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Why Kyoto is the way it is — A review of “Kyoto: An Urban History of Japan’s Premodern Capital”

The book rests at an angle on top of a box of yōkan from a famous Kyoto store that dates back more than 300 years
Enjoying the book with some summer Kyoto confectionaries.

I first came to Kyoto in 1999 for university. My first jobs out of school were here. My second daughter was born here. I lived in a dorm, four apartments, and a house, all in different areas of the city. Walked pretty much every street. Even when I lived in Nagoya for those four years we were always coming back to Kyoto for weekends and holidays to visit Jiji and Baba. It is basically my “hometown” in Japan. In fact, I always thought I would retire here too. I like to joke that I love going to different temples and taking photos of moss and leaves… I’m basically already a Kyoto retiree! Kyoto is a special place for me. I have mused about this previously. I love walking its streets and exploring its historical alleys. I feel like I have been everywhere, but by no means do I know everything about this 1200 year old city. Hence I picked up Matthew Stavros’s study Kyoto An Urban History of Japan’s Premodern Capital (see book site with extra materials) with great enthusiasm.

The book starts with the idealized plan of the city for when it was founded in 794 (making the city 1229 years old in 2023). Originally modelled on the great imperial cities of Chang’an (Sui Dynasty 581-618) and Luoyang (Tang Dynasty 618-907), Kyoto was the sixth “Chinese” city to be built in the previous 100 years. Stavros covers the implementation (and ultimate failure) of the city plan, and the gradual evolution of the city over the next millennium. Much has been lost. The original 85 meter wide main street running up the center of the city between the twin temples of Saiji and Toji is gone now. In fact, Saiji, the western temple, was lost along with the city gate within a couple hundred years. That is why the iconic Tōji pagoda — which the Shinkansen whizzes past today — is the symbol of Kyoto: it was a visible signpost to overland travellers coming from the south, and is also the reason that Kyoto has height limitations on its buildings today (this actually is not covered in the book, which only goes up to the mid-17th C).

Photo of Shinkansen with a prominent pagoda in the background
Shinkansen speeds past Tōji pagoda. Click to see the video.

The book explains the grid-like structure of the city, the development of the famous machiya townhouses, and unlike other cities in Japan, how streets became more important than blocks for addresses. (Kyoto taxi drivers love it when you jump in and can give them street directions!). The story of why Kyoto is the way it is unravels as Stavros details all the cultural and socio-political realities that get in the way of the best laid plans.

Originally warriors and temples were banned from Kyoto. Only the two state-sponsored temples mentioned above (with no sectarian affiliation) were allowed within city walls. Through the throes of political and economic power the city shifted westward, expanding beyond the Kamo River and into the hills. This is where Kamo no Chōmei had his hut, observing the machinations of the city and writing his Hōjōki — a book recently translated by Matthew Stavros (and reviewed by yours truly on the Writers in Kyoto website).

Three maps of Kyoto side-by-side. From the left is 9th century, 14th Century, 16th Century. The city tends to move west and north.
Three maps showing the westward and northward progression of Kyoto over the centuries.

If you are already familiar with the sweeping history of Japan between the Heian and Edo periods this book does an excellent job tying all those strands together with the city of Kyoto at the center. I certainly gained a better understanding of the transitions from one period to another by having them described in relation to the city. The effects of politics were far-reaching: Kyoto was never able to complete the wall around the original city because it needed the funds to fight the Emishi in the north. The lack of foreign relations with China and Korea meant the Rajōmon — the main city gate — was never repaired after a fire, the foundation stones being used to make Hōjōji. Kyoto: An Urban History of Japan’s Premodern Capital is full of details like this: tidbits that will fuel my walks for years to come! (I especially like the mystery of why Nijō Castle is a 3º angle off the city grid… read the book to learn more!)

In the later sections, covering the run-up to the Warring States period, the temples of popular religions sprout up in the city, against the original city plan. Once warriors too were invited in the city walls it was only a matter of time until the Ōnin War saw the city demolished by a decade of civil war. It took almost a century before the city underwent a wave of renovations kicked of in 1560 by Nobunaga (who commanded an army of 15,000 labourers himself!), and continued under Hideyoshi and Ieyasu — all three of the Great Unifiers.

This is the Kyoto we know now. Although the city is 1200 years old, its current form can really only be traced back a “mere” 400 years. For all the history we get to see walking around this place, more than twice is lost. That is the perspective I gained reading this book. I can only hope that some of the many, many visitors to Kyoto read books like this and Another Kyoto so that they can actually appreciate what they are seeing. As Matt Stavros closes his book, “It is truly one of the world’s great historical cities.”

Map of modern Kyoto with various shapes of the previous iterations overlaid
Map from the final pages of the book with the caption: “Kyoto’s urban landscape through time. Heian-kyo grid (brown); neighborhood federations (cho-gumi) during Age of Warring States (yellow); Nijo Castle of Ashikaga Yoshiaki (blue); Jurakudai Palace (green); Nijo Castle of the Tokugawa period (blue and white); Imperial Palace (post-1336) and Kyoto Noble Village of Tokugawa era (purple); Odoi city wall (brown line).”