Street in Kyoto old town, pagoda in distance, soft pink sky. Traditionally dressed Japanese lady walking away from camera, holding red umbrella. Graffiti overlay of a quote from the article: "A cultural oasis that refuses to fade into obscurity..."

Wait… Was Kyoto the Capital of Japan? (Yes: The Story is Wild)

Here You’ll Find:
🍊 When was Kyoto the Capital of Japan?
The Thousand-Year Capital, pt 1 (794-1868*)
The Thousand Year ‘De Jure’ Capital, pt 2 (1603-1868)
🏰 Why is Kyoto Not the Capital of Japan Now?
The Emperor’s New Groove-y House (1868)
🌳 Are There Things to Visit in Kyoto From its Time as Capital?
Kyoto Saved from the Flames (WWII)
Worth a Modern Visit to Japan's Cultural Capital?


Long ago, in a mysterious land adorned with the exquisite grace of cherry blossoms, there was a particularly captivating city. Its name 'Kyoto' - which translates to "Capital City" - hints at its former unmatched significance. With that in mind, was Kyoto the capital of Japan? Absolutely, and this place was extraordinary. It was the centre of Japan for more than a millennium, witnessing political drama and cultural richness. Kyoto capital of Japan, was the phrase on the tip of everybody's tongue. But to merely state that fact is to suggest a samurai's sword is 'quite sharp' - technically accurate, yet woefully inadequate. For over 1,000 years, Kyoto (or Heian-kyō, as it was known at its inception) shaped the nation's identity. It did so from its serene temples and bustling streets. It stood as a silent witness to cultural and political transformations, which would define the very essence of what it meant to be Japanese. The Imperial Court, the ruling inner circle of the Emperor, even played a crucial role in shaping modern Japanese culture. But, for how long was Kyoto the capital of Japan? Over time, a power struggle developed between Emperors and Shoguns, which reads as compelling as the script for a Netflix drama series.

Yet, what makes Kyoto captivating even today is not just its ancient past; it's how this past breathes life into its attractions, old and new. The city is a living museum where every corner tells a story, coaxing curious minds to explore deeper. Modern-day Kyoto's cultural significance and popularity go beyond being Japan's former capital. Intrigue, artistry, love, and a backdrop of stunning natural beauty define its tales. It's calling out, asking us to delve into its rich history. One that shaped Japan and continued to echo, leaving an indelible mark on the world beyond it. Kyoto's story is more layered than a wardrobe of kimonos. So, let's embark on this journey together. We'll uncover why Kyoto's former capital status continues to captivate hearts and minds even now. Because understanding Kyoto is not just about learning facts, it’s about experiencing the soul of Japan itself.


Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto, Japan. The temple is surrounded by trees, covered in Autumnal foliage. The City of Kyoto can be seen in the distance.

When was Kyoto the Capital of Japan?

The Thousand-Year Capital, pt 1 (794-1868*)

In 794 AD, a significant event occurred in Japan that would shape its cultural and political landscape for centuries. The city of Heian-kyo, known today as Kyoto, was declared the capital. But let's not rush: the story of Kyoto isn't one to be skimmed through like a history textbook. Heian-kyo - which poetically translates to "City of Peace and Tranquility" - wasn't just cobbled together. The city's design was inspired by Chang'an (modern-day Xi'an), the capital of China's Tang dynasty. Chang'an was known for its orderly and peaceful layout. Imagine Kyoto's architects, fancy calligraphy pens in hand: “If it’s good enough for Tang, it’s good enough for us”. Thus began Kyoto’s journey as the beating heart of Japan from 794 all the way to 1868. The city was a melting pot of power, with a long line of emperors, clans, and artists akin to today's celebrities. Think Hollywood but with more silk robes and fewer paparazzi. These were the days when Kyoto wasn’t just a city; it was THE city - a place where trends were set, politics politic'd, and tea ceremoniously slurped.

We can thank this period of history for the Kiyomizu-dera temple and Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion). More than Buddhist Temples, they were statements of power, beauty, and a deep reverence for nature. Picture Kiyomizu-dera nestled amongst the dense - but no less elegant - foliage, as the sun sets on the land of rising sun. It's a sight that could stir emotion from even the most hardened samurai warrior. Fortunately, there's more than one interesting place in Kyoto from this time period, which can still be visited to this day. However, the reasons for their preservation will be revealed in due course.

Daily life revolved around spirituality, tradition, and intricate ceremonies in the ancient capital. The Noh theatre flourished during this period. Noh was a form of story-based dance so refined and symbolic that it makes Shakespeare look like a Garfield comic strip. (Sorry Garfield, I don't like Mondays either). Tea ceremonies also gained popularity among the elite. The ceremonies are less-so about drinking tea and more about showcasing grace and etiquette. A level of poise that would make even the most dedicated yoga instructor nervous. Can you imagine balancing a delicate porcelain cup full of hot tea with the poise of a thousand cranes? That was the expectation at these gatherings. Although on second thoughts, before we move on, a thousand cranes in a tearoom does seem like a bit of a hullabaloo.


