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The Rokkakudô, established in the early 7th century, as seen through the glass walls of a Starbuck's.
  • Japanese: 京都 (Kyouto)
  • Other names: 平安京 (Heian-kyou), 京市 (Keishi), 都 (Miyako), 京 (Kyou, or Miyako), 洛陽 (Rakuyou)

Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan from 794 to 1869, though the archipelago was governed from elsewhere during the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Tokugawa shogunates (1603-1868). It served as a major cultural and religious center throughout history, and continues to do so today, playing an important role economically as well during various periods.

Though commonly known as Kyoto today, and though some documents as old as 988 refer to the city in that way,[1] the city was historically far more commonly called by other names. Established as Heian-kyô (i.e. the Heian capital), after which the Heian Period (794-1185) of history is named, the city was frequently called Miyako or Keishi, both of which can be translated as "capital city," through the Edo Period. It was also referred to as Rakuyô, in metaphorical comparison to the Chinese capital of Luoyang, which is also called Rakuyô in Japanese.[2] This reference is seen, too, in the genre of paintings known as rakuchû rakugaizu (lit. "images inside & outside of Raku").


Model of the Heian Imperial Palace and parts of the city as they might have looked in the Heian period. Reproduction at Kyoto City Heiankyo Sosei-Kan Museum.

Kyoto was built on the model of the Chinese city of Chang'an (today called Xi'an), its location carefully chosen and layout carefully arranged according to Chinese concepts of geomancy. The center of the city is for the most part laid out in a grid, with the Imperial Palace at the center, its gates facing the cardinal directions. A main boulevard called Suzaku-ôji ran directly south from the Palace's south gate, the Suzakumon, to the Rajômon, the southern gate of the official city boundaries.Buddhist temples in the mountains on the eastern side of the city (the Higashiyama area) were purposefully erected there to defend the city from spiritual dangers and corruptive forces which are traditionally believed to flow from that direction.

The Kamo River, which enters the city from the north and passes between the two Kamo Shrines (Kamigamo and Shimogamo Shrines) near the northern edge of the ancient city, originally marked the eastern edge of Heian-kyô, though the city later expanded beyond it.

Historically, the city was, for the most part, divided simply into areas associated with the Court, those controlled by temples & shrines, and the rest. However, beginning in the late 16th to early 17th century, Kyoto came to be geographically more strictly divided according to social status. Nijô castle, constructed in 1626 to the southwest of the Imperial Palace, was intended to serve as a shogunal palace, though no shogun visited Kyoto between the 1630s and the 1860s. Nevertheless, the shogunate's administrative buildings in the city were crowded around Nijô castle, along with the residences of many samurai families. The mansions of court nobles were, for the most part, relocated to be clustered around the Imperial Palace. Merchants and artisans gathered in certain neighborhoods, and areas on the edges of the city were designated for the eta and hinin, the lowest classes, who were considered non-human and inherently impure.

Roughly half of the daimyô in Tokugawa Japan, that is, at least 105 of them, maintained mansions in Kyoto, operated by a rusuiyaku when the lord was not present.[3]

  • Higashiyama
  • Other temples of note
  • Gion, other cultural centers

Nishijin, an area to the west of the Imperial Palace, with its center to the north of Shinmachi-Imadegawa, has remained the premier textile district in Japan for centuries.

The Shimabara was established in 1640 as a licensed pleasure district, geographically consolidating licensed prostitution in the city within a walled area between Gojô and Shichijô avenues in southwestern Kyoto.


The main gate to Heian Shrine, established 1895, but based on the architectural style of the Heian Imperial Palace of the 8th-12th centuries.
The Silver Pavilion at Ginkaku-ji, and rock garden, built by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa in 1482.
The Owari-ya soba shop, established 1465.

Heian-kyô was built with the express purpose of becoming the seat of Imperial power, and became the capital in 794, marking the end of the Nara Period. It quickly grew into a great city of one or two hundred thousand people, including a few thousand kuge (court nobles). The Heian period city consisted chiefly of large wooden mansions of the elites, which also housed numerous servants and the like; commoners less closely associated with the elites lived mostly in bark-and-wattle homes in the backstreets.[4]

It served as the political capital, and as the economic, religious, and cultural center of the archipelago, until 1185, when the Minamoto clan established the first shogunate in Kamakura. Kyoto would continue to be of great importance economically, culturally, and religiously, but would not, with brief exceptions, serve again as the sole political center.

Kyoto saw much violence and destruction over the centuries, both from wars and battles, as well as from natural disasters. Various rebellions of the late Heian period, along with significant elements of the Genpei War of the 12th century and Nanboku-chô Wars of the 14th century, took place in Kyoto. However, the city saw the worst destruction it would ever suffer in war during the Ônin War (1467-77), which took place primarily in the city's streets. Many of the homes of the city's samurai and kuge were transformed into fortresses; wood, bamboo, and earthworks were used to construct walls and other defenses, and the streets themselves were torn up to form ditches and trenches. The city would not be fully rebuilt and recovered for several decades afterwards.

