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.

Kiyomizu-dera. Main Hall looking south. May 2010.

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.  .  .

Kiyomizu-dera Entrance, Niomon Guardian Gate (仁王門) in foreground. 2010.

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) shrinestemplesart 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

One of the more popular places from which to photograph Kiyomizu-dera. October 1999.

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.

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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.”

Looking directly west, past the southern side of the Pagoda. 2010.

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Looking towards the famous “stage,” veranda. 2010.

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CLICK on this one. View of Kyoto from the Stage/Veranda. 2010.

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In front, looking towards Niomon. 2007.

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Saimon, “West Gate,” with 3-tiered pagoda behind. 2010.

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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Tourists. Just through the Niomon, entering Kiyomizu-dera proper. 2011.

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Walking on Sannenzaka towards Kiyomizudera (up and to the left). 2006.

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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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1990

August 1990.

2001

Late September 2001.

2010

Late May 2010.

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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. . .

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Afternoon sun on Jizo Bhodisattvas at Kiyomizu-dera. 2008.

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*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.

Kiyomizu-dera ticket stub. From 2010.

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    • japanaustralia
    • May 26th, 2012

    Love the whole experience of Kyomizu-dera from the walk up Chawan-zaka with the shops selling local snacks and souvenirs to the amazing views over Kyoto from the balcony at the top.

    Japan Australia

      • letsjapan
      • May 26th, 2012

      John,

      Thanks for stopping by. You should no longer have to wait for my “approval” to post comments here. Also, just took a quick trip to your site, which is great. We seem to be kindred spirits. I hope you won’t mind if I add your site to my “blogroll,” over on the right-hand side.

      ありがとう!

      R.

        • japanaustralia
        • May 27th, 2012

        Hi Richard, Thanks for that! Always great to meet a fellow kindred spirit. I would love to be added to your blogroll. Do you mind if I add you to mine as well?

        Cheers

        John

  1. What a gorgeous post about a wonderful place! Takes me right back to my trips there over the last few years. Thank you.

  2. I’ve visited Kiyomizu several times and these photos are a great take on the experience. The people who herd into the temple are often more interesting than the temple itself. Please support my new online Japan art magazine by liking the facebook page! http://www.facebook.com/AJKanazawa

      • letsjapan
      • May 28th, 2012

      Matthew,

      I agree so much with you on the “people watching” aspect of Kiyomizudera, or most any place. If you check my various “Galleries,” you’ll see that I take lots of candid shots of passers-by.

      I’ve just visited and liked (and “Liked”) your facebook page. Wonderful. Thank you.

      R.

    • Lois
    • May 28th, 2012

    Nice juxtaposition of shots and eras. Memories.

      • letsjapan
      • May 30th, 2012

      Oh, Lois, I so wish I could’ve found one of you, of you and me, there at Kiyomizu-dera. Will email you directly about one of those photos that I want you to pay special attention to. ;0)

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