Kiyomizu-dera, meaning ‘pure water temple’, is one of Kyoto’s signature landmarks and most visited tourist attractions. Located halfway up Mt. Otowa, one of Kyoto’s highest mountains, it is also a widely worshipped holy place and important pilgrimage site. Today, the approach to the temple is known as Chawan-zaka (teapot lane) and is lined with shops selling handicrafts, local snack and souvenirs.
The temple was founded in 778, when the monk Enchin enshrined an image of Kannon on the mountain overlooking Otowa-no taki falls. Later, in 796, general Sakanoue no Tamuramaro built a hall on the same site. For over 1,200 years, pilgrims have climbed the slope to pray to the temple’s 11-headed Kannon image and drink from Otowa-no-taki, a sacred spring with waters that are believed to bestow health and longevity.
The original buildings within the temple complex were repeatedly destroyed by fires and rebuilt over the centuries and the current structures date from 1633.
The Hondō (main hall) is the central building of the complex and has a huge veranda, known as ‘Kiyomizu-dera Stage’, which is one of the temple complex’s most well-known features. It is a nail-less miracle, supported by a forest of tall, wooden pillars. The veranda juts out over the hillside, offering spectacular views of Kyoto and is a wonderful example of kake-zukuri (Japanese overhang architecture). In Japan, the expression “to jump of Kiyomizu’s stage” means “to take the plunge”. The hall was built in 1633, however its architectural style was passed down from the Heian period (794-1184) and is characterised by false roofs, hisashi (narrow, roofed areas) and flanking wings. For the best views of the temple itself, visitors can follow the path towards the pagoda on the other side of the ravine.
Dotted around the prencinct are other halls and shrines, including the Jishu Shrine, originally known as Jushugongen. It is dedicated the local Shinto tutelary deities and predates the Nara period (710-794), although its current name was given after the Meiji Restoration. Emperors have been visiting the shrine since the emperor Enyu’s pilgrimage during a special festival in 972.
The eastern part of the temple complex is home to the Juju-in Garden, which incorporates the early Edo-period technique of ‘borrowed scenery’ (shakkei). Near the temple grounds is a forest of Japanese cedars, which was once used for ‘Ushinotoki-mairi’ (2am visit), a tradition that used to be practiced by Japanese women. A straw doll would be nailed to the cedar, as a curse was cast over an enemy. Today, visitors can still find nails in the trunks of the trees.
A popular temple tradition that remains to this day is the walk between the ‘Love Stones’. Two stones, placed approximately 18 metres apart, are said to predict one’s future in love. Visitors walk from one stone to the other with their eyes closed; those who reach the second stone successfully will have their desire for love fulfilled, while those who do not will wait a long time before their love is realised. Those who receive help walking between the stones successfully may find love soon, but will need assistance from another person in order to do so.
Special night-time illuminations of the temple are held in spring and autumn.
N.B. The main hall was under reformation at the time of our visit and therefore its famous veranda is not clearly visible in the pictures.
Open from 6:00 to 18:00 or 18:30 daily.
- Information signs at Kiyomizu-dera
- DK Eyewitness Travel – Japan
- Lonely Planet – Japan
- Wanderlust Guides – Best of: Japan