If you go to only one place in all of Japan, Kyoto should be it. Not only is it the most historically significant town in the nation, this former capital was also the only major Japanese city spared from the bombs of World War II. As such, it's rife with temples, shrines, imperial palaces, and traditional wooden homes. In nearby Nara, another former capital -- one even more ancient than Kyoto -- is Japan's largest bronze Buddha and more historic temples.
Even though its well-preserved architecture and relics are what put Kyoto on the sightseeing map, I've always felt that its scenes from daily life are what make the city exceptional. Kyoto is home to 20% of Japan's national treasures. It is also home to the nation's greatest concentration of craft artisans, making Kyoto famous for its shops dealing in textiles, dyed fabrics, pottery, bambooware, cutlery, metalwork, fans, umbrellas, and other goods.
As your Shinkansen bullet train glides toward Kyoto Station, however, your first reaction is likely to be great disappointment. There's Kyoto Tower looming in the foreground like some misplaced spaceship. Kyoto Station itself is strikingly modern and unabashedly high tech, looking as though it was airlifted straight from Tokyo. Modern buildings and hotels surround the station on all sides, making Kyoto look like any other Japanese town.
In other words, as Japan's seventh-largest city with a population of about 1.5 million people, Kyoto hasn't escaped the afflictions of the modern age. Yet it has always led a rather fragile existence, as a look at any of its temples and shrines will tell you. Made of wood, they've been destroyed through the years by man, fire, and earthquake and have been rebuilt countless times. Come and explore -- you'll soon understand why I consider Kyoto to be Japan's most romantic city despite modernization. No one who comes to this country should miss the wealth of experiences this ancient capital has to offer.
A Look at the Past -- Kyoto served as Japan's capital for more than 1,000 years from 794 to the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Originally known as Heian-kyo, it was laid out in a grid pattern borrowed from the Chinese with streets running north, south, east, and west. Its first few hundred years -- from about A.D. 800 to the 12th century -- were perhaps its grandest, a time when culture blossomed and court nobility led luxurious and splendid lives dotted with poetry-composing parties and moon-gazing events. Buddhism flourished and temples were built. A number of learning institutions were set up for the sons and daughters of aristocratic families, and scholars were versed in both Japanese and Chinese.
Toward the end of the Heian Period, military clans began clashing for power as the samurai class grew more powerful, resulting in a series of civil wars that eventually pushed Japan into the Feudal Era of military government that lasted nearly 680 years -- until 1868. The first shogun to rise to power was Minamoto Yoritomo, who set up his shogunate government in Kamakura. With the downfall of the Kamakura government in 1336, however, Kyoto once again became the seat of power, home to both the imperial family and the shogun. The beginning of this era, known as the Muromachi and Azuchi-Momoyama periods, was marked by extravagant prosperity and luxury, expressed in such splendid shogun villas as Kyoto's Gold Pavilion and Silver Pavilion. Lacquerware, landscape paintings, and the art of metal engraving came into their own. Zen Buddhism was the rage, giving rise to such temples as Saihoji Temple and the Ryoanji rock garden. And despite the civil wars that rocked the nation in the 15th and 16th centuries and destroyed much of Kyoto, culture flourished. During these turbulent times, Noh drama, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and landscape gardening gradually took form.
Emerging as victor in the civil wars, Tokugawa Ieyasu established himself as shogun and set up his military rule in Edo (presently Tokyo) far to the east. For the next 250 years, Kyoto remained the capital in name only, and in 1868 (which marked the downfall of the shogunate and the restoration of the emperor to power), the capital was officially moved from Kyoto to Tokyo.