Katsura Garden
KYOTO (315 miles southwest of Tokyo and 25 miles east of Osaka) was the home of the Japanese Emperor, the center of Japanese civilization and the capital of Japan for about 1,100 years or its 1,200 years of existence. Today it known best for its geishas, great temples, beautiful gardens and works of art. It is also the home of Nintendo and more than its share of urban sprawl.

Kyoto is surrounded on three sides by forested mountains. It has long inspired scholars and artists. But when visiting Kyoto, it is important to keep in mind that it is both a modern city and historical treasure with the old and new often placed side by side. Temples and pagodas share the skyline with office complexes; traditional crafts shops and old neighborhoods are intermixed with modern shopping malls and subway stations; and geishas walk down the streets next to salarymen, office ladies and skateboard punks. Yes, there are many lovely, historical buildings but there are also traffic jams, McDonalds and Mister Donuts. According to “Cities of the World”: “The visitor is aware of the old and new, which initially seem to contradict one another, but soon he realizes that ancient shrines and temples and quiet gardens and traditional handicrafts blend with the modern life of Kyōto in beautiful harmony. All of these contribute to the unique atmosphere of the city.”

Kyoto is home to about 1.5 million residents and is the seventh largest city in Japan. Around 50 million tourists visit Kyoto every year — including 1 million foreigners, of whom 100,000 are Americans. The number of tourists dipped somewhat after the Kobe earthquake, even though Kyoto was not seriously damaged (the Golden Temple developed cracks and a 9th century statue of a Goddess of Mercy in the Koryuji Temple lost a right arm, but that was about it) but soon returned to normal

A lot of foreigners are surprised by how ugly downtown Kyoto is, describing it as a “jumbled mess” and “old and dreary” and “not clean.” Many of the nice spots are outside the downtown and requires a little work to get to. But even here you often emerge from a lovely temple or garden only to face off with a busy road lined with wire-laden utility poles and buildings thrown up with little rhyme or reason.

New rules went into effect 2007 that aim to reduce Kyoto’s clutter. They include banning flashing billboards, rooftop signs and buildings higher than 31 meters or 19 stories, compared to the current 45 meters. Regulations also cover the color and design of buildings. The traditional wooden houses with lattice facades and slatted second story windows in Kyomachiya have been named endangered cultural heritage sites by the World Monument Fund. There are 50,000 of these houses in Kyoto but their numbers are being reduced by about two percent a year.

Websites: Official Kyoto City site; Discover your own Kyoto (Run by Kyoto Tourism) ; Kyoto Prefecture Site Welcome to Kyoto ; Good Museums website: ; Inside Kyoto: ; Maps:

Kyoto Prefecture

Kyoto Prefecture covers 4,612 square kilometers (1780 square miles), is home to about 2.6 million people and has a population density of 565 people per square kilometer. Kyoto is the capital and largest city, with about 1.48 million people. It is in the Kansai area near Osaka on the central part of Honshu island and has six districts and 26 municipalities.

Kyoto Prefecture borders Fukui Prefecture to the northeast, Shiga Prefecture to the east, Mie Prefecture to the southeast, Nara Prefecture and Osaka Prefecture to the south, and Hyogo Prefecture to the west. Besides Kyoto city, other major cities include Uji, Kameoka, and Maizuru.

Kyoto Prefecture is located on the Sea of Japan coast and extends to the southeast towards the Kii Peninsula, covering territory of the former provinces of Yamashiro, Tamba, and Tango. About 21 percent of the prefecture's land area has been designated as Natural Parks. Kyoto Prefecture forms part of the Keihanshin metropolitan area, the second-most-populated populated region in Japan after the Greater Tokyo area and one of the world's most economically productive regions by GDP. As of 2018, six Forbes Global 2000 companies were located in Kyoto prefecture: Nidec, Kyocera, Murata Manufacturing, Nintendo, Omron and the Bank of Kyoto.

has four distinct seasons and the weather is comparable to that of New York or Washington D.C.. Summer is hot and humid with temperatures often reaching 35°C (95°F), Autumn is comfortable and the warm weather can coninue into November. Winter is cold, sunny and dry with occasional light snowfalls and temperature sometimes dropping below freezing. Spring is mild with scattered showers. Mid-June to mid-July is the rainy season. Typhoons can occur from May to November but are most common in August and September.

