Fun Facts: Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara History

May 30, 2023

Paul Kay

Are you looking for destinations for vacations? If you are visiting Japan, you probably will be exploring Tokyo. Have you considered going to other places in Japan? I worked in Tokyo on three separate vacations, and I explored Tokyo extensively. You’ll find lots of posts about Tokyo on this blog. Visiting Tokyo and saying that you have been to Japan is like landing in New York City and saying you’ve visited the USA. There are many places to visit in a large country. It was easier for Madeline and me since I worked in Tokyo to take the train around the country. However, we loved Japan and when we come back to visit, we explore places we haven’t been to yet. When we traveled to Osaka recently, we used it as a base to travel to other parts of Japan. I’m grouping Kyoto, Kobe and Nara in this history post because of their proximity to each other. 

We stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Osaka as our base hotel and we’d highly recommend it. All we needed to do for travel was to take the complimentary hotel shuttle to the train station. Travel from Osaka to Kobe, Nara or Kyoto can be less than an hour by Shinkansen. I would urge you to get a JR pass if you are planning on doing a bit of traveling in Japan on your trip. You can read the economics of a JR pass in our post on the subject.

Osaka History

Many cities in Asia are justifiably proud of their origins. The first signs of human life and habitation in the area around Osaka are buried skeletons that date back to the 5-6th BC. During the Yayoi period, which is the Iron Age era dated 300 BC–300 AD, the city experienced an increase of population as rice farming grew and the port became a greater point of trade.

Emperor Kotoku Osaka Japan

In 645, Emperor Kotoku built the Naniwa Nagara-Toyosaki Palace, making Naniwa, the previous name of Osaka, the new capital of Japan. Shortly after another city became the capital but Naniwa kept being a center and connection for trade with its proximity to countries like China and Korea. The Japanese capital moved to Nara and then Kyoto as time went on and eventually to Edo, now Tokyo. Osaka still steadily developed as an important city because it was a pivotal hub for water and land transport.

Osaka is a region the faces the Seto Inland Sea, where numerous rivers meet. It has been a strategic spot for shipping since ancient times. Osaka ports served as the prime location where various goods and technology were imported into Japan. It was also around this time when Buddhism came to the country.

Closeup street view of Shitennoji Temple Osaka Japan

Shitennoji was the first state run temple in Japan built in 593. Our photo above shows the temple from the street that approaches it.

The Naniwa-no-Miya Palace, which was built in that period, is the oldest Imperial Palace in the country. It remains in Osaka today as the Remains of Naniwa-no-Miya Palace Historic Park, which is free to the public.

Osaka is Japan’s third largest city following Tokyo and Yokohama. People from Osaka are fond of saying they are the second largest population during the day. That’s because people from Yokohama are commuting to Tokyo during the day. 

Tenjinbashisuji Shotengai is the famous Osaka shipping street. It is about 1.5 miles long and has over 600 shops. Osaka has many traditional and modern sightseeing attractions, including Bunraku (a traditional puppet theater designated by UNESCO as an intangible cultural asset), Osaka Castle, Universal Studios Japan and Kaiyukan aquarium, which is one of the largest aquariums in the world. 

Okonomiyaki on iron plate Osaka Japan

No trip to Osaka is complete without feasting on okonomiyaki. The English phrase for it is a "savory pancake." Okonomiyaki consists of a basic pancake type batter into which a combination of vegetables (particularly cabbage), meat, seafood, or other toppings are added. You can decide what you want if the server can speak English or if your Japanese is good enough. They top the dish with a thick, sweet sauce. The okonomiyaki dish is famous in Osaka, but you can get it in nearby Kyoto, Hiroshima and other places. Each city probably claims the right to the best okonomiyaki.

One of Osaka's greatest advantages is its proximity to the many World Heritage sites which are scattered through the cities of Kyoto, Nara, Kobe and Wakayama, some no more than 30 minutes away. You can easily arrange day trips to Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Kanazawa, Nagoya and even Tokyo. We made day trips to Tokyo (twice), Nara, Kobe, Kyoto, Kanazawa and Fukuoka.

