Kiyomizu-dera (more formally, Otowa-san Kiyomizu-dera) is a Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto. The temple lies in Higashiyama, on the slopes of Mount Otowa, and has a beautiful view of the former Japanese capital:
Like many Japanese temples, Kiyomizu-dera has been destroyed by fire on numerous occasions; many of the existing buildings, including the Shoro, or Bell Tower, date to the 17th century, though some were rebuilt even more recently.
Originally founded during the 8th century, Kiyomizu-dera derives its name from a famous waterfall on the temple grounds. (Kiyomizu means “pure water” in Japanese.) Visitors can ladle water from the falls while praying for blessings and purification. (The day I visited, the line was short–only about 35 minutes–but I decided to forego the blessing in favor of spending more time on the temple grounds.)
The temple is sacred to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, whose image is enshrined in the temple’s hondo, or main worship hall. For this reason, the Hondo faces south, toward Kannon’s paradise.
From the hinoki (cypress) stage at the edge of the hondo, visitors can see the Koyasu, or “Easy Childbirth” pagoda, a short distance away through the hills and trees (you can see it, upper right, in the photo below). According to tradition, pregnant women who make the walk to the pagoda and pray to the image of Kannon there are guaranteed an easy delivery. (But not necessarily an easy walk!)
Kiyomizu-dera was a popular pilgrimage site during the Heian period, and was the closest major pilgrimage site to Kyoto; for this reason, many members of the samurai class–both male and female–made pilgrimages to, and worshipped at, Kiyomizu-dera. (The temple is also mentioned, twice, in The Tale of Genji.)
In 1944, the temple became a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, and it remains a popular destination for Japanese and foreign tourists, especially in autumn, when the hillsides around the temple erupt in spectacular colored foliage.
When visiting Kyoto, try to find time to visit Higashiyama–home to Kiyomizu-dera, as well as a number of other temples, shrines, and historical sites (including Gion, one of Kyoto’s most famous teahouse districts and home to geiko – the entertainers known elsewhere in Japan as “geisha”). It’s definitely worth the trip!