A traditional tea ceremony, which is taking place in a Kyoto tea room. The participants are sat on Tatami mats and the typical tea ceremony apparatus can be seen in the centre.

The Thousand Year ‘De Jure’ Capital, pt 2 (1603-1868)

Why was the Japanese capital moved from Kyoto to Tokyo? To understand this era of Japan's history, it's important to grasp two terms: 'De Jure' and 'De Facto'. They may sound like they belong in an episode of Suits, but they play a key role. Effectively 'official' vs. 'the real deal'. A contrast that painted the backdrop for one of Kyoto's - and Japan's - most transformative periods. In 1603, Japan witnessed a seismic shift that would redefine its cultural and political landscape - the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This power grab shifted Japan's political centre from Kyoto to Edo, while maintaining the Emperor's support. This move stirred an intriguing cultural dynamic between these cities. Edo became the stage where the Shoguns flexed their political and military muscle, making it Japan's 'De Facto' capital. Yet, amidst this concentration of power, Kyoto remained resplendent with symbolic significance. The Emperor's continued residence in Kyoto ensured it at least remained the 'De Jure' official capital. Kyoto was a haven preserving the soul of Japan's traditions amidst the march of progress during the Edo period.

This duality birthed an era where both cities thrived but in markedly different arenas. Edo buzzed with political intrigue and emerged as a cultural powerhouse during what is fondly remembered as the Genroku era. Here, new Kabuki theatres overflowed with more drama than a city centre bar at closing time. Although Kabuki's origins lie in Kyoto, it captivated the audiences of Edo with tales woven through expressive dance and music. Kabuki allowed the scope for broader storytelling than the more traditional Noh Theatre. Noh had roots in themes of classical spirituality. Meanwhile, Kyoto held to its prestigious past, with even the Kyoto Geisha district maintaining traditions that whispered of an older Japan. Tea ceremonies in Kyoto were not just social gatherings, but an art form. Every movement had meaning, each cup was a bridge to true Zen.

So, was Kyoto the capital of Japan at this time? Yes* But, because we're in 17th century Japan, we're attributing the closest thing to the Western idea of a "capital city". Despite handing over day-to-day political power to Edo, the capital correlates with the Emperor's home address. This was still the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Kyoto. So, the two cities coexisted as capitals, each with different powers and traditions. Fast-forward 400 years, visitors can still feel this unique dichotomy of culture. The vibrant energy of Tokyo contrasts with Kyoto's serene beauty to this day. Spoiler alert: Today, Edo is called Tokyo.


The Kyoto Imperial Palace. This was the residence of the Emperor of Japan, until 1868 when the Meiji period began and the Emperor moved to Tokyo. The sky is blue, with some clouds. There is a wide, clean expanse of white gravel before the traditional Japanese Palace.

Why is Kyoto Not the Capital of Japan Now?

The Emperor’s New Groove-y House (1868)

In 1868, the Meiji Reforms - otherwise known as the "honourable restoration" - brought a seismic shift. The Emperor of Japan marked the end of Kyoto's formal reign as capital, by moving to Edo. With this, Edo was officially renamed Tokyo - which translates to "Eastern Capital". The Meiji Restoration rippled through the country like a seismic wave, reshaping its very core. At the heart of this upheaval was a monumental decision - the Emperor's relocation from Kyoto to Tokyo. The Tokugawa Shogunate did bring social, political and military developments during its time. However, Mutsuhito - "Emperor Meiji" - was ready to restore Imperial rule in the land of the rising sun. This move signified a shift to modernisation and Westernisation, which would impress Japan upon the world stage.

Kyoto, once the pulsing political centre, found itself at a crossroads. While Tokyo flourished under the Emperor's presence, Kyoto faced somewhat of an identity crisis. Yet, our favourite ancient Japanese city clung to its cultural heritage with unwavering pride. The transition was shrouded in ambiguity, because no grand declaration marked this shift. The tides of change weren't confined to politics alone; there was a restructuring of the class system underway too. As Japan strived for modernity, traditional norms blurred, paving the way for a new societal order. This metamorphosis wasn't without resistance or confusion but symbolised Japan's quest for progress. Kyoto even briefly assumed the name Saikyō, a name which translates to "Western Capital". With Tokyo's new capital status on the East coast, this signified Kyoto's continued importance.

The reasons behind this pivotal move were manifold. Political motives intertwined with industrial aspirations, aiming to align itself with Western ideals. Symbolically, Tokyo's rise signalled a new chapter in Japan's story, while casting shadows over Kyoto's former glory. Yet, Kyoto weathered these winds of change with resilience and grace. Its universities remained strongholds of knowledge and tradition, providing stability during challenging times. Geisha culture danced on, painting Kyoto with vibrant hues of its rich past amidst an ever-evolving present. Today, Kyoto stands as a testament to the embrace of change and the preservation of what was once considered beautiful.


