Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto 
(Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) (1994)
Japan

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Built in A.D. 794 on the model of the capitals of ancient China, Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan from its foundation until the middle of the 19th century. 

As the centre of Japanese culture for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto illustrates the development of Japanese wooden architecture, particularly religious architecture, and the art of Japanese gardens, which has influenced landscape gardening the world over. 

  • United Nations (New York) 2001. Kyoto. Scan by courtesy of Jean-Michel (France). 

United Nations (New York) 2001. Kyoto.

Japan 2001. Souvenir sheet No. 1 (of four) from Kyoto.

Kyoto is the capital of Kyoto Prefecture, located in west-central Honshu, Japan’s largest island. Kyoto served as Japan’s capital and the seat of the imperial court for more than 1,000 years, from its founding in 794 until 1868, when the emperor moved to Tokyo. 

The city is rich in historic and cultural sites, housing many of Japan’s most renowned temples, shrines, palaces, and gardens. It is famous for the preservation of traditional Japanese crafts, performing arts, religious observances, and cuisine. 

Japan 2001. Souvenir sheet No. 1 (of four) from Kyoto. From top to bottom, left to right: 

  • Se-tenant set: 

    • Kamowakeikazuchi shrine. 

    • Kamowakeikazuchi shrine, the gate. 

  • Se-tenant set:

    • Kamomioya Shrine, the eastern main hall

    • Kamomioya Shrine "Lion Dog"

  • Toji Temple, the south gate and the pagoda

  • Toji Temple, Fukujoju-Nyorai (tathagata)

  • Toji Temple, Nyoirin-Kannon (avalokitesvara, Kuan-Yin)

  • Toji Temple, Daiiotoku-Myoo (vidyaraja)

  • Kiyomizudera Temple, the west gate and the pagoda

  • Kiyomizudera Temple, the main hall

Kyoto was first inhabited in the 7th century by immigrant Korean silk weavers. In 794 Japan’s imperial government moved the capital from Nagaoka (which had succeeded Nara as capital in 784) to Kyoto to escape from the Buddhist clergy’s dominance of the court. This move coincided with the beginning of Japan’s classical age, known as the Heian period (794-1185). 

Streets in Kyoto were laid out along grids, following the plan of the Chinese capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an). The walled imperial palace compound, constructed in central Kyoto, occupied one-fifth of the city’s total area. Kyoto’s affluent aristocratic population was responsible for the city’s initial cultural achievements, including literary masterpieces such as Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji, 1010) by Murasaki Shikibu. 

This aristocratic culture flourished until 1185, when civil war broke out between two powerful samurai (warrior) families. The Minamoto family prevailed and exerted military control over the emperor, ushering in a long period of military dictatorship. 

Japan 2001. Souvenir sheet No. 2 (of four) from Kyoto. From top to bottom, left to right:  

  • Se-tenant set: 
    • Enryaku Temple, Konponchudo hall
    • Enryaku Temple, lasting light of teaching
  • Enryaku Temple, Ninaido hall 
  • Se-tenant set:
    • Daigoji Temple, Sampo-in garden
    • Daigoji Temple, Sampo-in garden 
  • Daigoji Temple, five-storey pagoda 
  • Ninnaji temple, Main Hall
  • Ninnaji temple, five-storey pagoda
  • Byodoin Temple, Phenix hall
  • Byodoin temple, Unchu-kuyou-bosatu

Japan 2001. Souvenir sheet No. 2 (of four) from Kyoto.

In 1185 the Minamoto shoguns moved the political capital from Kyoto to Kamakura (near present-day Tokyo), founding the Kamakura period. Aristocratic culture continued in Kyoto, but on a reduced scale. When the Ashikaga shoguns took power in 1333, they moved the capital back to Kyoto. For a brief time at the beginning of the Ashikagas’ reign, the emperor Go-Daigo asserted imperial control, but he was defeated and forced to flee from Kyoto to Yoshino (near Nara). There he established a rival imperial court, which lasted for nearly 60 years. During this time, a puppet emperor sat on the throne in Kyoto.  

Japan 2001. Souvenir sheet No. 3 (of four) from Kyoto.

Because Kyoto was founded to escape Buddhist influences, few temples were built within the original city. However, between the 13th and 16th centuries Buddhists founded numerous temples in the city. 

Many of the temples contain sand-and-rock gardens and today are counted among Kyoto’s finest cultural monuments. Some of the temples were national headquarters for various newly founded Zen sects. Others were spiritual retreats for aristocrats or shoguns who had retired from public life, while still others served as memorials for prominent individuals. 

