Heian Kento 1200: The History of Kyoto Station, A Paradox of Old and New

The Kyoto Station, at its first establishment in 1877, was positioned on the southern edge of the city of Kyoto. As Kyoto expanded in the following 120 years, the Kyoto Station became a border between the historical downtown area and the new urban area. Such geographic location became an interesting hint of the problem of the Old and the New: a problem that still haunted Kyoto Station 120 years later, which will be discussed in other posts.


During this span of 120 years, the station had been rebuilt for 3 times, but its position never changed. It became the transportation center of Kyoto, the first building most visitors to this ancient city shall see. Nowadays, the Kyoto Station is the connection knot of Tokaido Shinkansen, Tokaido Main Line, Sanin Main Line, Nara Line, Kyoto Line and Karasuma Line of Kyoto Municipal Subway, serving millions of passengers every year.


The transformation of the Kyoto Station reflects the transformation of Japan ever since Meiji Restoration. The first Kyoto Station was built by red bricks, a type of material that was not traditionally used in Japan, and the appearance of the station was of western style. Railway, a product of new technology introduced from the west, made the establishment of this western-style station a mark of modernization and technology progress of Kyoto and Japan. The opening ceremony was even honored by the attendance of Emperor Meiji.


The second Kyoto station was built in 1914, coincided with the enthronement of Emperor Taisho. After the rapid and crazy westernization since Meiji Restoration, the Japanese were starting to rethink their cultural identity. The new Kyoto Station was a Renaissance-style building built with cypress wood, a traditional material in Japanese architecture. Being regarded as the pride of the national railway, the design reflects an exploration attempting combination of the new and the old, of the western and Japanese traditions. Similar challenges still exist 80 years later, when the fourth Kyoto Station was planned, though it was not known if there had been controversies at that time.


The cypress wood used by traditional Japanese houses made the building prone to fire, and that was one of the cause of disastrous result of the bombing of Tokyo during the Second World War. But Kyoto was fortunate enough not to suffer the fate of Tokyo and Hiroshima (in 1945 Kyoto was once marked as the destination of atomic bomb, but for various reasons it was removed from the lists later). Nevertheless, in 1950 an electricity accident caused a fire in the Kyoto Station, and the elegant wooden Renaissance building was destroyed. After the War, the whole country was facing financial shortage, therefore the new station was built in a haste. Accompanied with neither special events nor figure as its precedents had enjoyed, the third Kyoto Station was just an ordinary concrete building, practical but with no design beauty. Since 1970s, the banality of the station had triggered call for a better designed Kyoto Station.

Such call was responded in 1990s. To celebrate the 1200th anniversary of Kyoto’s ascension of Japan’s capital, a New Kyoto Station should be built, and an international competition was held for it. The plan of Hiroshi Hara, a famous Japanese architect, won the competition. However, the modernized glass-and-steel appearance, and its exceptional height of this plan had caused great controversies. Criticisms attacked that this plan destroyed the urban landscape of this ancient capital and cultural center of Japan, and its breaking the height limit exerted a dangerous sign; while supporters claimed that Kyoto should move forward and explore a new city image.


n.d. “The History of Kyoto Station”. Accessed December 12, 2017. https://www.kyotostation.com/the-history-of-kyoto-station/

1 Comment on “Heian Kento 1200: The History of Kyoto Station, A Paradox of Old and New

  1. It is good that you are discussing the architecture of the Kyoto Station, but I would be interested to know how did this station change or influence the city or its urban planning, if it did so? In your title you are stating that ”THE HISTORY OF KYOTO STATION” is ”A PARADOX OF OLD AND NEW”. But where is the paradox, can you elaborate on that?

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