History of Kyoto

Heian period clothes
Ancient Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years. Surrounded by scenic hills to the north, west and east, which the founding Emperor Kammu described as a ‘natural fortress’, the city was Japan's cultural and artistic center and its political center. The more than 1,600 Buddhist temples and 300 Shinto shrines attest to its importance as a center, while the impressive Imperial Palace indicate its importance as the seat of the ruling dynasties. Kyoto was originally called Heiankyo — "Capital of Peace".

Modeled after the Tang Dynasty Chinese capital Chang’an (Xian), Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 (when it was called Heian) until 1868. Although it was superseded as the administrative seat of government for brief periods during those years, it remained the ceremonial capital. Kyoto became Japan’s capital at the beginning of the Heian Period (A.D. 794-1192) when the capital of Japan and the seat of the Emperor was moved from Nara. It flourished until 1868 when the Edo Period ended and Emperor Meiji moved the imperial seat to Tokyo. Although a variety of feudal lords have ruled Japan from different places during the country's long history, Kyoto has always remained its cultural and artistic center and for most of Japan's history the home of the imperial family.

Kyoto was spared much of the bombing in World War II that destroyed Tokyo, Osaka and other Japanese cities. One important American general wanted to drop the Hiroshima atomic bomb on Kyoto because he believed that "would most adversely affect the will of the Japanese people to continue the war." The Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, who had visited Kyoto in the 1920s, overruled him, arguing that destroying Japan's cultural capital was wrong. Since Kyoto was spared the bombs of World War II, it is is rich in historical buildings and cultural assets.

A lot of Kyoto's cultural heritage is not necessary what it appears to be. The revered Heian Shrine, for example, was built in 1895 for an industrial exposition. The Miyako Odori, a so called form of traditional dance performed by maikos and geisha, was devised to help boost tourism. The entire city was city was burned down in a civil war in 15th century and much of it was destroyed in the riots in the final days of the Tokugawa shogunate. Most of what passes for the old city today was built during the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

When U.S. President George Bush visited Kyoto in 2005 he stayed at the Kyoto State Guesthouse in Kyoto Gyoen National Park in Kamigyo Ward. Companies based in Kyoto include Nintendo, Kyocera and Rohm


Kyoto people have a reputation for being arrogant, cool, mannered, refined and partying a lot. They consider themselves to be the Japanese elite. The Kyoto dialect is so formal it is almost like the Japanese equivalent of Shakespearean English.

Kyotoites have a reputation for being conservative, valuing tradition, admiring quality over profit and going out their way to avoid conflict and develop harmonious relations. Introductions, connections and secrets are necessary to get ahead in Kyoto's social world. The relocation of the royal family to Tokyo in the 19th century is still regarded as a tragedy.

Kyoto is where old traditions remain most intact. The Geisha world still exists and people still follow arcane rules of etiquettes that were dropped centuries ago in the rest of Japan.

Kyoto's Temples and Sights

Surrounded by beautiful hills and laid out in a checkerboard design of streets and avenues developed more than 1,000 years ago, Kyoto is a repository for much of Japan's best art, architecture, culture, religion and thought. Some buildings are admired for their architectural beauty; some are known for the art treasures and priceless statues they house; and others are famed for the beautiful landscape gardens attached to them. Most of Kyoto's temples and shrines have been rebuilt, as many as a dozen times, after fires which frequently have struck the city. Among the main sights are Nijo Castle, the residence of the first Tokugawa shogun; Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion; and ancient imperial palace.