Japan 2001. Souvenir sheet No. 3 (of four) from Kyoto. From top to bottom, left to right: 

  • Se-tenant set:
    • Ujikamijinja Shrine, Main Hall
    • Ujikamijinja Shrine, "Kaerumata" (Flog's legs)
  • Se-tenant set:
    • Kozanji Temple, front approach
    • Kozanji Temple, Sekisuiin Hall
  • Se-tenant set:
    • Saihoji Temple, Moss Garden
    • Saihoji Temple, garden gate
  • Se-tenant set:
    • Tenryuji Temple, garden
    • Tenryuji Temple, Garden
  • Se-tenant set:
    • Golden Pavilion (Rokuonji Temple) in autumn
    • Golden Pavilion (Rokuonji Temple) in snow

During the Muromachi period (1333-1568), cultural influences from China became strong. Chinese and Japanese monks frequently visited each other’s countries as well as Korea. These monks served simultaneously as religious leaders and as advisers on Chinese culture to Japanese courtiers and samurai. At this time, no theater, the tea ceremony, and the art of flower arranging first emerged as refined cultural pursuits in Kyoto and other parts of Japan. 

From the latter part of the 1400s through the first half of the 1500s, Kyoto was ravaged by the Onin War (1467-1477) and other civil disorders. Much of the city was burned, and many inhabitants fled to outlying areas. Between 1568 and 1598, peace was restored under two successive rulers, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who strove to unify Japan under strong leadership. Massive and lavish building projects then transformed Kyoto into an affluent castle town (administrative and military headquarters). A rising class of merchants and artisans helped usher in a new cultural renaissance, and art forms such as lacquerware, textile dyeing, screen painting, and the tea ceremony reached new heights. Kyoto became a haven for intellectuals and artists and a thriving center for the production of fine crafts. 

After a brief period of warfare, peace once again prevailed during the Edo (Tokugawa) period (1600-1868). 

During this period the Tokugawa shoguns restructured the samurai class into a civil bureaucracy and moved the political capital out of Kyoto, this time to Edo (present-day Tokyo). 

The emperor continued to rule as the civil monarch in Kyoto but had little actual power. 

The city became a special administrative district under the direct supervision of the shoguns, who built the moated, stone-walled Nijo Castle as their Kyoto residence. 

Japan 2002. Souvenir sheet No. 4 (of four) from Kyoto. From top to bottom, left to right: 

  • Jishoji Temple, silver pavilion in snow
  • Jishoji Temple, silver pavilion
  • Ryoanji Temple, Zen - style rock garden
  • Ryoanji Temple, Zen - style rock garden
  • Honganji Temple, "Karamon" gate
  • Honganji Temple, "Hiunkaku"
  • Honganji Temple, "shoin"
  • Nijojo Castle, the mansion at Ninomaru
  • Nijojo Castle, "Shoyo-zu", "pine & hawk"
  • Nijojo Castle, "Shoyo-zu", "pine & hawk" 

Japan 2002. Souvenir sheet No. 4 (of four) from Kyoto.

Japan. Specimen cover from the UNESCO World Heritage of Kyoto. Kamigano Shrine. Scan submitted by Mr. Miomir Zivkovic (Serbia & Montenegro).

The city’s aristocrats were closely guarded and obliged to pursue court ceremonies and cultured avocations. Meanwhile, Kyoto became a haven for intellectuals and artists and a thriving center for the production of fine crafts. Its many Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and other cultural sites became major pilgrimage and tourist destinations for visitors from across Japan. 

  • Japan. Specimen cover from the UNESCO World Heritage of Kyoto. Kamigano Shrine. Scan submitted by Mr. Miomir Zivkovic (Serbia & Montenegro). The owner's postal address is digitally removed by the webmaster. 

The leaders of the Meiji Restoration of 1868 wrested power from the shoguns and established Japan’s first parliamentary form of government. They encouraged the emperor to abandon Kyoto and move his capital to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo. Tokyo became both the imperial and the political capital of Japan. Since then Kyoto has continued to thrive by emphasizing its historical legacy and its preeminence in traditional arts and crafts. In recognition of the unique importance of the city’s historic buildings and artistic treasures, Kyoto was intentionally omitted from the United States Air Force’s list of bombing targets during World War II (1939-1945). 

Sources and links: 

Other World Heritage Sites in Japan (on this site). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, section Japan for further information about the individual properties. 

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Revised 21 jul 2006  
Copyright © 1999 Heindorffhus
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