Kyoto’s Historical Boulevard

October 16, 2017

by Takumi Abe

Many people who visit Kyoto want to seeonly  Kiyomizu temple, Kinkakuji temple or the Ryoanji rock garden. However, when most people first arrive in Kyoto, they will see the Kyoto Tower and a wide avenue going to the north. This street has many cars, taxis and buses. Its name is Karasuma-dori, and its length is six kilometers. Karasuma street is an important and central street in Kyoto, so there are many business buildings and some temples along it.  In addition, two universities are located on Karasuma, and the Kyoto Imperial Palace flanks the avenue as well. It is an important street especially from the views of the economy, education and Japanese history.

Karasuma from 794

Kyoto city has prospered for about 1200 years so many streets in Kyoto have a long history. If you walk down Karasuma street, you can see buildings from various eras. Karasuma was constructed in the Heian period (794-1185). At that time, this road was called Karasumaru-koji street. “Koji” means small road. This street was named after a family of Heian-period aristocrats. Karasuma has been significant because among the many Fujiwara families it was the largest area where Heian aristocrats lived. The street flourished,  but it fell into ruinduring the civil war in Medieval times. After this period of battles, the street was revived by Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Due to his project, the street had many upper-class mansions, houses and stores. In  the Meiji period (1868-1912),  one of the modern Japanese periods, Kyoto Station was built at the south end of Karasuma street. As a result, this street was expanded and extended to all the way to northern Kyoto. At the same time, a streetcar started to run along the street. Today, Karasuma is in the central business district, where there are many banks and companies. Additionally, it is a gateway to Kyoto for people from various countries first arriving at Kyoto Station.


The gateway of Kyoto

What you can see on Karasuma

Shijo Karasuma

Shijo-Karasuma is one of the big commercial areas in the city. Many banks and insurance companies are located here. You can see the modern Japanese architecture and a long history. On the left side of the above photo of Shijo -Karasuma is the Mitsui building. This entrance was created in 1941.

Cocon Karasuma

Doshisha University

Cocon Karasuma is a commercial complex and office building. You may be fascinated by the arabesque pattern on the wall. This building was constructed in 1938, and it was recently renovated. It was not exposed the fires of war, so you can see the old-style stairs and floors inside. “Cocon,” in Japanese means both ancient and modern, so this amazing building shows the past  and the present in Kyoto.

If you continue much further north on Karasuma you will come to Doshisha University. This university was founded in 1875, and now about 27,000 students go to this school. It was established by Jyo Nijima. He was the first Japanese person to graduate from a university in the USA. He opened the door to modern education in Japan.


If you want to eat Japanese sweets, I recommend that you go to Toraya. It has a long history, and this store has been around for nearly five centuries. From the days of old, this store made sweets for the Emperor. Its famous itme is Azuki-bean jelly. It has been loved for more than 500 years. Is is on Karasuma just southwest of Doshisha University.

Traditional culture inJapan is not only concerned with food, but there is also kadou or literally “the way of flowers”. Kadou is arranging flowers beautifully. It represents and expresses the beauty of Japan. Kadou was formed in the Muromachi era (1336-1573). It is said that it originated at the pond of Rokkakuji temple. This temple is crowded with tourists. Next to it on Karasuma is the headquarters of the Ikenobo School of Flower arrangement.

Manga museum

Moreover, people who love Japanese culture had better go to the Manga museum, which is nearby the Oike-Karasuma intersection. As the name indicates, this museum keeps more 30 thousand manga. You can read manga in the museum or in its garden. The Giga-Ukiyoe, which is a collection of funny pictures and was printed in the Edo era (1603-1867), is in the collection of the museum. Moreover, some manga housed here are from overseas. The amazing thing is that this building has been used since 1929. it used to be an elementary school, therefore you can see also the old style of Japanese school.

The street as a face of Kyoto

Kyoto Imperial Palace

Karasuma street has a long history. It is rare that you can see a story that is 1200 years long. This place has faces of traditional Japan, modern Japan and present-day Japan. You can feel a Japanese passion to create the city, protect its heritage, and reinvigorate its culture.  The street is bustling with university students and some of its cafés are filled with young power. What is more, many workers use the street to find lunch or dinner, or go shopping. In  old times, there were many people riding in a carriage or walking in kimono. Suppose you come to Karasuma—you may feel the history of Japan.


Katsura Imperial Villa

by Kiyoshi Umaba
Katsura Imperial Villa – Panoramas of an Edo-period Countryside

Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura Rikyu) is a cherished cultural treasure in the western part of Kyoto City, but because Kyoto Imperial Palace (or Kyoto Gosho), which stands in the city center, is so famous among foreign tourists, many do not know that visiting the imperial villa is actually a much more enriching experience. In this article, you will come to see clearly how beautiful and important the villa is, while learning about its history, scenery and what styles of buildings were used in the era in which it was erected.