Kyoto boasts over 400 Shinto shrines and over 1,650 Buddhist temples,11 of which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. It is also home to two vast Imperial complexes, 20 percent of Japan's national treasures, 15 percent of Japan's Important Cultural Properties, 24 museums, gardens and 37 universities and colleges. Several temples and shrines have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website

Some of the less famous temples are more appealing than the famous ones. Christal Whelan wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “At their best, small temples serve as vibrant nodes of community life. Besides services for ancestors, funerals and counseling for the danka, or congregation of contributing households, that sustains them, some of these small temples are actively involved in both civic affairs and the contemporary artistic life of the city. [Source: Christal Whelan, Daily Yomiuri, October 9, 2011]

Kyoto in the 19th century
”Take Honenin temple, for example, named after the priest Honen Shonin (1133-1212), who broke away from the austere orientation of medieval Buddhism on Mt. Hiei straddling Kyoto and Shiga prefectures to make the faith accessible to common people. This temple stands on the site where Honen and his two disciples, Anraku and Juren, erected an image of Amida Buddha, to whom they performed daily services. By the beginning of the 20th century, Honenin had become a family-run temple, and after World War II it became an independent religious corporation distinct from the Jodoshu sect from which it originated.

”Honenin temple’s art gallery, housed in the Kodo lecture hall, hosts weekly exhibitions and the main hall holds dozens of concerts throughout the year. In recent years, the temple established the nearby Mori no Senta (Friends of the Forest Center), which is devoted to the study and preservation of nature. Guest speakers there have delivered lessons on topics from mushroom behavior to bear hunting.

”The center, set in the mountains of Kyoto’s Sakyo Ward, also offers guided nature hikes up the 466-meter Mt. Daimonji. At the end of the summer Bon Festival, the character "dai," meaning "great," is depicted in fire on the mountainside. It is believed the fire’s light can guide ancestor’s back to the spirit world. The broad path up the mountain (also a favorite of joggers) offers spectacular views of Kyoto, and a pleasant clearing with log benches for a rest before the hike down.”

Historic Monuments of Kyoto: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. According to UNESCO: “ 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. [Source: UNESCO]

“The Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) consist of seventeen component parts that are situated in Kyoto and Uji Cities in Kyoto Prefecture and Otsu City in Shiga Prefecture. Most of the one hundred ninety-eight buildings and twelve gardens that make up the seventeen component parts of the property were built or designed from the 10th to the 17th centuries. All of the seventeen components of the inscribed property are religious establishments except for the castle of Nijo-jo. Together they cover a total of 1,056 hectares and are surrounded by a buffer zone of 3,579 hectares.

“Kyoto was the main centre for the evolution of religious and secular architecture and of garden design between the 8th and 17th centuries, and as such it played a decisive role in the creation of Japanese cultural traditions which, in the case of gardens in particular, had a profound effect on the rest of the world from the 19th century onwards. The assemblage of architecture and garden design in the surviving monuments of Kyoto is the highest expression of this aspect of Japanese material culture in the pre-modern period.

“Although each of the individual buildings, building complexes and gardens that make up the inscribed property represent various unique periods of history, seen together they illustrate the general historical development of Japanese architecture and gardens. Together the seventeen component parts provide a clear understanding of the ancient capital’s history and culture. In addition, the property gives a very comprehensive picture of Japanese culture over the long period of time. Thus, the integrity of the property is ensured in both its wholeness and intactness. Moreover, each of the seventeen individual parts of the property exhibits a high degree of individual integrity. Because the scattered component parts exist within an urban context, uncontrolled development poses a threat to the inscribed property’s overall visual integrity.”

Preservation of Kyoto’s Historic Monuments

According to UNESCO: “In the light of the Japanese tradition of restoration and reconstruction, the buildings and gardens that compose the property retain high levels of authenticity. Although in only very rare cases have entire buildings, or even portions of them, survived intact from their construction, the rigorous respect for the original form, decoration, and materials that has prevailed in Japan for more than a millennium has ensured that what is visible today conforms in almost every detail with the original structures. This tradition has been reinforced since the end of the 19th century when the Ancient Shrines and Temples Preservation Law was enacted (1897). Only damaged portions are repaired or, if required, replaced and this work is done with careful documentation and scientific investigation. While gardens were not well preserved in the period immediately following the Second World War, since 1965 garden conservation has been included as part of the work supported by the Agency for Cultural Affairs and is undertaken with the same attention to excavation surveys and other research. Those responsible for such work have taken great pains to ensure the use of traditional materials and techniques, to the extent of reproducing original tools [Source: UNESCO] .

