Kyoto simply means “capital city”, capturing its role as the imperial capital of Japan from the 8th century to the middle of the 19th. The mystique of old Japan survives especially in Higashiyama, where there are stone streets, traditional wooden buildings and shrines.
In 1868, after Edo was renamed Tokyo (meaning “Eastern Capital”), Kyoto was known for a while as Saikyō (“Western Capital”). Fittingly, since it stands on the Kamo River (whose banks are covered in plum blossom in season), its symbols are the Weeping Willow, Japanese Maple and Katsura tree. Built in 794 CE along the lines of the capitals of ancient China, Kyoto was the centre of Japanese culture for more than 1,000 years. It symbolizes the development of Japanese wooden architecture, particularly religious buildings, and the art of Japanese gardens, which has influenced landscape gardening the world over.
Much of Kyoto was destroyed in the Onin War (1467-77) and rebuilt by a new urban merchant class, who replaced the aristocrats who fled during the war. In 1568 Oda Nobunaga seized power, followed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (right), who unified Japan and built a 23 km wall round Kyoto. One of the legendary characters in Japanese history, Hideyoshi was born a peasant, but little is known about his life prior to 1570, when he appears in documents and letters. The autobiography he commissioned begins in the year 1577, according to which his childhood name was Hiyoshimaru, or “bounty of the sun” – possibly a later embellishment intended to bolster his divine ancestry.
Although ravaged by wars, fires and earthquakes over eleven centuries, Kyoto was spared from the destruction of World War II. It was removed from the target list for atomic bombing (which it had topped) by the personal intervention of US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who wanted to save a cultural centre which he knew from his honeymoon and later diplomatic visits. It is a large city, with some 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, as well as palaces, gardens and other structures. Among the most famous are Kiyomizu-dera, a magnificent wooden temple supported by pillars on the slope of a mountain; Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion; Ryōan-ji, famous for its rock garden; and Ginkaku-ji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion.
Ginkaku-ji is a Zen temple whose official name is the “Temple of Shining Mercy”. Begun in 1482, it is popularly known as the “Silver Pavilion” because of the architect’s plan to cover it with silver-leaf. In fact, the temple was originally lacquered and acquired its silvery appearance by reflecting water from the nearby ponds. Recently renovated, there is still no silver-leaf.
Kyoto is ancient and modern. The oldest part consists of steep narrow streets and alleyways. Best explored on foot, there are visual surprises at every turn, including the occasional geisha – traditional female entertainers whose skills include performing classical music and dance. On February 25 geisha serve tea to 3,000 guests at a shrine in an open-air tea ceremony that takes place during the plum blossom festival.
The celebrated Japanese poet and painter Yosa Buson (1716-83) died in Kyoto. On his death-bed he wrote three poems, of which the last was:
“With white plum blossom
the dawn is about