Kyoto’s Tangible History

There are over 2000 temples in Kyoto. Seventeen of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites. You are somewhat spoiled for choice. I love going to the temples that are not over-run with tourists. The places where you can actually feel the gravity of the history. These enchanting places that are part of local people’s everyday existence. These are the places you can commune with the ethereal beings of the past. To connect with place through space and time.


Walking across the ancient wooden floorboards at Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto is a magical experience. Especially in bare feet. The boards have been traversed by so many pairs of feet over nearly 400 years, they are soft and luxurious to the touch. The knots in the wood have not worn away like the rest of the boards. They appear like small mountains in a landscape. A hazard to ankle rolling.

The Zen serenity of the temple and the throngs of visitors dressed in kimono and hakama immerse you in the past. Despite the seething mass of humanity, the feeling is reverent. The wafting incense creates an otherworldly ambiance and the ritual in which you are surrounded is time-worn but far from obsolete. The archaic is current. 

In the words of author Pico Iyer, “Japan is ancient, primal and pantheistic”. Kyoto, like all of Japan, is a juxtaposition of hyper modern technology and antiquity. Walking the neon-lit streets you can feel feudal Japan walking beside you. Your footsteps literally tracing those of samurai and geisha. History so seamlessly interwoven into everyday life. It is tangible and living and constantly evolving. Everyday life in modern Japan encompasses so much from the past, rites, rituals, superstitions. Shinto beliefs of gods who permeate all living and non-living things. Deep reverence and spirituality. Ghosts and spirits everywhere you go. Nowhere else in Japan is this more accessible and visible than in Kyoto.


Walking onto the floorboards at Ryogen-in offers another opportunity to caress history with your feet. The feel of the grain of the boards that were walked upon by the great warlords of the past, Hideyoshi and Nobunaga. The men who imagined Japan as a single unified nation. Daitoku-Ji is a large temple complex, a branch of the Rinzai school of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Ryogen-in is a sub-temple. There are six buildings of the main temple and 22 sub-temples.

Established in 1326 Daitoku-ji is an opportunity to completely lose yourself in Zen reflection. A walking tour of introspection. Or simply enjoy some peace. The smell of old tatami and ancient wood. The stone gardens with simple rock arrangements. The slow, mindful atmosphere a remedy to a busy itinerary and the bustling city beyond. Within the walls it is quiet. Sitting looking at the meditative gardens it is possible to find enough peace for contemplation. Visiting the assemblage of buildings here as well as the myriad of Zen stone gardens and meticulously raked gravel are a wonderful way to spend a day. 

Nijo Castle

“I have ransacked this castle”, said my eldest says walking into Nijo Castle. She knew the layout intimately. I was confused. A past life memory, perhaps? Evidently not. A video game on her beloved Nintendo Wii. An excellent example of the convergence of past and present so ubiquitous in Japan. This castle was built by the shogun Tokugawa. Ieyasu in 1603. He was so paranoid about being assassinated by ninjas he had a special floor engineered for his home. The nightingale floor sings as you walk along the corridors of this castle and again the sensory tangibleness of the history walks with you.

Nijo Castle is set in a serene garden with stone lanterns. There are Zen rock displays and a large koi filled moat. The gate leading to the castle is auspiciously ornate. The interior is hand painted by revered artists. There is an abundance of gold leaf. It is lavish and opulent. However, the simplicity of the Japanese aesthetic is present in every aspect of this place.The ceiling, panels, wood and tatami are all beautifully preserved or restored and this castle was eventually given over to the Imperial family after the Meiji restoration in1868.


Walking into a sake bar does not usually equate with taking a step back in time. However, our adventure to Sanzen-in began in a sake bar. In an alcohol fuelled, part Japanese, part English conversation. We found ourselves, several days and emails later, being toured around the more remote parts of Kyoto by the very affable and hospitable Fujimoris. In a day where we were not permitted to pay for even a vending machine bottle of water. Japanese people are so personally appreciative when foreigners take an interest in their culture. They love to share it. They want you to experience it. Arriving at Sanzen-in, we knew little of what to expect. From the fragments of Japanese that we could understand, we were expecting a garden.

This particular day, in the height of summer, was extremely humid and sticky. “Mushi-mushi”, the Japanese say. We walked through the ancient wooden gate and into a traditional tatami floored tea house with open walls. The expectation of a garden was a deprecating misjudgement. The assault of lushness and abundance of green was completely overwhelming. A landscape covered in the most luxurious moss. The soft, green carpet invading every visible corner of this magnificent vista. Ponds, waterfalls and stone lanterns. Unfurling fern fronds and childlike Jizo statues, smiling from beneath the verdant covering of meticulously pruned greenery. This garden has been cared for with tenderness and attentiveness for hundreds of years. Every single blade of grass or tendril of moss is considered. Workers gently sweep away leaves with bamboo brooms being mindful of where they step.

Established in 804 with the main building dating back to 1143, Sanzen-in is like a living, breathing piece of exquisite art. A piece in constant flux. This hermitage has never fallen into disrepair. Not a day has passed in hundreds of years that this garden has not been tended. Walking along the pathways you can feel the presence of life. This sense of every living and non-living thing having a spirit is plausible. These elemental Shinto gods interconnecting the universe. The water, the rocks, the sky and the moss. A haven in which to recharge, reflect and reconnect.

Kyoto Station

Leaving Kyoto is always difficult. Most people leave via Kyoto Station on a super modern bullet train. The train will run to the second and travel at 300kms an hour. Before boarding the train, I usually visit the bathroom. Here I will use a toilet that offers background music, birds chirping, fake flushing, self-cleaning, heated seating and many other modern features. Some of the shops in the station will have robots and high-tech gadgetry. The futuristic terminal itself looks like an interplanetary space colony from a James Bond movie. A soaring atrium of steel and glass. Stepping out of the past and back into the now is almost a profane experience. An assault on the senses. Kyoto is a timeless city. I often wonder if the travellers of the past several centuries viewed Kyoto as I do. With awe, wonder, reverence and deep affection.

Read more about Kiyomizu-dera here. Daitoku-Ji here. Nijo Castle here. Sanzen-In here.

Read more about my adventures at these places. An Unexpected Cultural Adventure, Searching for Sengoku Samurai, Clear Water Temple 清水寺 

2 thoughts on “Kyoto’s Tangible History

  1. One of my students lives and works near Kiyomizudera. When I went to visit, he gave me a tour as a local youth saw it. He had swum in the three fountain water as a child, and he let me know which “relics” were new additions to the temple. It was nice to be an insider once.

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