“When earlier restoration or repair work used inappropriate materials or techniques this work has been replaced with repairs based on appropriate research with no conjecture. Damaged components of both the wooden buildings and gardens are replaced only when necessary and attention is paid to historical detail. Authenticity of workmanship is enhanced with careful study of techniques and the use of appropriate tools. Most of the one hundred ninety-eight buildings across the inscribed property remain in their original location. Thus, the buildings and gardens composing the property retain high levels of authenticity in terms of form/design, materials/substance, traditions/techniques, and location/setting.

“All of the buildings, gardens composing the property are protected under the 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. Among the one hundred and ninety-eight buildings, thirty-eight are designated as National Treasures and one hundred and sixty as Important Cultural Properties. With regard to the twelve gardens, eight are designated as Special Places of Scenic Beauty and four as Places of Scenic Beauty. Under the 1950 Law, proposed alterations to the existing state of the property are restricted, and any alteration must be approved by the national government or local governments in case of minor alteration.

“Strict enforcement of building codes is carried out in the buffer zones and ongoing communication exists between the city government and property owners to balance protection of the property’s integrity with urban development. The buffer zones are covered by the Historic Environment Control Area. In these areas, proposed development activities are controlled by (i) the National Parks Law, (ii) the Ancient Capitals Preservation Act, (iii) Scenic Zones under the Shiga Prefecture Scenic Zone Ordinance or the Kyoto Prefecture Scenic Zone Ordinance, and/or (iv) regulated areas under the City Town Planning and relevant city ordinances. Beyond the buffers zones, building height in the urban areas is regulated by the Historic Environment Control Area.

“Following Uji City’s effort in 2000, Kyoto City also developed its new landscape conservation policy and strategy in 2007, to strengthen the height control for buildings and to enhance the building design codes. In terms of ownership of the inscribed property, religious organizations own sixteen of the seventeen component parts, and Kyoto City owns the remaining part, the castle of Nijo-jo. Day-to-day management is the responsibility of the individual owners who conduct necessary repairs including seismic strengthening.

“As fire is the greatest risk to the property, the monuments are equipped with automatic fire alarms, fire hydrants, and, if necessary, lightning arresters. In addition, some owners of the component parts organize fire brigades that work in cooperation with public fire offices. The Agency for Cultural Affairs, Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures, and Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities provide the owners of the component parts with both financial assistance and technical guidance for their protection and management.”

Kyoto No.1 Destination in the World: Travel and Leisure Magazine

In 2014, Kyoto was named the world’s best destinations in a survey of readers in Travel + Leisure magazine. Jun Hongo wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Kyoto jumped four places from last year, unseating Bangkok from the top spot in the magazine’s 2014 World’s Best Awards list. The result followed the Kyoto’s recent top 10 ranking in a list of the most livable cities. [Source: Jun Hongo, Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2014]

“Travel + Leisure noted that the attraction of Japan’s ancient capital went beyond its cherry blossoms, temples and gardens. One can also find “reimagined ryokan (Japanese-style hotels) and an emerging style scene that is cutting edge,” said a magazine correspondent in a video clip posted on the magazine’s website.

“The survey gave scores to each city based on votes received from readers. Poll participants were asked to judge destinations on a variety of factors including culture, arts, food and value for money. Respondents were screened to remove travel-industry professionals from the vote, according to the magazine’s website. Tokyo didn’t make the top 10, but was ranked fourth among Asian cities behind Kyoto, Siem Reap in Cambodia and Bangkok.

“I am deeply moved and happy” that Kyoto was picked as the best destination in the world, Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa said in a statement. The mayor said the outcome was a result of coordination between the public and the corporate sector to improve the city’s appeal for tourists. “We hope to continue offering visitors the experience of Kyoto’s unique culture, arts, sights and hospitality,” Mr. Kadokawa said. The ancient capital ranked No. 9 in a list of the World’s Most Livable Cities compiled by London-based magazine Monocle” a month earlier.

Image Sources: 1) Ray Kinnane 2) MIT Education 3) 5) 8) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 4) 7) Liza Dalby Tale of Genji site 9) 10) Kyoto Prefecture Tourism

Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization),, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.