Osaka’s best-known site is its famous castle. The current main tower at Osaka Castle is a concrete reconstruction of the 17th-century castle and was completed in 1931. Its original construction dates back to the 16th century. At the time, it was unparalleled as the largest and best constructed castle in Japan.  Even though the castle is a somewhat recent reproduction. it is well worth a visit.

Kyoto History

Archaeological evidence suggests human settlement in Kyoto began as early as the Paleolithic period which is some 10,000 years ago. Most of Kyoto’s written history began in the 6th century. 

Shimogamo Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Japan Kyoto Japan

This is about the same time that the Shimogamo Shrine is thought to have been constructed, and this ancient landmark is still standing today.

Yasaka No To Pagoda at blue hour in Kyoto Japan

The 7th century saw the construction of the Kamo-jinja shrine, the Yasaka-no-to pagoda, and Kyoto’s oldest temple known as Koryu-ji. The 8th century was largely known as the Nara period, a time when Heijō-kyō (currently Nara) was Japan’s capital. Japanese society was village-based and focused on agriculture and a religion that worshipped natural spirits known as kami.

Kyoto, under various different names including Heian-kyo, was the capital of Japan from 794 AD until 1869, when Tokyo was awarded that accolade after the Meiji Restoration arrived in Japan. Kyoto’s prior name was Heian-"tranquility and peace capital". Later, the city was renamed Kyoto ("capital city"). After Edo was renamed Tokyo which means "Eastern Capital"). Kyoto was known for a short time as Saikyo meaning "Western Capital"). 

The city suffered extensive destruction in the Onin War of 1467-1477 and did not really recover until the mid-16th century. Battles between samurai factions were rampant and mansions were transformed into fortresses with deep trenches dug throughout the city for defense. World War II bombing also devastated portions of the city where munitions were stored but they spared the majority of the city from destruction.

View of Hanamikoji former geisha area of Kyoto Japan

As a result, Kyoto is the only large Japanese city that still has an abundance of prewar buildings, such as the traditional townhouses known as machiya.  The machiya are traditional wooden townhouses that were popular with Kyoto merchants and craftspeople until just before WWII. Because Kyoto wasn’t bombed during the war, many fine machiya have survived. Some local Kyoto citizens continue to live in machiya while many others have been converted to restaurants, shops and, best of all, vacation rentals. Some machiya rentals have an enclosed courtyard garden near the back which are open to the sky. You can sit comfortably under the roof watching rain fall into the garden. The above picture is from Hanamikoji street in Kyoto where you can find many of these buildings intact.

Spire and Kiyomizudera Temple Kyoto Japan

UNESCO has probably put Kyoto on many a tourist’s must-see towns because of the designation of so many World Heritage Sites. These are cultural and natural sites that show "outstanding universal value". There are currently 22 world heritage sites in Japan, 18 cultural ones and 4 natural ones. There are 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto alone. Kiyomizu-dera is shown above. Here is a list of the 17 World Heritage Sites in Kyoto:

  1. Byodo-in temple

  2. Daigo-ji temple

  3. Enryaku-ji temple

  4. Ginkaku-ji temple

  5. Kamigamo-jinja shrine

  6. Kinkaku-ji temple

  7. Kiyomizu-dera temple

  8. Kozan-ji temple

  9. Nijo-jo castle

  10. Ninna-ji temple

  11. Nishi Hongan-ji temple

  12. Ryoan-ji temple

  13. Saiho-ji temple

  14. Shimogamo-jinja shrine

  15. Tenryu-ji temple

  16. Todai-ji temple

  17. Ujikami-jinja shrine

Kobe History 

City view of Kobe and sea with clouds from tramway Kobe Japan

Kobe is the sixth-largest city in Japan and the capital city of the Hyōgo Prefecture. It is 19 mi west of Osaka with a population around. Together with Osaka and Kyoto, the city is part of the Keihanshin metropolitan area. It is easy to reach Kobe and Nara from Osaka. Most tourists come to Kobe because of the beef. Since it is so close to its larger Keihanshin cities of Kyoto and Osaka, travelers come here to discover a bit more of Japanese history.

