Serenity in Kyoto: Japan’s cultural centerpiece

The city of Kyoto, Japan and the U.S. has an intermingled history as the city was removed from the list of atomic bomb targets due to its cultural importance.

Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, Japan was built without a single nail (wikipedia)

KYOTO, JAPAN, October 16, 2016 –Japan is a nation comprised of nearly 7,000 islands known as the Japanese archipelago, but only four are major population centers. From north to south they include, Hokkaido, Honshu (the largest island), Shikoku and Kyushu.

For those that visit Japan,  Kyoto, is one of the few cities in the country that retains a significant number of pre-World War II buildings.  Situated in the central part of the main island of Honshu, Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years.

Typical food shop in Nishiki Ichibi Kyoto (wikipedia)
Typical food shop in Nishiki Ichibi Kyoto (wikipedia)

In Japanese, Kyoto means “capital city.” In 1868, the city of Edo became the new capital and it was renamed “Tokyo” or “Eastern Capital.” Notice that if you take “To” and “Kyo” and transpose them, you get “Kyoto.”

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For a brief period Kyoto was called Saikyo or “Western Capital,” but Tokyo has been the official capital since the Emperor was transferred there almost 150 years ago.

Torii gates can be seen everywhere in Japan (wikipedia)
Torii gates can be seen everywhere in Japan (wikipedia)

At that time Tokyo became the capital, Japan was still very much a feudal society ruled by shoguns, the hereditary military dictators that were the de facto rulers in Japan during the period from 1185 to 1868.

It is only within the past century and a half that the nation has evolved into a major global power; a remarkable accomplishment considering its lengthy medieval history.

Why then has Kyoto’s architecture survived while much of the rest of country is a contrast between sublime beauty and serenity nestled alongside of contemporary clutter?

Travelers can easily miss the tranquility of Japanese artistic sensibilities without witnessing equal amounts of mangled wires, transformers and urban “jumble” out of the corners of your eyes. Bring your blinders and focus on the beauty.

Japanese rock gardens have centuries of tradition (wikipedia)
Japanese rock gardens have centuries of tradition (wikipedia)

Part of the reason is because Kyoto got a reprieve in the final days of World War II, when Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, was able to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt to remove Kyoto for the list of targets for the atomic bomb.

Stimson believed that because Kyoto was a cultural center, the impact of the bomb(s) in other areas of Japan might send a stronger message to the country. Secretary of War Henry Stimson ordered Kyoto to be removed from the atomic bomb target list in 1945.

As a result, Nagasaki replaced Kyoto and the city was spared.

Kyoto Gardens in Holland Park (wikipedia)
Kyoto Gardens in Holland Park (wikipedia)

Today, the city of approximately 1.5 million inhabitants remains one of the great centers of Japanese culture with about 20% of Japan’s national treasures and 14% of the country’s most important cultural properties located within the city center.

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In 1994, Kyoto was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 17 locations in the cities of Kyoto, Uji and Otsu.

Kozan-ji in Kyoto exemplifies architecture and landscaping (wikipedia)
Kozan-ji in Kyoto exemplifies architecture and landscaping (wikipedia)

Kozan-ji Temple is a Buddhist temple founded in the 13th century that is famous for its significant number of Japanese national treasures. Among the properties in the collection are priceless 12th and 13th century ink paintings.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple, which was founded in 778, gets its name from the waterfall within the complex. Perhaps the most interesting facet of this structure is that it was built without using a single nail. This particular Kiyomizu-dera Temple is located in Kyoto, however there is another temple with the same name that is part of temple pilgrimage in Western Japan.

Among the best examples of Japanese art are the miniature landscapes know at Japanese rock gardens, “dry landscape” gardens or zen gardens. Usually small in size, a Japanese rock garden features a carefully arranged assortment of rocks, bushes, trees, moss and water. Gravel or sand is raked in unique patterns to represent ripples in water.

RiyoanJi dry Garden in Kyoto exudes tranquility in its simplicity (wikipedia)
RiyoanJi dry Garden in Kyoto exudes tranquility in its simplicity (wikipedia)

Rock gardens are usually designed to be viewed from a single location that is slightly elevated outside the perimeter of the display. Typically the viewing point is a porch or hojo.

The amazing aspect of such landscapes is the instant sense of serenity that emanates from the peaceful designs.

In addition to its architecture and gardens, Kyoto is famous for its traditional festivals that have been part of the local culture for more than a millennium. The Aoi Matsuri is the first. Annually held on May 15, it precedes the Gion Matsuri in July which is regarded as one of the three great festivals of Japan.

August 16 brings the Bon Festival with the burning of fires on the mountainsides as a guide that leads the spirits home.

The final celebration of the year is the Jidai Matsuri or Festival of the Ages which celebrates Kyoto’s glorious history.

Like so much of Asia, Japan can be a difficult place to grasp where exquisite beauty frequently exists next door to contemporary disarray.

In its own way, Kyoto has somehow managed to maintain its cultural and artistic sensibilities with far less invasion from modernity.

For many, Kyoto is Japan as it used to exist in the “Land of the Rising Sun.”

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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.

He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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