Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺)
Note on Photos: I took all the photos and snapshots below, on multiple trips to Kiyomizu-dera*. They go back as far as 20 years. Different seasons, different times of day, snapped with various cameras (from a Pentax K-1000 to a Motorola Android phone, and several others). Note how the light, composition, resolution and “feel” varies from photo to photo.
We have a history.
As with so many other places in Kyoto, I first visited Kiyomizu-dera in the fall of 1984, when I was an exchange student at nearby Kansai Gaidai (University). Yet the earliest photos I can find are from 1990, when I got back to Japan to teach in a rural middle school in Hyogo Prefecture, a couple hours away from Kyoto. Before getting sent to our various school assignments, though, a pack of us Hyogo Prefecture “JET Program” teachers took at day trip into Kyoto from Kobe and I’ve managed to find a couple photos from that trip. Since then I’ve returned many times with various people and groups. Though I now “guide” people to Kiyomizu-dera, it never fails to amaze me. Many memories are wound-up with it, too. . .
Better late than never
I need to write more on Kyoto’s better-known sights. Ryoan-ji temple, with its famous rock garden, is the only one I’ve so far written about. I’ve photo-essayed on lesser-known (to the Westerner) shrines, temples, art and antique streets, Kyoto’s most famous flea market, the main train station, and coffee shops and restaurants. But not so much the “Centerpiece Destinations.” This is no definitive history or even textbook summary on Kiyomizu-dera. Instead, I’ll just provide some general, solid information, good links, and photos that I hope will make those who’ve not yet traveled to Kyoto want to go. If you’ve already been, I hope this will help bring back some memories.
Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) Buddhist Temple
Kiyomizu-dera means “Pure Water Temple.” Pre-dating the establishment of Kyoto by 16 years, Kiyomizu-dera was founded in 778 C.E. by the Buddhist priest Echin. The complex hugs and is built into the side of Mount Otowa, which itself is part of Kyoto’s long, continuous East-side Mountains (Higashiyama). The present layout and complex was rebuilt in 1633 under the patronage of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu. In 1994 Kiyomizu-dera was placed on UNESCO‘s registry of World Heritage Sites. It’s also on Japan’s National Treasure list.
Jumping Off Kiyomizu’s Stage
One of Kiyomizu-dera’s main distinguishing features is its famous stage, or veranda, which juts out from the Main Hall over a ravine, affording visitors a great view of the mountain just across the ravine, southern Kyoto off to one’s right (see and click on photo below) and of other visitors almost 50 feet down below at the “Otowa no Taki” waterfall (see explanation and photos below). The veranda’s held up by 139 massive keyaki (Japanese zelkova) pillars and more than 400 cypress cross-beams. . . without using a single nail. It also spawned a Japanese saying or “kotowaza” — “Leap off Kiyomizu’s stage” 清水の舞台から飛び降りる (きよみずのぶたいからとびおりる). This translates into English as “Go for it,” or “Take the plunge.”
Jishu-jinja (Shinto Shrine)
Incorporated, but technically separate from, Kiyomizu-dera is Jishu-jina (“Jinja” meaning Shinto Shrine), which is dedicated to the Shinto deity of love and “good matches,” Okuninushi no Mikoto (his companion’s a rabbit). Two stones, each set firmly in the ground near the shrine, are spaced about 30 feet (10 meters) apart. If one can successfully walk from one rock to the other while thinking of their hoped-for love with eyes closed, the desired romance will ensue. So goes the legend, and the daily practice, at Jinshu-jinja.
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Three “Otowa no Taki” pics. . . over 20 years.
Here’s some of what Judith Clancy, in her wonderful guidebook (which I highly recommend), Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital, says about the Otowa no Taki:
Just beyond the three restaurants is Otowa no Taki, the ‘Sound of Feathers Waterfall,’ from which water is channeled into three spouts that pour down from above. Long-handled dippers are available for visitors to sample the clear, delicious water that inspired Echin to build his hermitage here, and which is the course of the temple’s popular name, which means ‘Temple of Pure Water.’”
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A 鳥’s-Eye View: My Google Map of Kiyomizu-dera
“Grab” and move the image about, click on the little blue icons for information.
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Getting to Kiyomizu-dera
To quote extensively from this very good Kiyomizu-dera site:
[F]irst make your way up Ninen-zaka & Sannen-zaka walk, past the Omiyage shops until you reach the main gate of Kiyomizudera. . . Walking from there into the temple you will walk under the Nio-mon or Gate of the Deva Kings. The Deva Kings, along with Korean lion-dogs (koma-inu) protect the temple from any evil that may enter. The right Deva King has his mouth open, pronouncing “A”, the first sound of Sanskrit while the other has his mouth closed, pronouncing “UN”, the last sound. Thus, it is thought that the Deva Kings represent the complete teachings of Buddha.
Continuing past the Nio-mon, you go up a second flight of steps to the Sai-mon (West Gate). Two more Deva Kings stand guard at this eight pillared gate built in the early 17th century. To the gate’s left one can see the Shoro (Bell Tower) built in 1596, though the temple’s bell was cast in 1478. Above the flying brace of the tower one can see the imperial Chrysantheum crest. . .
*I write “Kiyomizu-dera” with the hyphen between the “Kiyomizu” and the “dera” to underscore the fact that the name of the temple is “Pure Water” (Kiyomizu 清水 ) “Temple” (dera 寺 ). Most often in English it’s written as one long word: “Kiyomizudera.” The written Japanese is actually simpler, just three kanji, or Chinese-type characters, as shown in the title of this piece: 清水寺． So in Japanese it is one word, no hyphen. But, again, I want English-only readers to better understand how the word is divided up.