On July 6, 2021, I celebrated my 50th birthday with a trip to Kyoto’s Kiyomizudera–one of my favorite temples in the ancient capital (partially because it combines two of my other favorite things: mountains and waterfalls).
As of July 2021, Japan was not granting tourist visas, and I noticed the difference immediately; in a normal year, Kiyomizudera is one of Kyoto’s most popular tourist attractions–in addition to the fact that it remains a fully functional Buddhist temple. Between tourists and worshippers, the temple is often crowded, and although that doesn’t detract from its beauty, it does make Kiyomizudera hard to photograph. I hoped to find the temple less crowded, but was completely unprepared for just how much less crowded it would be.
Kiyomizudera sits on the side of Mt. Otowa, in Kyoto’s eastern mountain (Higashiyama) district. The temple was founded in 778, in honor of Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy. Most of the current buildings date to 1633, although the Nio-mon (gate of the guardian kings) was built in the early 16th century. As the brilliant colors suggest, the temple buildings have been refurbished and maintained/repaired regularly since their original construction.
Aside from the Nio-mon, most of the primary buildings of Kiyomizu-dera align on an East-West axis, with the Sai-mon (Western Gate) at one end and the Amida-do (Amida Hall) on the other. It’s easy to see this alignment in the picture above, which shows the Sai-mon on the right, with the Three-Story Pagoda rising up behind it. The other important buildings, including the Hondo (worship hall) with its famous “floating stage” line up directly behind and to the east of the Sai-mon and pagoda.
The “blue dragon” of Kiyomizudera is an incarnation of Kannon and a defender and guardian of Kyoto. The dragon’s image is honored, and special prayers are said in its honor, at special ceremonies in March, April, and September every year.
Kiyomizu-dera is a temple of the Kita (Northern)-Hosso Buddhist Sect, which is a sect of Buddhism centered and originating in Nara, another ancient capital south of Kyoto (and the reason this temple belongs to the “Northern” Hosso sect). Kita-Hosso Buddhists revere Kannon, and follow the teaching that “Buddhism should contribute to society,” specifically by working actively to promote the public good and assist the needy.
The temple has striking views of Kyoto, like the one above–the view from the Sai-mon. The red and white tower left of center is the Kyoto Tower, which rises above the Kyoto Tower Hotel, across the street from Kyoto Station. The city of Kyoto is ringed with mountains, and sits effectively in a natural bowl (one reason it gets so hot and humid in the summer months)–Kiyomizudera sits in the mountains on the eastern side, and has a clear view all the way across to the mountains in the west.
The current three-story pagoda dates to 1633. At 31 meters high, it’s one of the tallest three-story pagodas in Japan. I’ve visited the temple more than half a dozen times, and have never been able to get a clear photo of the pagoda until this trip. In the past, there were always so many people taking pictures of or with the famous structure that I couldn’t get an unobstructed view.
In Japanese, mizuko (literally, “water child”) is a term that refers stillborn and miscarried babies, infants, or fetuses, as well as those who die by abortion, or shortly after birth. Kiyomizudera’s Mizuko Kannon-do, shown above, is a subsidiary altar within the temple grounds that honors an incarnation of Kannon who watches over the souls of these children. The shrine is unique and rare, because most mizuko shrines honor the Bodhisattva Jizō, protector of children, travelers, and the lost–but at Kiyomizudera, Kannon fills this role as well.
The Koyasu Pagoda sits high on a hill across from Kiyomizudera’s main buildings (but still on the temple grounds). The temple is dedicated to an incarnation of Kannon that assists with childbirth, and it is said that pregnant women who make the walk to the pagoda will have an easy labor and a healthy child.
Beneath the famous Hinoki “floating stage” that juts out into the air at the front of the worship hall is the famed otowa-no-taki or “sound of feathers waterfall”–which supposedly brings long life and health to anyone who drinks from its sacred waters. In normal times, there’s usually a line of 50-100 people waiting to drink from the falls at any given time during the temple’s public hours–in fact, despite my many visits, I’d never actually experienced a drink from the falls, because I didn’t want to spend an hour waiting in line. As you can see, that wasn’t the case this summer.
The worship hall (Hondo) at Kiyomizudera is famous for its “floating stage,” which is constructed entirely of native Hinoki cypress. The stage itself is made from over 400 Hinoki boards, and is supported by massive pillars, the tallest of which are 13 meters high. “To leap from the stage at Kiyomizudera” is a Japanese expression that carries a similar meaning to “take the plunge” in English–essentially, to jump headlong into a major “do or die” effort. (For the record, please don’t actually jump from the stage.) Since the temple’s founding during the 8th century, the stage has been used for sacred performances in honor of Kannon–a famous image of which is enshrined within the worship hall. The performances continue to this day–and the stage is also a popular place to look out over Kyoto and the mountains, especially in the autumn, when the maple trees put on an amazing show.
This is what the stage looks like from ground level.
The famous sacred falls are channeled over a Buddhist altar and into a pool below. After I took this picture, I hurried around and up the stairs, and finally experienced the water for myself. I doubt I’ll ever see it this empty again.
Although I’m not pregnant (and it would take a literal miracle to make me so, considering that I’ve had certain “lady bits” removed) I decided to make the short hike to Koyasu Pagoda anyway. The photo above is one of the views along the way, which not only has a great view of Kyoto but also shows the way the temple’s major buildings align along an East-West axis.
Koyasu Pagoda (above) – a smaller version of the three-story pagoda in the primary temple complex, but this one is dedicated to the Koyasu Kannon, an incarnation that helps with safe and easy childbirth.
Koyasu Pagoda offers a great view of the main temple grounds — and yet another opportunity to see how the buildings align from the Hondo in the east to the West Gate (the roof of which is visible just to the left of the three-story pagoda). There’s also another temple building east of the Hondo, but the trees block it from view.
And there you have it…a visit to one of Kyoto’s most famous temples. Have you been to Kiyomizudera? If not, does this make you want to go?