Chef concentrating at Mouriya Honten Kobe Japan

If there is one dish that represents the city, it has to be Kobe beef. Coming from locally bred and raised Tajima cattle, this marbled, tender, and flavor-rich beef is internationally recognized and revered. You’ve probably heard the stories in your local restaurant about how the cattle are massaged and given beer. That’s a nice story but it’s the exception not the rule. Instead, Kobe beef must meet a strict set of standards to ensure only the highest grade of beef is given the Kobe stamp of approval. There is a difference between "Kobe beef" and "beef from Kobe."

Kobe's status as one of Japan's foremost international ports and trading centers, along with Yokohama, dates back to the town's opening to foreign traders in 1868. Westerners built their wood and brick houses in Kitano.

Japan's first soccer match was held in Kobe in 1871 and the nation's first golf course was laid out here in 1903. In 1995, Kobe was hit by the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, which killed over 5000 people and destroyed tens of thousands of buildings. Today the city is completely rebuilt, and few signs of the terrible event remain.

Nara History

First look at Todaiji Temple Nara Japan

The city of Nara is only a 30-minute train ride from either Osaka or Kyoto. Nara was once the capital of Japan and is even older than Kyoto. When Nara was at its peak, 1,200 years ago, it was spread out over a much larger area than it is today. Many of the magnificent palaces and temples have disappeared, but some structures remain in their original scenic surroundings and are wonderfully preserved as museums. You’ll also hear of the Nara period which was 710–784 AD during which the imperial government was at Nara. It is also the period where Sinicization and Buddhism were most highly developed. Nara, the country's first permanent capital, was modeled on the Chinese Tang dynasty (618–907) capital, Ch'ang-an.

Sinification means the assimilation or spread of Chinese culture.  During the Tang and Song dynasties, Chinese civilization became so dynamic and powerful that it influenced, prominent areas around it. Vietnam, Korea and Japan were the primary beneficiaries of Sinification.

Japan was unique in that it consciously and intentionally chose to emulate Chinese civilization.  Japan was never conquered by the Chinese, but the success of China under the Tang dynasties motivated Japanese emperors to import elements of Chinese civilization for their own gain. In 646 AD, the Japanese government embarked upon the Taika reforms. This was an attempt to reconstruct the Japanese imperial government using Chinese models. Court etiquette mimicked that of the Tang capital.  At the popular level, the lower classes converted to Buddhism. 

Buddhism became so popular that that the government leaders feared the power of Buddhists over their own rule.  The government leader’s fears were justified when they uncovered a plot by Buddhists to take over the imperial government.  A Buddhist had worked his way into the inner circle of the Emperor. He plotted to depose the Emperor, marry his widow and assume control of Japan.  When this was discovered, the Japanese capital moved to Heian which was 28 miles away. All of the Taika reforms were abandoned, and Japanese rule was reinstated without Buddhism.

In 1998, eight Nara sights were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These include the Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, the virgin Kasusayama Forest, Gangoji Temple, Yakushiji Temple, Toshodaiji Temple and the Heijokyu ruins. The picture above is the Todaiji Temple in Nara.

Madeline and some deer friends attracted to a biscuit in Nara Park Nara Japan

Many tourists come to Nara Park because it is the location of many of Nara's main attractions including Todaiji, Kasuga Taisha, Kofukuji and the Nara National Museum. Before the tourist can get to the temples, they’ll come upon the deer in Nara Park. Nara's deer are surprisingly tame, although they can be quite insistent if they think you will feed them. Deer biscuits are for sale around the park, and some deer have learned to bow to visitors to ask to be fed.

Modern Nara is a city with about 350,000 people. The nice thing about Nara, compared to Kyoto, is that the main places of interest are fairly concentrated and can easily be explored on foot. For the rural sites, we’d recommend that you connect with a tour group and a bus.

We think you’ll want to visit Osaka, Kobe, Nara and Kyoto. They all are unique and offer their own charms to the tourist trying to soak up a little more Japanese history. You can check out our post on reading Japan here. We’ve got travel guides and history books for you to enjoy. We have lots of posts on Japan for you to discover. We hope you get a chance to make it a destination vacation because there are so many attractions to see!

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