Heian-Kyo: the Golden Age of Kyoto

For nearly four hundred years the “Peaceful and Tranquil City” was the administrative centre of Japan, writes George Woodcock, and for more than a thousand years remained the home of the Japanese Emperors.

The milestones that mark off the history of Japan are the names of places. We talk of Nara and Heian periods, of Kamakura and Muromachi and Yedo periods, and the descriptions are not merely convenient labels for historians. They point to the territorial associations of the eras of Japanese government, but also to the fact that most of the great cities of Japan were the deliberate creations of the imperial dynasty or of the noble lines that for long periods usurped power under the institutions of Regency and Shogunate.

Heian-kyo—or Kyoto as it was later called—remained the seat of the imperial house for more than a thousand years, from its foundation in 794 to the day in 1869 when the Emperor Meiji, having finally shaken himself free of the Tokugawa Shogunate, departed to rule in the new capital of Tokyo. From 794 to 1185 this most charming of the larger Japanese cities was the only seat of government in Japan, and developed a culture of its own that was neither imitated in the rest of Japan nor perpetuated in later, more violent periods.

The foundation of Kyoto was the culmination of a rapid process of political and social development that began in the sixth century A.D., when the introduction of Buddhism from Korea coincided with the seizure of effective power by the noble clan of the Soga. Up to that time, government in Japan appears to have depended on a rather precarious balance between the imperial family and various noble clans supported by surviving tribal loyalties.

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