|Reminders of Prosperity of Japan's Ancient
Since its establishment as the capital of Japan, then called Heian-kyo, in 794, Kyoto remained as the Imperial resident capital for over a thousand years and prospered as the center of Japanese culture. Many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were founded in the city and the surrounding area under the patronage of the Emperors and Shoguns (warrior elite leaders), and remain today as they used to be. Each building accurately represents the culture of the historical period when it was built. Thus the whole Kyoto could be regarded as a museum of Japanese history.
Heian-kyo was modeled after Chinese city Chang-an, the
capital of Tang China, and the square grid system of roads and streets
then created still forms the center of Kyoto City. Because the central
Heian-kyo was made primarily to be a place for civic functions, temples
were built in the surrounding mountains, and the country villas of the
aristocracy were built in places of scenic beauty. During this period,
an aristocratic culture centered around the Imperial court flourished.
Characterized by finesse, sumptuousness, and harmonization with nature,
this court culture became a model of Japanese culture itself.
In the late 12th century, warrior elite families came to gain power. In addition to aristocratic culture and Buddhist culture introduced from China, powerful warrior elite culture became influential and the three cultures coexisted, influencing one another. The highly refined culture which prospered in the 14th and 15th centuries under the established rule of the military Shogunate reflects deep admiration for aristocratic culture and the influence of the Zen Sect of Buddhism. This cultural prosperity can be traced in many of the Zen temples that were built during the period and buildings and gardens used as the shoguns' villas.
The city was a battlefield for ten years from 1467, the capital was devastated, and many properties in the center of the city were destroyed. When political stability was restored in the late 16th century, many temples and shrines were reconstructed. The culture of this period was shaped by the warrior elite who had taken power and by the elite merchants who profited from international trade. Reflecting their spirit, the period was characterized by opulence and boldness, represented in the castles of the time and in an architecture richly decorated with sculpture and painting.
In the Edo period (1603-1868), although the Imperial court stayed in Kyoto, the center of power shifted to Edo (present-day Tokyo). In that period, temples of various sects were organized systematically throughout Japan into head temples and branch temples, with many of the head temples located in Kyoto. As large numbers of provincial believers came to visit the head temples of their sects, the city developed the character of a religious and tourist center.
In 1868, the government was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. Under the influence of modern Western culture, a variety of modernization policies were enacted, transforming Kyoto into a modern city. With the national government recognizing the need to protect cultural properties, the historic sites and monuments in Kyoto and the vicinity have been provided with appropriate protection and maintenance, keeping the city's historical scenery intact. Many of the architectural properties are designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Assets, among which a set of 17 historic sites was registered as World Cultural Heritage in 1993.
Photos: (Top) Byodo-in in Uji, an embodiment of Jodo Buddhism; (middle) The Kinkaku (Golden Pavilion) of the Rokuon-ji, a symbol of the gorgeous Kitayama culture in the 14th century. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
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