Back in my college days, many years ago, I had read (in translation) several works of Japanese literature from 10th and 11th centuries, including "The Tale of Genji" and "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon". These works were set in the royal courts of Nara and Kyoto, ancient capitals of Japan. For the royal courtiers, it was a time of serene art, refined poetry and frequent festivals celebrating events like the first cherry blossoms of spring. Ever since reading these works, I had wanted to visit Kyoto and Nara. I got my chance in June, 1997.

The reader should not be surprised to learn that much has changed in the last 1,000 years. Japan's capital long ago moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. While the royal family remains important for many Japanese, the royal court is no longer the epicenter of cultural life in the country. While Japan is still a place of serene art, refined poetry and frequent festivals, modern life now dominates these quaint holdovers from the past. Kyoto, in particular, is a major city with all the traffic, hustle and bustle one would expect from any city of similar size.

Nevertheless, both Kyoto and Nara (a short train ride away) still have many well preserved temples, shrines and palaces that hint at the serene grandeur of earlier years. In many cases, these grand structures are built of wood and reflect a careful craftsmanship that belongs to another era.

Kyoto, it is said, has more than 1,600 temples, hundreds of shrines and various palaces. For ten centuries (from 794 to 1868) Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan and official residence of the Emperor, though real political power often resided elsewhere with whatever Shogun held power at the moment. The city's golden era was from 794 through the end of the 12th century, during the Heian period.

Until 710, Japan's capital was moved each time a new Emperor took the throne. As the court grew, these relocations became expensive and so Nara was chosen as the new, permanent capital. Its moment of power, however, did not last long. As Buddhists achieved greater power, the Emperor Kanmu attempted to outflank them by moving the capital first to Nagaoka, then in 794 he moved it again to Kyoto where it remained until 1868.

The photos above offer a brief overview of Kyoto and Nara. For more detail about the people and modern Kyoto, click on one of the slide shows below that will run in a separate pop-up window. For photos of the magnificent temples and castles, go to Temples of Eastern Kyoto, Temples of Western Kyoto (which includes the Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and Nara, The Ancient Capital.

[More photos in the Pop-Up Slide Shows below.]


More Photos From Japan:

People of Kyoto & Nara:  Here's a brief look at some of the people I encountered in Kyoto and Nara. I was particularly surprised at the number of schoolchildren I saw visiting temples and shrines. Perhaps June was the season for class trips. (13 Photos)  [Preview This Slide Show]

Modern Kyoto:  Away from the temples, palaces and shrines, Kyoto is a busy, modern city. Nevertheless, some of the narrow streets retain a charm from past eras. (15 Photos)  [Preview This Slide Show]