Kyoto vs Tokyo: The Epic 1000-Year Rivalry Behind Japan’s 2 Greatest Cities

Our tale begins in the ancient city of Heian-kyo, known as the “Capital of Peace and Tranquility” for its elegant temples nestled amongst verdant mountains. As centuries passed, this imperial capital became simply called Kyoto, meaning “Capital City”.

The name Kyoto was written in Japanese as 京都, with the character 京 pronounced “kyou” meaning capital and 都 pronounced “to” meaning city. In the Japanese pronunciation, the “to” ends with a stop sound from the back of the throat.

Meanwhile, far to the east, a humble fishing village named Edo struggled in Kyoto’s shadow. But fate had greater things in store for this unremarkable town.

When the ambitious warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu seized power, he chose Edo as his seat of government. Almost overnight, Edo transformed into a bustling metropolis under Tokugawa rule.

As Edo thrived and expanded dramatically in the 16th and 17th centuries under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Kyoto’s glory days started to fade. By the 19th century, Edo had become the true center of politics, economics and culture in Japan.

When the Meiji Restoration returned power to the Emperor in 1868, the capital officially moved to Edo. But this city was no longer an afterthought – it was fittingly given the name Tokyo, meaning “Eastern Capital”.

The name Tokyo was written in Japanese as 東京, with the character 東 meaning “Eastern” and 京 still meaning capital.

And so the characters of Kyoto and Tokyo’s names were intertwined, representing the epic transfer of power from the old capital in the west to the new capital in the east over the course of a millennium.

When it came to writing these names in English, some of the nuances were lost. The “kyou” and “kyo” were written the same, and the elongated “o” sound of the “to” in Tokyo was not distinguished from the stop “to” sound of Kyoto.

But despite these limitations in translating to English, the names still reflect the storied history and rivalry between Japan’s two great capital cities.

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