It was during the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, around 1590-1592, that Kyoto saw considerable reconstruction efforts. The street grid was restored in some areas, or redefined in other areas (i.e. new streets were constructed). Maeda Gen'i, Hideyoshi's deputy in the city, oversaw the construction in 1591 of an earthen embankment, or odoi, which defined the official borders of the city, dividing the area into rakuchû ("inside the capital") and rakugai ("outside the capital"). Between Hideyoshi's efforts, and those undertaken by the Tokugawa shogunate in the early decades of the 17th century, the city came to be reorganized, with many important institutions relocated, and districts defined or redefined to be inhabited by members of a particular social class.

Along with Edo and Osaka, Kyoto was one of the archipelago's three primary centers of commerce and urban commoner culture during the Edo period. Not a part of any daimyô's domain, Kyoto was governed by a shogunate official called the Kyoto shoshidai, who oversaw the city's administrative affairs on behalf of the shogunate. Boasting a sizeable population of roughly 200,000 by the end of the 16th century, Kyoto's population nearly doubled to roughly 350,000-400,000 over the course of the Edo period.[3] Ukiyo-e, kabuki, jôruri (puppet theatre), and various new forms of literature, along with the various arts and entertainments of the pleasure districts, thrived alongside older, more traditional arts, many of them developing into distinct forms and styles exclusive to Kyoto, reflecting a decidedly more reserved, traditional, and slower pace and lifestyle than their Edo and Osaka cousins. By the Edo period, if not earlier, Kyoto's commoner cityscape came to be dominated by machiya townhouses - wooden structures which ran deep back into each city block, often housing the family business in the front areas (omote) facing the street, and the family home in the rear/interior (oku) parts of the building. And as the city's population continued to grow in the Edo period, many of these blocks were split, with additional roads being run down the middle and new homes being built in what had previously been internal spaces to the rear of the homes.

As always a major religious center, Tokugawa era Kyoto boasted seven or eight thousand Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, the city being therefore home to tens of thousands of Shinto priests and Buddhist monks and nuns.[3]

  • Shinsengumi
  • Kobu gattai

The final Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, declared his resignation and the abolition of the shogunate while in Kyoto, having never stepped foot in Edo as shogun. For the first time in over a thousand years, the Imperial Court was moved, this time from Kyoto to Edo, newly renamed as Tokyo, marking the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji Period.

For the first decade or two of the Meiji Period, the architects of the new nation were conflicted as to the role Kyoto should play in the new Imperial nation, and in particular in discourses of the nation. It was perhaps not until 1877-1878 that top-ranking officials, as well as the Meiji Emperor himself, began to propose and implement plans to actively preserve Kyoto as a site and symbol of the traditional Japanese and lofty, spiritual, Imperial past. The Emperor made a personal gift in 1877 of funds to the Kyoto prefectural government to be used for the preservation of the city, and while passing through Kyoto on one of his Six Great Imperial Tours the following year, made a statement calling for the preservation of the city, which had already begun to decline since his departure for Tokyo. Around this time, too, certain officials or perhaps the Emperor himself first suggested that accession ceremonies and certain other Imperial rituals continue to be performed in Kyoto, even as the Imperial capital was moved to Tokyo, in order to maintain the significance of the city, and to draw upon that history to enhance the power and legitimacy of the Imperial institution.[5] As Iwakura Tomomi emphasized, Kyoto was the only one of the ancient capitals remaining intact, and as the Meiji Restoration drew its legitimacy from the Imperial past and claimed to be restoring that same Imperial institution to power, the maintenance and usage of the symbolic power of Kyoto's historic sites was essential to discourses of Imperial legitimacy and a unified national history.[6] Efforts to preserve, restore, and reshape Kyoto into the ideal(ized) lofty, ancient, traditional, Imperial capital continued into the 1880s as efforts began, concurrently, to shape Tokyo into a political center evocative of particular discourses of modernity, and of Imperial power and engagement.[7]

Kyoto became home to Japan's first electric railroad in 1895, with a line running roughly 6.7 km from the corner of Shiokôji-dôri and Higashi-no-tôin-dôri (today, just outside Kyoto Station) south to Shimoaburakake-chô in Fushimi.[8]



  • Ching, Francis D.K. et al. A Global History of Architecture. Second Edition. John Wiley & Sons, 2011. p590.
  1. Gallery labels, Kyoto Asny, Kyoto City Central Library.
  2. Rakuyô is simply the Japanese reading of the characters for Luoyang, 洛陽.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Moriya, Katsuhisa. Ronald Toby (trans.) "Urban Networks and Information Networks." in Chie Nakane and Shinzaburô Ôishi (eds.) Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan. University of Tokyo Press, 1990. pp97-123.
  4. Conrad Totman, Early Modern Japan, University of California Press (1993), 25.
  5. Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy, UC Press (1998), 56.
  6. Fujitani, 59.
  7. Fujitani, 33-34.
  8. Kusaba Kayoko 草葉加代子, Kyôkaidô to Yodogawa shûun 京街道と淀川舟運. Osaka: Daikoro (2019), 51.