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Kyoto: Japan's ancient capitol

by Yuka Suzuki, editor

Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, is strongly connected with the country’s culture and history. It has preserved its traditional Japanese-style architecture and symbolizes traditional Japanese culture, enshrining the nation’s cultural heritage for visitors from around the world.

Kyoto prefecture is located in western Honshu, the main island of Japan. International visitors arrive at Kansai International Airport, located at Osaka, or Narita International Airport, located at Chiba, which is near Tokyo. From Osaka, Kyoto is about an hour by train.

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Historically, Kyoto became the seat of Japan’s imperial court in the year 794 of the Christian Era. Then called Heian-kyo, it remained the nation’s capital for more than 1,000 years until the seat of government was transferred to Tokyo in 1868.

Historic monuments

Kyoto is rich in a world-celebrated cultural heritage. Most of its buildings and gardens have been designated as national treasures. Seventeen of them are world cultural heritages recognized by UNESCO in 1994:

· Daigoji Temple, is divided into upper and lower precincts and houses for a total of more than 100 halls, pagodas, and monasteries.

· Byodo-in Temple, the Ho-oh-do (Phoenix Hall) is so well known that Hawai‘i even has a replica of it in Temple Valley on the windward side of O‘ahu.

· Hieizan Enryakuji Temple is located on the top of Mt. Hiei.

· Hongwanji Temple is the primary temple of the Jodoshin sect of Buddhism.

· Jishoji Temple, known as the Silver Pavilion, is of simple, but elegant architecture .

· Kamigamo Shrine occupies large grounds blessed with a richness of green vegetation.

· Kiyomizu Temple’s main hall has a platform built out over a precipice that presents a panoramic view of Kyoto.

· Kosanji Temple, in a quiet mountain precinct, includes Japan’s oldest tea garden.

· Nijo Castle is a magnificent example of Momoyama-style architecture full of gorgeous decorations.

· Ninnaji Temple was originally Shishinden Hall of the Imperial Palace and famous for its beautiful blossoms.

· Rokuonji Temple is known as the Golden Pavilion.

· Ryouanji Temple is well known for its rock garden.

· Saihoji Temple is known as the Moss Garden as its precincts are covered with a thick carpet of 120 species of moss.

· Tenryuji Temple, built circling a fish pond and garden, has a long aristocratic tradition.

· Shimokamo Shrine has 53 buildings, including gates and halls, designated as an important Cultural Properties.

· Kyo-oh-gokokuji Temple, also known as Toji Temple, is a five-storied pagoda.

· Ujigami Shrine is Japan’s oldest shrine building, a typical example of the aristocratic style of architecture that dominated the Heian Period (794 - 1192).


Kyoto’s climate is hot and humid in the summer and very cold and snowy in the winter, but during all four seasons, the city basks in an abundance of beautiful natural scenery. Cherry blossoms in the spring and red leaves in the fall are only two of the natural showcases for the five annual traditional festivals that preserve Kyoto’s ancient heritage: the Aoi Festival, Gion Festival, Ine Festival, Daimonji Festival, and Jidai Festival.

The Aoi Festival is the annual festival of Kamigamo and Shimogamo Shrines held on May 15. Historically, it was held to pray for a good harvest following lean years caused by storms and floods.

July’s Gion Festival was held to pray for the end of an epidemic that had struck nearly the entire population of Japan. The festival features various events: the Kippu-iri Festival on July 1, the Yoiyama Festival on July 16, the Yamaboko Junko Festival on July 17, and the Eki-jinja Natsukoshi Festival on July 31.

The Ine Festival, held July 27 and 28, is famous as a sea version of the Gion Festival. It was held to pray for maritime safety, good fishing, and a good harvest.

The Daimonji Fire Festival is a spectacular event held on August 16 every year. The Daimonji bonfire, in the shape of the Chinese character “dai,” which means “large,” is lit on Mt. Nyoigatake in the Higashiyama Range. Four other bonfires, in the shape of other Chinese characters, are lit on surrounding mountains. Lit one after another, they enhance and adorn Kyoto’s summer-night sky.


Kyoto has a variety of accommodations for visitors, including both modern hotels and Japanese traditional-style inns. Gift shops abound near tourist attractions, especially in the Gion area, which has many shops. Popular gift items included are sweets, pickles, lucky charms, traditional items such as utensils for tea ceremonies, textiles—called Nishijin-ori, and ceramics—called Kiyomizu-yaki.

Kyoto is also famous for several styles of food preparation well known throughout Japan, especially preparations of tofu and yuba. Syoujinn-style, vegetables-only meals for Buddhists are famous. Kaiseki-style food was originally created especially for the tea ceremony. Originally very simple, it has become a sumptuous meal today.

Kyoto attracts the world’s visitors. It combines Japanese culture and history through architecture, festivals, beautiful, seasonal scenery, tasty food, and entertainers who wander the city in period costumes and kimonos.



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