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So well know is the name Kyoto that it conjures up images of the exotic foreign for millions around the world.
True: as here you will discover temples, shrines and pagodas: many magnificent and exquisite Zen gardens; enjoy sumptuous traditional feasts; and, of course, that most alluring and misunderstood of earthly creatures: the kimono-clad geisha.
Kyoto is the national center for such traditional disciplines as cha-do (tea ceremony) and ikebana (flower arranging), the birthplace of kabuki, and the leading center of calligraphy, painting, and sculpture.
The city has a unique place in the Japanese national identity, and one-third of Japan's entire population is estimated to visit the city each year. Despite this, in many ways Kyoto is a surprisingly typical modern Japanese city with the usual nondescript concrete buildings along with the remarkable pockets of culture and beauty.
For a thousand years, Kyoto served as the cultural and spiritual capital of Japanese civilization, the home of its revered emperors after the Nara period from the end of the 8th century up to the Meiji Restoration in the late-19th century. The imperial rulers moved the capital to Kyoto originally to escape from the growing domination of the Buddhist authorities of Nara. In the new capital the building of Buddhist temples was actually briefly banned—ironic in a city now universally renowned for its temples.
Kyoto simply means "Capital City," though it was originally known as Heian-kyo ("Capital of Peace"), the name given to the golden Heian era between the tenth and 12th centuries. During this time Kyoto thrived as Japan's cultural and creative heartland. But the city's fortunes turned during the Warring States period (1467-1568), which was finally ended by the unifying warlords Nobunaga and Hideyoshi in the mid-6th century.
In many ways the city has never recovered from Hideyoshi's subsequent decision to move the national capital from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo) in the early 1600s—a blow compounded by the young Emperor Meiji shifting the imperial household to Tokyo in 1868. But Kyoto has nevertheless remained the repository of the nation's noblest cultural pursuits and architectural legacy.
The geomancers (practicing a Chinese feng-shui-like the art) in 794 decided that Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) would be an auspicious site for the imperial family. It was indeed—until 1869.
Grants of tax-free land over the years had been made to Buddhist temples and members of the court aristocracy. The most powerful families thus carved out for themselves whole regions that were to become the fiefdoms of Japanese feudalism. By the end of the eighth century the clans had created a hierarchy of shiki, or rights, from the highest to the lowest ranks of society. The aristocrat or court patron lent his prestige to a powerful provincial proprietor, who employed a competent estate-manager to oversee smallholders, who in turn worked their farms with dependent laborers. This elaborate structure of interdependent right and obligations was to serve Japanese society right into the 20th century.
Meanwhile, Heian court life blossomed in an effusion of aesthetic expression. Princes and princesses judged the merits of birds. Insects flowers roots or seashells. Literary party games held in ornate palace gardens required each guest to compose a small poem as his wine cup floated toward him along a miniature winding channel of water. Expeditions were organized to the best viewing points for the first spring cherry blossoms, and special pavilions were built to watch the rising of the full moon. Every gesture, from the most banal opening of an umbrella to the sublimest act of lovemaking, had its appropriate ceremonial. Conversation often took the form of elegant exchange of improvised verse.
The changing role of Chinese culture in Japanese life was epitomized in the language itself. In the absence of an indigenous alphabet. Japanese scholars had with the greatest difficulty tried to adapt the complex ideograms of monosyllabic Chinese to the essentially polysyllabic Japanese. Thus developed the katakana system used a vehicle for writing Buddhist names and concepts.
After the rival Fujiwara factions, struggling for many years to seize of the imperial throne, they turned to the armies or Taira and Minamoto in the year 1156 to fight a four year war that portended the end of the golden age of the Heian court. The Taira, controlling the region along the inland Sea, defeated the Minamoto armies based in the kanto province east of the capital.
Over the next 20 years, the Minamoto clan acquired new strength by offering better guarantees to local landowners – and their armies—then they could expect from court. Eventually a new offensive, the decisive Gempei War, was launched in 1180. Five years later the Taira were overthrown after being defeated in the straits between western Honshu and Kyushu, at the titanic sea battle of Donnoura—which has a place in Japanese annals comparable to Waterloo or Stalingrad.
Kyoto's Imperial Residences; The Imperial Palace (Kyoto Gosho) and the Katsura and Shugakuin imperial villas are mandatory destinations for anyone with an interest in Japanese architecture, design, and aesthetics.
However, since they are imperial property, special reservations must be made with the Kyoto office of the Imperial Household Agency (located on the grounds of the Imperial Palace, just south of Imadegawadori passports are required). Note that Overseas reservations will not be accepted.
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Nishiki Market is ideal if you looking to for a change of pace and frame of mind.
This surprising calm and sedate market located along the street is housed under a single roofed arcade.
Higashiyama's Gion district is Kyoto's main historical center of traditional theater, arts, and (now) antiques. It is also known as the last training center for geishas.
This is the place to wander and soak up the sights and sounds of Kyoto's lone quarter still dedicated to traditional arts and entertainment. Your curiosity and patience will inevitably reward you with a glimpse of a genuine geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha), the copious layers of her opulent—and unimaginably heavy—silk kimono rustling as she hurries to an appointment or a training session.
National Museum of Modern Art is, despite its name, mainly devoted to 19th- and 20th-century ceramics.
Exchange rate fluctuations can have a considerable impact on your trip budget. If your home currency has appreciated in value in the recent term over the currency of your destination you are likely to find the place inexpensive.
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Graphic showing average weather in Kyoto in Celcius and Centimeters (Change to Farenheit and Inches)
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