The history of Kyoto begins in the 8th century AD when the city was erected as the capital of Japan and home to the imperial court from 794 to 1868. Today, it is the capital of Kyoto Prefecture. Rich in historical sites, relics and monuments, the city attracts more than 30 million visitors each year.
Although archaeological sites dating from the Jōmon (10,000 to 300 BC) and Yayoi (300 BC to 300 CE) periods have been found in and around Kyōto, the Kyōto fault basin was first colonized in the 6th century by the Hata clan, immigrants from Korea. The clan members were experts in silkworm culture and silk weaving and accumulated great wealth through their trade in silk products. In 603 Kōryū-ji, the Hata family temple was built at Uzamasa, in the western part of the basin. Hence, the temple is sometimes known as Uzumasa-dera or Hatanokimi-dera. The northern part also developed from the beginning as the residence of such powerful families as Kamo, Izumo and Ono.
However, it was not until 794 that Kyōto or Heiankyō, as it was called then, became the capital. The plan of the new city, like that of Heijōkyō in Nara, was formed after the capital of the Tang (T’ang) dynasty (618-907) of Chang’an (Ch’ang-an, modern Xi’an) . Its rectangular shape measured four and a half kilometers from east to west and 5.2 kilometers from north to south. Kyōto gradually expanded eastward across the Kamo River. The Heian residences of the influential Fujiwara and Taira clans were built at Shirakawa and Rokuhara in central Kyōto.
During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), the city was temporarily eclipsed as the center of national power, when Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199) gained political ascendancy and established a shogunate in Kamakura. In the Muromachi Period (1333-1568), a shogunate was established for the first time in Kyōto and the city again became the center of political power. It was during this period that many important temples were built, such as Tenryū-ji, Nanzen-ji, Kinkaku-ji, and Ginkakuji. The construction of new temples in Kyōto had long been prohibited within Heiankyō’s boundaries due to what was considered undue influence from religious institutions in Nara. Only after the expansion of the Buddhist sects in the Kamakura Period did the construction of temples in Kyōto increase. A large part of the city was destroyed during the Ōnin War (1467–1477), which marks the end of the Muromachi Period.
After almost a hundred years of civil war, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 / 37-1598) managed to unify the country. In 1590, he embarked on an ambitious building program that included the lavishly decorated Jurakutei Palace and Fushimi Castle along the Yodo River.
During the Edo period (1600-1868), the Tokugawa shogunate firmly established itself in Edo (present-day Tōkyō), and the country’s political focus once again shifted away from Kyōto. However, the Rokuhara Tandai, who had been stationed in Kyōto as shogunal representatives since the transfer of political authority to Kamakura, continued to be appointed. In 1603, the shogunate completed Nijō Castle to serve as the shogun’s temporary residence. In the peaceful years of the Edo Period, Kyōto prospered as a center for arts, commerce, and religion. Local crafts such as nishijin-ori, yūzen-zome, a stain resistance technique, ceramics, lacquer ware, doll making, and fans. A few merchants from the Dry Goods Traders Guild loaned money to the daimyo or the shogunate.
Kyōto was heavily affected by the transfer of the capital to Tōkyō after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. To offset this blow, the city launched a rapid modernization program: in 1890, the Lake Biwa Canal was completed; Japan’s first hydroelectric plant was built in Keage, in the northeast section of the city, and in 1895 the first trams in Japan began operating in Kyōto.
The city was slow to develop modern industries, lacking a harbor and surrounding open land, but it has become a part of the Hanshin Industrial Zone and home to numerous electrical, machinery and chemical plants. Its traditional industries continue to flourish to some extent. Fushimi is known for its exceptional sake. The city is an educational center, housing thirty-seven private universities and institutes of higher education, including Kyoto University, Kyoto Institute of Technology, Doshisha University, and Ritsumeikan University.
Kyōto has more than fifty museums, the most famous of which is the Kyoto National Museum, created in 1889 and one of three art museums previously ordered by the Empire of Japan.
In 1945, at the end of World War II, the United States’ Manhattan Project Targets Committee placed Kyoto at the top of the list of targets for dropping the atomic bomb. US Secretary of State Henry Stimson flatly refused to bomb Kyoto because “it was the former capital of Japan, a historic city of great religious importance to the Japanese.” He had visited the city several times and was “very impressed by its ancient culture.” Besides, in Kyoto he celebrated his honeymoon and Stimson did not want to damage his memories of the city. Kyoto was removed from the list and its architectural treasures were preserved.
Kyoto is the only major Japanese city that still has a large number of pre-war buildings, such as machiya (traditional houses).
Kyoto became a designated city by government ordinance on September 1, 1956. In 1997, Kyoto hosted the conference that resulted in the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions.
Kyoto is the spiritual capital of Japan and it is its most beautiful city.