What is Katsura Imperial Villa?

Katsura Imperial Villa is a former detached palace, or retreat, which lies in present-day Nishikyo Ward, in the southwest of Kyoto City. Alongside the villa flows the Katsura River. This suburb of the city was once remote countryside, fairly far from Kyoto City, and hence a very quiet and comfortable place to live secretly for a member of the aristocracy. The spacious grounds of this villa cover about 69,000 square meters. The villa is famous for its migration-style gardens. This means that you can enjoy walking from one garden to another across wooden bridges. It is like going across beautiful islands. Here you can also enjoy the panorama of lovely nature through the four seasons. The villa’s elegant buildings are among the finest examples of the Sukiya Style of the Edo Period (1603 to 1868).

Nowadays, the Imperial Household Agency of Japan has reserved or protected the villa. Detailed information will be shown later…

History of Katsura Imperial Villa


Katsura Imperial Villa was constructed in the mid-17th century, early in the Edo Period. The villa was a cottage of an imperial family, Hachijo no Miya. Katsura had been well-known as a retreat for aristocracy back when Kyoto was still known as “Heian Kyo” because of its relaxing peacefulness. The villa used to be called “Katsura Sanso,” simply Katsura Villa. The villa was planned by Hachijo no Miya Tomohito and completed by his son, Tomotada. Tomohito was said to be sophisticated, with an understanding of the styles of construction popular in his era, and he adopted a Sukiya-shoin mixed style including teahouses, a Japanese style study and gardens, etc. The family Hachijo itself declined and broke apart in 1881, and the name of the villa changed three times (Kyogoku no Miya, Katsura no Miya and Katsura Imperial Palace).

A Stroll through Katsura Imperial Villa


At last, you have come to the highlight of my tour. From now, I am going to accompany my explanations with wonderful photos.

First, when you enter the villa, you can see a gate with a thatched roof. It is called Miyuki Mon, or Miyuki Gate. It was used for the doorway to welcome and entertain imperial families or important guests. Before reaching it, a low pine tree welcomes you, called Sumiyoshi no Matsu, or The Pine Tree of Sumiyoshi, because it hides the inner panorama of the gardens.

Second, you can see a teahouse called Shokin Tei, or Shokin Teahouse. In this thatched teahouse, you can imagine how imperial families or guests enjoyed the beautiful vista of the gardens while drinking a cup of green tea. Today, all of the fusuma (framed and papered sliding doors) are opened for enjoying the views, so you can look around at four different elegant panoramas.

Third, walking around the villa past Shokin Teahouse, you reach a kind of hill, where you will find a traditional and simpler tea house. Its name is Shoka Tei, or Shoka Teahouse. This is also a thatched-style teahouse. One can imagine that tired travelers climbed up this hill to relax with green tea and enjoy the view from above.

Fourth, you will reach Onrindo, or Onrin Temple. From these photos shown above, you can see that it is not just a teahouse; in fact, it used to be a shrine for someone’s remains, but currently no remains are enshrined.

Fifth, you will pass Shoiken. It was also made in a thatched style. In the photo, you see round-shaped papered windows. They are called koshi mado, or lattice windows.

Finally, you will reach Gepparo. Literally, it means moon-wave-teahouse, and it offers the best view of the harvest moon, reflected in the pond beside the teahouse. In the photo below, you can see through Gepparo’s doors to the other thatched teahouse, Shokin Tei. How well-harmonized it is!So, that’s our tour of Katsura Imperial Villa. We were like travelers strolling through the countryside, weren’t we?

To join an actual one-hour sightseeing tour of the villa, which is free of charge (and the only way to get inside), you will first need to get permission from the Imperial Household Agency office, located just inside the grounds of the Imperial Palace in downtown Kyoto. The same is true for Katsura’s counterpart villa in eastern Kyoto, Shugakui Rikyu. The tours of Katsura, held several times daily except Sundays, many Saturdays and all national holidays, are conducted in Japanese only, but an audio guide is available in English. To book your tour, apply in advance with your passport. Foreign visitors can get bookings fairly quickly, sometimes even for the same day, while Japanese tourists may have to wait three months unless they are accompanying foreigners. The IHA office is open Monday to Friday from 8:45 a.m. to 12:00 noon and from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m..

Katsura Imperial Villa is a 15-minute walk from Katsura Station on the Hankyu Kyoto Line. You can also ride the no. 33 Kyoto City Bus from Kyoto Station for about 20 minutes and get off at “Katsura Rikyu-mae” bus stop.

