Kyoto was founded in 794 as Heian-Kyo (Capital of Peace and Tranquility) and is now known as the City of Ten Thousand Shrines. Culture, history and natural beauty come together to compose pieces of stunning art that can only exist in what is considered to be Japan’s most beautiful city.
The Kyoto Basin was first settled in the 7th century and by 794 is had become the capital of Japan. Like Nara, a previous capital, the city was laid out in grid pattern modelled on the Chinese Tang-dynasty capital, Chang’an (contemporary Xi’an).
Kyoto has a population of around 1.5 million and it served as the capital of imperial Japan until 1868. Today, it is the country’s 7th largest city and its most important cultural and historical site. It is also one of the world’s most culturally rich cities with 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, more than 1,600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shintō shrines. It is bounded by mountains to the west, north and east.
The city was reduced to ashes several times by earthquakes, fires and the ten-year period of civil strife, known as the Onin War (1467-1477).
The Buddhas of the Tō-ji have been watching over the city ever since Kukai founded the temple in 794. The city’s religious foundations were laid here, and echoes of bygone rituals seem to linger in Tō-ji’s halls. Kukai turned Tō-ji into the main headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. The sect relied heavily on mandalas, and in the Kodo (lecture hall), 21 statues form a three-dimensional mandala, at the centre of which is Dainichi Nyorai, the cosmic Buddha who first expounded the esoteric teachings. Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing, and his attendants are enshrined in the two-story Kondo (main hall). Northwest of the Kodo is Miei-do or Taishi-do (great teacher’s hall), where Kukai lived. It houses a Secret Buddha, a Fudo Myo-o image that is shown on rare occasions, as well as the image of Kukai. Kukai’s death is commemorated on the 21st of each month, when a flea market, called Kobo-san by the locals, is held in the temple precincts. Many shoppers take time out for a brief pilgrimage to the Meie-do, where they offer money and incense, some rubbing the incense smoke on whatever body part is troubling them. Rebuilt in 1644, Tō-ji’s five story, 55 metre (180 feet) high pagoda is the tallest in Japan and has become a symbol of Kyoto.
Nijō-Jō, the one-time power centre of the imperial regime, is now one of the most noteworthy highlights of Kyoto. The castle complex and its tastefully curated gardens and splendid centuries-old structure, was the official Kyoto residence of the ‘shogun’ (head defence of Imperial Japan). Nijō is best known for its unusually ornate interiors and its so-called nightingale floors, which make bird-like squeaking sounds when walked to give warning when someone is approaching. Late morning or lunchtime is the best time to visit.
This charming alleyway is best appreciated after dusk, when it comes alive with wonderful lanterns, traditional wooden exteriors and elegant Kyotoites disappearing into the doorways of elite old restaurants. The street largely remains the preserve of the traditional wooden ochaya – the type of teahouse where geisha entertain clients. The alley is also the home of the tiny Tanuki Shrine. In 1978 a fire broke out in Ponto-chō, taking the life of a geisha. Where it stopped a ceramic tanuki was found shattered by the heat. Believing that the tanuki had sacrificed himself on their behalf, the residents built a shrine to house his remains. In Japanese folklore tanuki (racoon dogs) are celebrated as loveable buffoons or as drunken rascals – this is why the ceramic likeness of the tanuki is often found at the entrance of drinking places.
Gion is Kyoto’s best known geisha quarter where Japanese men come to revel in the company of professional geishas at private inns and teahouses. The Gion’s history started in feudal times, with stalls catering to the needs of pilgrims and other visitors. These evolved into tea houses fulfilling a variety of appetites. The Yasaka Shrine, whose striking two-story vermillion gate rises above the eastern end of Shijo-dori, was established around 656 and was originally called Gion Shrine. Its deities protect from illness and, in 869, were paraded through the streets to stop an epidemic – this was the beginning of the famous Gion Matsury, which takes place in July. The best time to visit is around 18:00 or 21:00 when the geishas are leaving their boarding houses.
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