Although archaeological evidence places the first human settlement on the islands of Japan to approximately 10,000 BC, relatively little is known about human activity in the area before the 6th century AD.
During the 8th century, when the powerful Buddhist clergy became involved in the affairs of the Imperial government, the Emperor chose to relocate the capital to a region far from the Buddhist influence. Emperor Kammu selected the village of Uda, at the time in the Kadono district of Yamashiro Province, for this honor.
The new city, Heian-kyō ("tranquility and peace capital"), a scaled replica of the then Tang capital Chang'an, became the seat of Japan's imperial court in 794, beginning the Heian period of Japanese history. Although military rulers established their governments either in Kyoto (Muromachi shogunate) or in other cities such as Kamakura (Kamakura shogunate) and Edo (Tokugawa shogunate), Kyoto remained Japan's capital until the transfer of the imperial court to Tokyo in 1869 at the time of the Imperial Restoration. (Some believe that it is still a legal capital: see Capital of Japan.)
The city suffered extensive destruction in the Ōnin War of 1467-1477, and did not really recover until the mid-16th century. Battles between samurai factions spilled into the streets, and came to involve the court nobility (kuge) and religious factions as well. Nobles' mansions were transformed into fortresses, deep trenches dug throughout the city for defense and as firebreaks, and numerous buildings burned. The city has not seen such widespread destruction since.
In late 16th century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi restructured the city by building new streets to double the number of north-south streets in central Kyoto, creating rectangle blocks superseding ancient square blocks. Hideyoshi also built earthwork walls called Odoi circulating the city. Teramachi Street in central Kyoto is a Buddhist temple quarter where Hideyoshi gathered temples in the city. Throughout the Edo period, the economy of the city flourished as one of three major cities in Japan, the others being Osaka and Edo.
Overview of Kyoto's cityscape
The Hamaguri rebellion of 1864 burnt down 28,000 houses in the city, and the subsequent move of the Emperor to Tokyo in 1869 weakened the economy. The construction of Lake Biwa Canal in 1890 is one measure taken to revive the city. The population of the city exceeded one million in 1932.
There was some consideration by the United States of targeting Kyoto with an atomic bomb at the end of World War II because, as an intellectual center of Japan, it had a population "better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon." In the end, at the insistence of Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, the city was removed from the list of targets and replaced by Nagasaki. The city was largely spared from conventional bombing as well, although small-scale air raids did result in casualties.
As a result, Kyoto is one of the few Japanese cities that still has an abundance of prewar buildings, such as the traditional townhouses known as machiya. However, modernization is continually breaking down the traditional Kyoto in favor of newer architecture, such as the Kyoto Station complex.
Kyoto became a city designated by government ordinance on September 1, 1956. In 1997, Kyoto hosted the conference that resulted in the protocol on greenhouse gas emissions that bears the city's name.