Kyoto is the origin of Japanese culture. Over 1,200 years of its history and culture attract and amaze tourists from all over the country and all over the world every year.
Kyoto is widely known as the old capital of Japan . However Japanese capital was in Nara (a few different areas) from the end of 6 th century to the beginning of 8 th century. In 784, the capital was moved from Heijokyo ( Nara city) to Nagaokakyo (Nagaokakyo city, Kyoto ) by Emperor Kammu, but the capital did not stay there for long. In 794, only 10 years after the capital was first moved from Nara to Kyoto , it was moved again by the same emperor to a new location in Kyoto , which now is Kyoto city, the center of Kyoto . For over 1,000 years, Kyoto city was political and cultural center of Japan . The capital city of Heiankyo was designed perfectly symmetrically and the streets were set out neatly in grid. However as the east side evolved, more people moved out of the west side and many of their streets and houses vanished. Meanwhile they built new streets and houses in the east side. This is why the streets of Kyoto are not quite perfectly in grid now, although you can still see the trace of it.
Kyoto kept on evolving culturally. A lot of temples and shrines were built and commerce and industry grew. However, starting from the middle of the 15 th century, there was about 100 years long war period called [Sengoku Period]. Kyoto city and its suburbs were burnt down and it looked far from the beautiful capital city it used to be. It was the famous Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi who started the reconstruction of the capital. After Hideyoshi, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu took over the work. Ieyasu placed the government in Edo ( Tokyo ) but he built Nijojo (Nijo castle) and many other temples and castles in Kyoto . The three generations of Tokugawa Shogunate; Ieyasu, Hidetada, and Iemitsu, spent vast amount of money to the construction of the buildings. At the end of Edo period (1603 - 1867), a boom in tourism took place and lots of [kyo] ( Kyoto ) items were made around this time such as; kyo-ryori ( Kyoto dishes), kyo-gashi ( Kyoto sweets), kyo-ningyo ( Kyoto dolls) etc.
After Edo Shogunate came to an end in 1867, Meiji period started and a new government was placed in Kyoto , but soon after the capital was moved to Tokyo . Kyoto once was devastated after the capital relocation but it kept growing as a historical sightseeing spot.
Kyoto Poetry starts in 905 when a famous poet, Kino Tsurayuki presented the first anthology in Japan to the emperor.
Tea was first imported to Japan from China at the beginning of Heian period (794 - 1185) but it was not until the end of Kamakura period (1185 - 1333) when they started tea ceremony. Tea ceremony soon became a trend and was developed in Kyoto .
The origin of Japanese flower arrangement is in Kuge which means to offer flowers in front of the Buddhist alter. In Heian period, aristocrats started competing for the beauty of flowers. In 17 th century, flower arrangement spread through regular people.
Noh is a Japanese lyrical drama. Its origin is in the plays or dramas from China in Nara period (710 - 794) but it prospered in Heian period in Kyoto as well as most of the other traditional cultures.
Kyogen is a comical play prospered in Muromachi period (1338 - 1573). It is often compared with Noh but Noh is usually pessimistic.
This world-wide famous play was started by a woman in Kyoto called Izumo-no-Okuni. For a while, Kabuki played by courtesans was popular but it was banned for the reason of vice control. After this, Kabuki played by men became popular.
Kyomai is the main dancing style which is danced by Maiko or Geiko (Geisha). The founder is Yachiyo Inoue (1767 - 1854).
The great three festivals of Kyoto are Aoi Matsuri, Gion Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri. Aoi Matsuri is held on May 15 th every year. It is a festival for Kamigamo and Shimogamo shrines. A big parade starts from Gosho (the old imperial palace) and head to Shimogamo shrine, then to Kamigamo shrine. All the people and even cows and horses wear Aoi (hollyhock) on their body. It is a beautiful parade.
Gion Matsuri is a festival for Yasaka shrine. The period from July 15 th to 17 th is the most popular days and many people come to see the festival especially Yamaboko Junko (a parade of floats) but the festival actually goes on for a month starting from July 1 st . It is one of the three great festivals of Japan as well. It is pretty much the hottest time of the year when the festival goes on but it still attracts and amazes people from all over the world.
Jidai Matsuri is a festival to celebrate Kyoto 's birthday. It is held on October 22 nd every year. It started in 1895; the 1,100 th anniversary after the capital was relocated to Kyoto in 794. The history of this festival is not as long compared to other festivals in Japan but it is a big festival. The parade is about 2 kilometers long with about 2,000 people and 70 cows and horses, all dressed in costumes from different period of time.
There are so many other festivals and events in Kyoto all around the year. Please contact us any time to ask questions about them or to find some festivals or events you can go to.
Customs and traditions
Because of its long history, Kyoto has unique customs. Here are some examples of their unique customs.
These are some examples of their unique customs. They do not expect foreigners or people from other prefectures to know all these customs and manners. So please do not worry about offending them by not knowing but enjoy learning them!
Kyo-ryori ( Kyoto dishes)
Although most people in Japan have heard of or about [Kyo-ryori], it is very difficult to define Kyo-ryori. It has a long history and it has always been developing over a thousand years. In Heian period, there was a style of dishes called [Yusoku-ryori], which was served at court. This is the origin of Kyo-ryori. In Kamakura period, dishes for monks in Zen temples were developed. It is called [Shojin-ryori]. After that, at the end of Ashikaga period, foreign food was introduced to Japan . They were called [Nanban-ryori]. They used some ideas from Nanban-ryori and developed [Cha-kaiseki]. It was served at tea ceremonies. And there was [Machikata-ryori] which was cooked and eaten by the working class. These 5 different styles were mixed by restaurants in Kyoto and each restaurant developed their own style. It is called Kyo-ryori. Therefore, Kyo-ryori is different from restaurant to restaurant. They do not copy other restaurants and they are very proud of their own style and the long history of their restaurants (some of them were established over 250 years ago).
Table ware and how to display the food are also very important for Kyo-ryori since its origin is in court food. They use beautiful table ware and they put the food in a very sophisticated way.
They use a lot of vegetables because Kyoto is surrounded by mountains. The city is far from the sea. However, people from over a thousand years ago traveled long way on foot to deliver seafood from the seaside. One of their traditional foods [Sabazushi] is made with salted mackerel. They had to salt the fish to bring it all the way from the seaside.
[Kagai] literally means [flower town]. It is an area in which many Okiya (houses of Geisha, Maiko) are located. There used to be six Kagai in Kyoto but the first Kagai, Shimabara was closed and now there are five Kagai left in Kyoto . Some historical buildings in Shimabara are now open for tourists.
Some of the Kagai have long histories of over 300 years. Most of the restaurants in Kagai do not accept new customers. If you have never been there, you have to go with the people who are the regulars. However, there are some tourist attractions to meet Maiko and Geisha and have some tea or dinner.