The five-storey pagoda at Daigo-ji temple, built in 951. The oldest building in Kyoto. The sky is blue and the trees are a healthy green.

Are There Things to Visit in Kyoto From its Time as Capital?

Kyoto Saved from the Flames (WWII)

During World War II, destruction and devastation reigned over many, but Kyoto remained mostly untouched. This ancient city, with its unparalleled beauty and rich heritage, found itself in a precarious position during the war. As the world was engulfed in conflict, Kyoto's notoriety surely meant its fate hung in the balance. Yet, strangely we found Kyoto preserved from WWII. It was Kyoto's historical significance that played a key role in its salvation. It is said that early on in the process of selecting targets for the atomic bomb, Kyoto was pointedly removed from the list of candidates. Henry Stimson, the U.S. Secretary of War at the time, played a crucial role in saving Kyoto.

Today Henry Stimson is known for his efforts to protect Kyoto. But at the time, he faced opposition from within the military ranks. Despite challenges, he persevered and even sought help from President Harry Truman to ensure Kyoto's safety. People have speculated that Stimson was fond of Kyoto because he had honeymooned there with his wife. This story was immortalised in Christopher Nolan's multi-award winning film: Oppenheimer. But there is no solid evidence that Stimson had ever visited Kyoto for anything other than official reasons. The real reason behind Stimson's dedication to preserving Kyoto lies in the historical sites in Kyoto. Many of the city's ancient wooden structures are older than the United States of America itself. The significance of these historical buildings to Japan's culture and identity wasn't lost on the US. Preserving these structures became a symbol of hope for the future. A future where Japan and the West could rebuild their relationship with mutual respect and understanding.

In a time marked by destruction and chaos, Kyoto stood as a testament to resilience and reverence for history. Kyoto's survival echoes through time as a reminder of what we can endure even amidst turmoil.


A view of the modern Kyoto skyline, the Kyoto observation tower is the tallest amongst the buildings. In the foreground we can see cherry blossom trees in bloom and a public analogue clock which seems to be powered by solar panels. A perfect photo showcasing Kyoto's past and present in harmony.

Worth a Modern Visit to Japan's Cultural Capital?

In the heart of Japan, where history radiates out from the Kyoto Imperial gardens, but modernity hums in the bustling streets. Once the majestic capital, now a cultural oasis that refuses to fade into obscurity. Kyoto is a city with a rich mix of tradition and innovation, standing out despite Tokyo's prominence on the map. To visit the famous sites in Kyoto is to step into a time machine, where preserved historic monuments beckon you to unravel Japan's complex past. The city doesn't cling to heritage; it thrives on it. From tea ceremonies, to sight seeing in Kyoto, or geisha performances which whisper tales of bygone eras, every corner tells a story. But don't be fooled by its ancient allure; Kyoto is a chameleon that effortlessly blends tradition with modernity. A place where famous Kyoto contemporary art breathes new colours into old canvases.

When trying to find the most popular food in Kyoto, you won't go wrong seeking a Kaiseki dining experience. Kyoto's traditional food is guaranteed to delight even the most discerning palates. As you wander the city streets full of plumptiousness, you'll find a whirlwind of experiences. Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage sites stand as stoic witnesses to time. The Gion district, Kyoto old city: picture Geishas gracefully gliding through lantern-lit alleys. Kyoto festivals respectfully paint the city in hues of celebration on a regular basis. So next time you ponder Japan's cultural treasures for a modern-day visit, take this as exactly why you should visit Kyoto. A city where past and present waltz in harmony, offering a welcoming glance into a foreign realm.

In 2023, the Japanese government moved one of their official offices (the Agency for Cultural Affairs) to Kyoto. It was the first time that a central government office was moved out of Tokyo since it became the capital. Another nod toward Kyoto's continued importance in the minds of Japan's decision makers.

With this, the list of things you didn't know about Kyoto and traditional Japanese culture will surely have shrunk! In the grand tapestry of Japan's history, Kyoto emerges as a vibrant thread woven with cultural resilience and power evolution. For over a millennium, it stood as the beating heart of the nation, its significance etched into every stone and story. From 794 until 1603, Kyoto reigned supreme. In 1603, Kyoto learned to share the responsibility. Winds of change swept through Japan in 1868 with the Emperor's move to Edo, birthing a new capital - Tokyo. Kyoto remained steadfast, escaping the ravages of WWII, which scarred many other cities. Today, it remains an enchanting destination for all who seek its secrets. As you ponder Kyoto's past and present, dare to delve deeper into its cultural riches and modern allure. Beyond its former glory as a nation's capital, today's Kyoto beckons travellers to explore its streets and gardens.

So, was Kyoto the capital of Japan in a purely traditional sense of the word? The answer dances beyond a simple yes, the fascinating history of Kyoto unfolds a tale of resilience and reinvention. Let this peek at Kyoto ignite your curiosity, and tempt you towards an adventure guided by ancient spirits... or a more conventional Kyoto travel guide.