Nijo Castle


Nijo Castle

About 400 years ago, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Edo shogunate, built this castle to guard the city’s Imperial possessions and residences, and it was designed to resemble the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The Ninomaru garden is a place of scenic beauty and the paintings on the wall in the Ninomaru Palace offer examples of both the large painting style of the Momoyama period and the newer style of the Edo period. Another important aspect of the Nijo castle is the nightingale floor, which you really must experience for yourself.

The Ninomaru Palace

The most fascinating part of Nijo castle is the Second Palace (Ninomaru). Ninomaru means “outer defense”, and the heads of the castle like the shogun, or Japanese feudal lord, lived here, so they could be best prepared for emergency in battle. The Ninomaru Palace is one of Japan’s national treasures, and is made up of 6 bridges, and 33 rooms. This means there are a staggering 800+ tatami mats inside the buildings! The bridges traverse the compound in a pattern from southeast to northwest. They are not laid in a straight line, so the overall effect is quite snake like. The rooms have golden walls, and each room has a special theme and meaning, with different paintings in each to reflect those themes. There are tigers, eagles, pine trees, white Japanese apricots, etc. For example, in the first room you can see images of tigers on the wall. The reason for this was to express the power of the Shogun and to impress visitors (samurai etc.), in order to have them fear and admire him. All the paintings were painted by the legendary Kano Tanyu, and are dynamic and uplifting in their imagery.

Ohiroma iti-no-ma is the largest and grandest room and was the most formal room in the castle. This room bears special significance, because the final Tokugawa shogun returned political power to the Emperor here, effectively marking the end of the samurai period.

※ Please refrain from taking pictures in the castle, as flash photography may damage the delicate materials used in the treasures found here. Please respect our heritage so that it may be passed on to the future generations.

Nightingale Floor

The Nightingale floor was laid in Nijo Castle for added security. To guard against intrusion into the Castle by suspicious and dangerous persons like ninja, the floor was designed to sing like a nightingale. The sound is different from that heard in older houses, because of the different way the floor was laid. By suspending the floor above the frame using special iron clamps, the floor can move up and down over the fixing nails when walked upon. This causes the nails to rub against the wood and create a sound similar to the cheeping of a nightingale. All the floors in the castle, from the entrance to Ohiroma, are this type of floor. When you visit Nijo Castle, try your best to walk along the floor without making a sound ── if you can, perhaps you are secretly a ninja!!

Kano school

The Kano school was the largest Han painting school and was in existence from the late Muromachi period to the beginning of the Meiji period in about 1900. The Kano school members were blood relations, so this group of painters was a family and school combined.

The Kano school served the shogunate for 200 years, and received hospitality and respect from all persons who settled in Japan. In the Muromachi period, an ancestor of Masanobu was awarded the status of official painter by the Shogun, and he thereafter founded the Kano style. Following Masanobu, Motonobu (1476-1559) became the head of the Kano school, and he created a technique whereby the golden decorations of the Yamato painting style were introduced into Han paintings. This is interesting, because the far clearer the Yamato style is almost completely the opposite of the Han type.

“The History of Honcho paintings” written by Kano in 1691, says Tanyu created a new Kano style. He made great use of space and decoration in his pictures, and experimented broadly with tones he drew from Chinese ink brush technique. His drawings are plainer than other Kano school members, but he decorated the walls of Nijo castle as a prominent member of the Kano school when he was just 25 years old (in 1626).

Second (Ninomaru) Garden

The Ninomaru Garden has been designated as a place of scenic beauty by the Japanese Cultural Affairs Agency, and was designed so as to be seen in all its splendor by the Shogun as he held court in Ohiroma. This magnificent garden was organized, designed and brought to life by Enshu Kohori. Pine trees and a variety of seasonal trees are in evidence in the garden, so every season provides a different vista of color. Despite the obvious beauty of the natural foliage, there is another way to enjoy Japanese gardens, and that is through stone.

When encountering a garden that features mainly stones for the first time, you need to search for that special stone which really appeals to you. You should then try again, looking for a partner to the first which appeals to you when viewed from the same angle. After this, one should advance along the route a little more and try once again. This methodical approach will help you to appreciate the changing dynamics of such a garden from the forceful and intensive to the calm and serene. The creator of such a garden arranges the stones in such a way to lead you to a deeper understanding of his art and the garden.

※Please take care not to kick around or walk on the stones, in order to preserve the plant life and the integrity of the garden.


Honmaru is the main part of the castle and is generally what people would imagine upon hearing the word “castle”. Just as in other castles, like Himeji, Nijo Castle had some classical stages and parts. There were once five stages to Nijo, but it twice suffered severe fire damage in its history, through lightning strikes. The building, now on the site where the keep was once located, was moved here from Katsura Imperial Villa, which had once been one of the Kyoto Imperial Villas.