Kiyomizudera (きよみずでら/清水寺) is a Buddhist temple in Eastern Kyoto. Those are the basic facts. Kiyomizudera is also a magnet for tourists because of its setting and the charm of seeing it at cherry blossom time or during the autumn colours season.
We first visited Kiyomizudera in late March 2012. We had been hoping for some early cherry blossom, but the winter had been so cold that the blossoms were late opening and the branches of the trees were mostly bare.
It was also pretty cold halfway up Otawayama. We enjoyed looking around the temple grounds, though. Our second visit, in April 2013, was warmer and we caught the tail end of that year’s cherry blossom.
As well as the main hall, shown in the two pictures above, there are plenty of other buildings to visit in the temple precincts. On our first visit, we approached Kiyomizudera via Matsubara-dori.
Matsubara-dori is a crowded shopping street lined with souvenir shops, pottery shops and food retailers. It can be quite a crush to make your way through the crowds, but at the top you emerge into a wide plaza in front of the Deva Gate.
This is a spot for photo opportunities, although with the number of people all trying to get their Kiyomizu Moment captured on camera, it’s hard to see how anyone can get a good selfie or portrait shot!
Up the steps past the Deva Gate are the ticket booths where you pay your entrance fee to the temple. It’s only 300円 to go in, which is a bargain for what’s on offer. On both our visits, the area in front of the ticket booths has been crowded with people who weren’t really queuing for tickets, making it seem as though there would be quite a wait for entry. A lot of the people are part of organised tours, waiting for their guides to sort out their tickets, so we have learned to just walk past them up to the ticket booths.
Through the ticket barrier, you pass the three storey pagoda.
This is currently wrapped up ready for renovation, as the whole temple site is in the process of being renovated in stages. The original temple was built in the 8th century, and rebuilt during the Tokugawa shogunate in the Edo era. Most of these buildings have survived and are presumably in need of some TLC after 370 years. In 2012, the Okunoin Hall, the Amitabha or Amida Hall and the Gautama Buddha or Shaka Hall at the back of the site were all being renovated, and were still off limits the following year. In 2012, there were men working on the roof of the Okunoin Hall, apparently without safety harnesses. This wouldn’t happen in the UK!
The Main Hall is the main draw, though. The platform that juts out across the valley is supported by 12-metre long zelkova tree trunks and the floor of the platform is made from cypress boards. The Main Hall and its platform were famously constructed without the use of any nails – quite something!
People lean out from the balcony to get a better look at the view across the city of Kyoto. I’m scared of heights, so I didn’t lean at all, preferring to stay safely behind the sturdy wooden barrier!
Looking down from the platform, you can often see other visitors taking pictures of each other. In April, our visit coincided with graduation from high school, and there were plenty of young ladies dressed up in kimono taking photographs of each other underneath the cherry trees.
Across the valley from the platform is another pagoda, the Koyasu Pagoda, which nestles among the thick forest of trees on the mountainside, its vermilion tower peeping above the canopy of leaves. It’s apparently the place to visit if you want an easy time giving birth.
Kiyomizudera is a working temple, and there are often people praying before the statue of Buddha in the main hall, although more often the view is obscured by other tourists!
Behind the Main Hall is a Shinto shrine, the Jishu Shrine.
Jishu Shrine is dedicated to the Japanese equivalent of Cupid. He is Okuninushi no Mikoto, who has quite a piquant story associated with him at this shrine. Okuninushi was travelling to Inaba province in order to woo a comely maiden. On his way, he encountered the Hare of Inaba. This hare had a habit of tricking people into giving it what it wanted, but every time it resorted to deception, it had to peel off its own skin (some legends say that it tricked a shark and it was the shark who peeled off the hare’s skin). Nice. Okuninushi was a kindly god, and healed the rabbit, and taught it less deceitful ways to get what it wanted. There’s a statue of the hare at the entrance to the shrine.
Okuninushi and the hare also feature on the ema plaques that people write their prayers on at this shrine.
The shrine is popular with young ladies looking for love, and with newly weds hoping to guarantee a long and happy marriage. In front of the main shrine building is a pair of stones set about 10 metres apart. Legend has it that if you can walk with your eyes closed in a straight line between the two stones, then your love will be realised. There were plenty of school girls giving it a go when we visited in 2012. We didn’t take our turn, because we are already married, but we did pay 1,000円 for a Good Marriage charm from the shrine.
Heading back towards the Main Hall, the path takes you past the shrouded Ontokuin Hall. This is apparently a smaller scale version of the Main Hall, with its own platform, but on neither of our visits could we enjoy its pleasures. Along with everyone else, we made our way along the pathway running alongside the hall, and paused to take photographs of each other with the Main Hall in the background.
Past the Ontokuin Hall lies the Otowa Waterfall, from which the temple gets its name. Kiyomizudera means Pure Water Temple. The purity of the water from the waterfall is celebrated by visitors who drink from one of the three streams falling in front of a small platform. Each stream has a different property, and you’re only supposed to drink from one during your visit. You may choose to benefit from success in exams, a good love life, or a long life.
Close to the Otowa Waterfall is a small restaurant that serves up noodle dishes. We’ve eaten there on both visits, and the food is really good. I’ve tried both the kitsune udon and the zaru soba.
At the end of the path that leads past the Otowa Waterfall is an area with other, smaller temple buildings, statues of Jizo nestling on the banks that flank the pathway, and a pond where turtles live.
The path leads round eventually to a plaza close to the Deva Gate, where there are sacred stones and cherry trees.
Kiyomizudera is a beautiful place to visit. It’s prettiest when the cherry blossom is out, or there are leaves on the maple trees. It is a very busy place to visit, though, so be prepared for others jostling you to take their turn at each photo opportunity along the way. Give yourself a couple of hours at least, and maybe combine it with a wander around Matsubara-dori, Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka, where you can pick up some really lovely pottery and other souvenirs of your visit. There are other shops and cafes on Chawanzaka, a narrow street that leads up to Kiyomizudera from the pottery area of Gojozaka. You can get to Chawanzaka from Kiyomizudera by walking down the steps to the left of the plaza in front of the Deva Gate, instead of heading down Matsubara-dori.