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A Brief History of Kyoto

Although Kyoto was Japan's capital for more than 10 centuries, the real center of political power was often elsewhere, be it Kamakura (1192–1333) or Edo (1603–1868). Until 710 Japan's capital moved with the accession of each new emperor. When it was decided that this expense was too great, Nara was chosen as the permanent capital. This experiment lasted 74 years, during which Buddhists rallied for, and achieved, tremendous political power. In an effort to thwart them, Emperor Kammu moved the capital to Nagaoka for a decade and then, in 794, to Kyoto.

Until the end of the 12th century, the city flourished under imperial rule. The city's nobility, known as "cloud dwellers," cultivated an extraordinary culture of refinement called miyabi. But when imperial power waned, the city saw the rise of the samurai class, employed to protect the noble families' interests. Ensuing clashes between various clans led to the Gempei War (1180–85), from which the samurai emerged victorious. The bushido (or warrior spirit) found a counterpart in the minimalism of Zen Buddhism's austerity. The past luxury of miyabi was replaced with Zen's respect for frugality and discipline.

This period also brought devastating civil wars. Because the various feuding clans needed the Emperor's support to claim legitimacy, Kyoto, as imperial capital, became the stage for bitter struggles. The Onin Civil War (1467–77) was particularly devastating for Kyoto. Two feudal lords, Yamana and Hosokawa, disputed who should succeed the reigning shogun. Yamana camped in the western part of the city with 90,000 troops, and Hosokawa settled in the eastern part with 100,000 troops. Central Kyoto was the battlefield, and many of the city's buildings were destroyed.

Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, eventually moved the country's political center to Edo. Kyoto remained the imperial capital, and the first three Tokugawa shoguns paid homage to the city by restoring old temples and building new villas in the early 1700s. Much of what you see in Kyoto dates from this period. When Emperor Meiji was restored to power in the late 1860s his capital and Imperial Court were moved to Tokyo. Commerce flourished, though, and Kyoto continued as the center of traditional culture.

Updated: 2014-02-03

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