Short history of Kyoto

On this page you can find general information about the beautiful city of Kyoto, from its history to learning how to get around.

It is known that there has been a human population since the Paleolithic. During the Jomon period (circa 14,500 BC) they settled in the Kitashirakawa part and the mountainous areas of the Yamashina basin.

During the Yayoi period (300 BC-250 AD) they began to move towards the plains. In the 5th century, water conservancy projects are built in the Kyoto basin, which was the beginning of large-scale development of the Kyoto area.

In the year 784 the emperor Kammu Tennō built Nagaoka-kyō and moved the capital from Heijō-kyō (present-day Nara). Just 9 years later, in January 793, Emperor Kammu rallies his servants and announces another relocation of the capital due to the frequent floods and related diseases that plague Nagaoka-kyō. This time he chooses Kadono, 10 kilometers to the northeast.

Kanmu Tennō (桓武天皇)

In Kammu’s words, “Kadono has beautiful mountains and rivers, as well as good transport links by sea and land, making it convenient for people to gather there from the four corners of the country.”

It is believed that the construction of Heian-kyō started from the palace and then the rest of the city. Along the river, the ports of Yodonotsu (淀津, today Yodo) and Ōitsu (大井津) were built to favor the transit of goods. The products that arrived at Heian-kyō reached the people through one of the two great markets: the east and the west. This produced a stable supply of food and goods that encouraged population growth. To avoid the floods that had devastated Nagaoka-kyō, two artificial canals were built, the current Horikawa and Nishi Horikawa, which also ensured the water supply to the population.

The construction of Buddhist temples, which were prohibited in Nagaoka-kyō, was also allowed, as it was thought that the power of the East and West temples could protect the city from natural disasters and disease.

On October 22, 794, Emperor Kammu arrives in the new city, and on November 8 he proclaims, “I hereby call this city Heian-kyō.”

In the year 810, during a confrontation for the succession of the emperor, a movement arises that demands that Heijō-kyō (present-day Nara) once again be the capital. However, Emperor Saga thought that keeping the capital at Heian-kyō would be in the best interest of the country’s stability and resisted this move, naming Heian-kyō “The Eternal City” (万代宮, “Yorozuyo no Miya” ).

In the 10th century, the lower classes began to settle along the Kamo River, beyond the eastern limits of the city, and temples and country houses sprang up on the eastern banks of the river. Then began a trend of the city to spread to the east. In the year 980, at the southern end of Suzaku-oji, the Rajōmon (the larger of the two city gates) collapses, never to be rebuilt. In this way, the original borders of Heian-kyō extend to the east, forming the streets of first medieval and then modern Kyoto.

During the Sengoku period (戦国時代) the city suffered great destruction in the Ōnin War of 1467-1477 and did not truly recover until the mid-16th century. During the war, the shugo collapsed and power was divided among the military families. Battles between samurai factions spread through the streets and came to involve court nobility as well as religious factions.

With the Shōgun installed in Edo, Heian-kyō begins to decline in importance as a seat of power. After the Ōnin War Heian-kyō was separated into upper (Kamigyō) and lower (Shimogyō) cities, each of which became places of little importance. However, the two would meet in a city during the Azuchi-Momoyama period after Oda Nobunaga’s ascension.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉).

At the end of the 16th century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi rebuilt the city. He building new streets to double the number of north-south streets in central Kyoto, creating rectangular blocks that replaced the old square blocks. Hideyoshi also built embankment walls called odoi (御土居) that surrounded the city.

In 1864 the Hamaguri rebellion burned 28,000 houses in the city, showing the discontent of the rebels towards the Tokugawa Shogunate.

During the Meiji Revolution, Edo was renamed Tokyo, becoming the new capital of Japan. After the transfer of the emperor to Tokyo, the economy is severely weakened.

In 1889 the new city of Kyoto is formed and the canal from Lake Biwa is built to revive the city.

During World War II, the United States considered dropping an atomic bomb on Kyoto because, as Japan’s intellectual center, it had a large enough population to persuade the emperor to surrender.

In the end, at the insistence of Henry Lewis Stimson, Secretary of War in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, the city was removed from the target list and replaced by Nagasaki. The city was also largely spared from conventional bombing. Thanks to this, today most of its historical heritage is preserved.

In 1997, Kyoto hosted the conference that resulted in the protocol on greenhouse gas emissions (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).

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