The Enduring Architecture of Kyoto, Japan’s Ancient Capital

Larger Than Life: Art that inspires us through the ages
April 11, 2021 Updated: April 19, 2021

Between the 8th and 19th centuries, Kyoto, in western Japan, was the country’s capital. Built in 794, Kyoto was modeled on Chang’an, China’s Tang Dynasty capital, now known as Xi’an. 

China also influenced Japan’s art and architecture. UNESCO has listed no less than 17 of Kyoto’s monuments that together express the general historical development of Japanese wooden architecture and garden design. UNESCO notes that many of the structures have been authentically preserved due to the Japanese tradition of respecting the buildings. If any of the monuments needed to be repaired or rebuilt, then Japanese craftsmen kept true to the original style and decorations.

Ujigami Shrine, with its distinctive asymmetrical gabled roof, is the oldest example of nagare-zukuri architecture in Japan. The shrine was built as a guardian shrine for the Byodo-in Temple at the end of the Heian period (749–1185). (Pistpist/Shutterstock)
Kamigamo Shrine (Kamigamo-jinja) is a Shinto shrine first founded in 678 to protect Kyoto from malign forces. (Lewis Liu/Shutterstock)
Shimogamo-jinja is a Shinto shrine that dates from the sixth century. (Nyker/Shutterstock)
The five-story pagoda of the Shingon Buddhist Temple, To-ji, founded in 796, was one of only three Buddhist temples in Kyoto at the time. Kukai, a Japanese Buddhist monk, founded Shingon Buddhism when he returned from China, where he had learned Buddhism. (Takashi Images/Shutterstock)
The main hall of the Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist Temple. (Chen Min Chun/Shutterstock)
Founded in 788, the Enryaku Buddhist Temple is situated on Mount Hiei and overlooks Kyoto. The temple is the headquarters of Tendai Buddhism. In 806, monk Saicho introduced Tendai Buddhism to Japan from China. (Beibaoke/Shutterstock)
Built in 951, the majestic five-story pagoda of Daigo Temple is believed to be the oldest in Kyoto. Buddhist mandala paintings are on the walls of the ground floor. (Pio3/Shutterstock)
The golden hall of Ninna Temple. According to ancient tradition, a member of the imperial family always served as the head Shingon Buddhist monk of Ninna Temple. (Andres Garcia Martin/Shutterstock)
Nestled among the trees, the Sekisui-in (pictured) is the only surviving 13th-century building from the original temple. (663highland/CC SA-BY 3.0)
The Zen garden of the Koke-dera Temple (Moss Temple) dates from 1339 and significantly influenced Japanese garden design. (Julian52000/Shutterstock)
The 14th-century Zen garden of Tenryu Temple is built around a pond. Waterfalls, stone bridges, and groups of rocks are carefully arranged to aid contemplation. (Patrick Foto/Shutterstock)
A woman in a traditional kimono admires the Kinkaku Temple (the Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto, Japan. (Guitar photographer/Shutterstock)
Built in 1489, the Zen temple of Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion) demonstrates two distinctive styles of architecture. (Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)
The garden at the Zen temple of Ryoan-ji (Temple of the Dragon at Peace) is considered one of the best examples of its kind. The garden style is kare-sansui, or dry landscape, and consists of large rocks and polished river stones carefully arranged and raked to facilitate meditation. (Cquest/CC BY-SA 2.5)
Higashi Hongan Temple displays the splendor of the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1574–1600) when the 13th-century temple was restored. During the Azuchi-Momoyama period, grand castles and mansions replaced temple architecture. (DRN Studio/Shutterstock)
Nijo Castle was built in 1603 to protect the Imperial Palace, in Kyoto, Japan. (Beeboys/Shutterstock)