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History of Kyoto

Kyoto is an ancient city with a 1200 year history. It was established as Japan's capital under the name "Heian-kyo" in the year 794. Although many transformations have taken place over the years, Kyoto has always adopted the most advanced standards of the times. It has greatly contributed to the nation's industrial, economic and cultural development and strength. The dauntless and leading spirit of Kyoto's past as a capital city, is still felt here today.

Kyoto also preserves the beloved properties of its culture as testimonials of time. This is shown in the ancient temples and shrines built in styles unique to Kyoto, as well as private houses. Moreover, many festivals, ceremonies and traditional industries reveal the will of this city to transmit and develop its 1200 year culture.

Heian-kyo was a remarkably large area with a vast cityscape planned around the grounds of the old Imperial Palace, located in the north. It extended 5.2km. from north to south, and 4.7km. from east to west. On either side of the main road, Suzaku-oji (85m. wide), were areas called Sakyo and Ukyo, inhabited by up to 150,000 residents. The national markets in each of these areas were the largest in all of Japan, and a great number of commodities were brought in from around the nation. The Government was directly managing the manufacture of many handicrafts, and craftsmen who practiced the most advanced techniques of the time also gathered to live here.

Dai-dairi is where the Government offices and the house of the Emperor were located, in the northern part of Heian-kyo. This was the political center of the nation where nobles, officers and soldiers, as well as the Emperor himself, worked. The surrounding area consisted mainly of the administrative offices, located on the neatly arranged streets.

"A natural medley of willows and cherry blossoms weave themselves into a brocade, the Heian-kyo" says a verse that expresses the cityscape of the most brilliant period of the Heian capital. However, from the middle of the 10th century, about 200 years after its foundation, the city gradually began to undergo change. Ukyo became less metropolitan, reverting back to a low-populated rural area of fields and gardens. Residents began to concentrate in the Sakyo area, and Heian-kyo mainly developed to the east of the Kamo River beyond the city proper, and also into the north. The city design of Heian-kyo lost its balanced shape and became known as "Kyoto" around the 11th or 12th century.

Under this new name, introduced at the beginning of the medieval period, the dynastic Government weakened and was replaced by a military rule, changing Kyoto from a ruling capital to one that was being ruled over. To the east of the Kamo River, a military town for samurai residences was erected to facilitate the new rule. This gave the Higashi-yama area an entirely different look.

It was not only the military which influenced changes to the city. In the medieval age, Kyoto became a center for new prosperous forms of Buddhism and many temples were built at the foot of the Kita-yama, Higashi-yama and Nishi-yama mountains. While To-ji and Sai-ji were the only two official temples of Heian-kyo, through the religious support of the citizens, many new temples quickly began to emerge. Throughout the 13th and 15th centuries, construction continued on, changing the cityscape of Kyoto and giving it new character as a city with a strong religious culture.

During this transformation, the citizens of medieval Kyoto became diligently active. The collapse of the national industry forced the merchants and craftsmen who had been working for Government-managed industries to become independent. They organized themselves into "za" or cooperative associations which protected the rights and interests of their businesses, and in turn made industry and the economy more dynamic than ever before. Their new politics extended to both administrative and cultural areas. Their unity was clearly shown in the grand festival and other ceremonies they organized in the Gion area. In the medieval period, Kyoto developed into one of Japan's most influential cities.

However, the "Great Civil Wars of Onin and Bunmei," which lasted eleven years in the latter part of the 15th century, brought a crushing blow to the prosperity of medieval Kyoto. A quarter of a century was spent trying to recover, but the city would never be as it was before. Kyoto was not an integrated center anymore. There were fields and gardens extending for 2km. between the Kamigyo and Shimogyo regions, making Kyoto look like as if it had been split in two.

This city plan remained for about one century until Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered the city to be completely rebuilt. He filled up the space between Kamigyo and Shimogyo to promote urbanization, and again gave Kyoto the look of an integrated city. For the first time, Kyoto was enclosed by an earthen embankment. The Gosho (Imperial Palace), was reconstructed in the center of the city, and the newly built Juraku-dai Castle shined proudly in gold.

Thus began the modern age. The Toyotomi rule revived temples and shrines considerably, and under the Tokugawa rule which followed, Kyoto regained its honor as a city of religion and culture. Revitalization as an industrial city was even more remarkable. At the end of the 17th century, Nishijin became one of the most renowned textile districts in the world.

Kyoto did not however, always continue to grow at this pace. From the 18th century until the middle of the 19th, it faced three major disasters: the fires of the Hoei (1704-1710), Tenmei (1781-1788) and Genji (1864) periods. Fortunately, the city did not completely collapse and was eventually recovered, but because the political movements that would lead to the Meiji Restoration were taking place simultaneously, the recovery process following the great fire of the Genji period took many long years.

In the modern age, Kyoto lost its rights as the political capital, to Edo (modern day Tokyo). In the first year of the Meiji period (1868), Kyoto regained its status as capital but the political situation of Japan called for Tokyo to be the country's center once again. Demonstrations held by the citizens of Kyoto were not successful, and eventually the Emperor moved to Tokyo. Former nobles and influential citizens left Kyoto to follow him.

The crisis was distressful, and disappointment spread everywhere. But Kyoto stood firm, and tried to bring health back to its fire-ravaged lands. Without taking a risk, the crisis would never be overcome, so despite much criticism, the framework for securing transportation, energy and water resources was prepared, and construction of the Lake Biwa Aqueduct began. Steadily new industrial techniques, such as the innovative weaving methods of the Nishijin area were introduced, and the construction of new factories began.

These enterprising long-term goals greatly raised the sprit of the people and lead to the 4th National Industrial Exposition, commemorating 1100 years of Kyoto's history as capital. This was followed by the comprehensive "Three Great Works," an endeavor which undertook a second large-scale aqueduct project at Lake Biwa, modernized city waterworks, and upgraded transportation with streetcar facilities and improved roads. This took about 10 years to execute and required tremendous financial backing, but eventually, the reconstruction of Kyoto as a modern city was accomplished.

Surviving the hardships of World War II, present-day Kyoto advanced in many significant ways. Now, new leading industries and scientific institutions make important contributions around the world, and many precious cultural properties of the past are preserved here.

Kyoto is not the kind of city that is simply content to remain as it is. Instead, it continues to strive toward change and development, adjusting itself to meet the needs of each new generation. If it cannot succeed in this endeavor, the fire of its exciting 1200 year history would be blown out, making Kyoto just another city of past achievements. Kyoto will never succumb to this, it is and always will be, a living historical city