be the most beautiful tree in the country, and every spring there are gala cherry tree blossom parties, especially near the holy Heian Shrine.
Getting to Kyoto
Kyoto is a modern metropolitan city easily accessed by train or roadway from other major cities in Japan. Most travelers who fly into the country to visit Kyoto arrive in nearby Osaka Airport, which is only an hour subway ride from downtown Kyoto. The ancient city of Kyoto is a world-renowned artist and traveler mecca. A popular walkway on the eastern side of the city is called the Path of Philosophy.