Kyoto: Kiyomizu Temple

When last I wrote, I told the spooky tale of Jason’s camera getting grabbed by an overzealous shutterbug so taken with ecstasy at our wearing kimono he braved petty larceny charges to capture a photo we’d never forget. We were assailed for photos several times throughout our visit to 1200-year-old Kiyomizu Temple (albeit in much less scary ways), but as frustrating and exhausting as it was, the temple deserves its own place in the spotlight.

We walked up the steps to the temple and took in the massive three-storey pagoda near the entrance. It stretched into the perfectly clear sky, bright orange and white. Although it had been chilly the previous day, today the weather was pleasantly cool with a bit of warmth on the edges as you walked in the sun. We passed under the pagoda’s shadow and to the temple itself.

Cropped from "Untitled" by Jeremy Hochspeier. Used with permission.

Cropped from “Untitled” by Jeremy Hochspeier. Used with permission.

When I’d been year ten years ago, Kiyomizu Temple had been one of my favorite sites; a beautiful old temple with airy grounds and ample gardens. And now, ten years later, here were the airy grounds and the ample gardens, but the beauty of the temple was greatly marred by scaffolding covering much of the facade for renovations I’d had no idea were happening. No one considers the upkeep that a 1200-year-old wooden structure needs to stay up and running when it has literally thousands of visitors each day… Except the priests of the temple, apparently. The facade was all but invisible behind the scaffolding and screens set up to protect visitors from the mess and danger of the construction.

Despite its marred beauty, the attention we were getting and the liveliness of the crowd kept us in good spirits. We explored and almost immediately found something of interest: a large singing bowl sitting in an open veranda near the altar. We approached and watched those who were using it, and the long winding line to get there. After listening to the murmur of the crowd and watching closely, we found that the bowl was meant for special prayers. We got into line immediately and stepped up one by one. Sitting on the cushion before the bowl, I bowed, offered a prayer, and bowed again, then struck the bowl with its accompanying mallet. The rich tone that reverberated around me was like a bell, harmonies meshing and twining into a complex and entrancing sound. My mind drifted to the people I love and who I wished could be with me here, particularly Aaron. He would have loved Kyoto. As the sound evaporated, I brushed away tears and stood, walking to the side to collect myself and wait for the others.

We wove through the crowds and enjoyed the view from the “stage,” a large veranda perched over the cliff on which the temple sits, the fluffy tops of trees bunched like clouds before us. Just below we could see people walking up and down the stairs in the garden, including others in kimono or dressed as geisha. We followed the path around the stage and bought fortunes, charms, and other small souvenirs from the temple vendors. Sadly, my fortune was unlucky. I tied it to the racks near the fortune selling station and let Kannon handle it.

Cropped from "Untitled" by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

Cropped from “Untitled” by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

We followed the walkway down the stairs into the garden and found something I hadn’t remembered from my previous trip: the Otowa Waterfall, its water cascading from three pipes jutting from the lintel of a covered walkway, seeming to spring from the living rock. This is the water for which the temple is name (“Kiyomizu” means “pure water.”) It’s considered lucky to drink the water, which many people were doing. At the time I believed it to be a temizuya cleaning station, and was surprised to find people drinking the water, sometimes directly from the dippers! I wasn’t the only one confused, though, as it seemed that no one could agree on the correct procedure. Some people cleansed as you should before entering a temple, some people cleansed their hands and drank the water, some just drank the water, and still others cleansed just their hands before leaving and eschewed drinking or rinsing.

When our turn came, I was relieved to find that the metal dippers were housed in a special case where the dipper bowls were disinfected with UV light. My fears of creepy, infected backwash mitigated, I took the dipper from its slowT the aluminum handle freezing cold in my hands. I stepped forward and held the dipper out for water, trying to keep my kimono out of the water splashed all over the walkway. At over four feet long, the dipper was a little difficult to control and quite heavy. The water splashed out of the dipper bowl and into the reservoir below, the water running so fast that it was difficult ot catch. I drew it back after several seconds unsuccessfully trying to fill it to the brim and got a half-full dipper for my effort. The water was very cold, like a mountain stream of snowmelt, and equally fresh and clean. It tasted wonderful, but—as I thought I was supposed to be cleansing myself—I avoided drinking it. I placed the dipper back in its holder when I was done, shook the water from my hands, and moved away to make room for those behind me.

Cropped from "Untitled" by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

Cropped from “Untitled” by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

We stepped down from the waterfall and explored the gardens, surprisingly empty given the crush at the temple itself. It was almost too chilly down here in the deep shade, but the green glow of the sunlight through the leaves was too enchanting to leave immediately. We walked by the stream that flowed away from the waterfall and tried to avoid the attention of the endless throng that wanted pictures with us.

We followed the steps back up to the main temple grounds, the same staircase we had watched other kimonoed people walk barely an hour before, and made our way to yet another area of the temple I’d missed before. On a hill above the main temple was a small shrine dedicated to the Shinto god Okuninushi, the god of love. Amid the crush of tourists vying for places to buy love charms and other souvenirs we noticed a pair of “love stones” set 20 feet apart. According to legend, if a person can walk from one pillar to the other with their eyes closed, they’re destined to find true love. Both your friends and your romantic interest are encouraged to help you on this journey, clearly trepidatious considering the popularity of the shrine and the sheer number of people trying to flit from prayers to photos to shops to friends.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

Naturally Shannon and I had to try this trial and test our love! First me: I stood at the pillar and closed my eyes, then took my first step. Jason, Jeremy, and Shannon gave me quiet directions—turn a little left; stop there; careful of the small bump just ahead. The sun was shining onto us, and I could feel its heat on the back of my head as I walked toward the shadowed pillar on the far side of the small pavilion. The stones, just uneven enough to give trouble to those with eyes closed, bumped against my sandals and tripped me up several times. I veered off course a time or two, but always the boys were there to redirect me. I could feel their hands itching to reach for me, but they kept back. Finally I felt something bump against my knees; the final pillar! I opened my eyes and looked for Shannon. He smiled and gave me a hug. Around us, many of the Japanese in the square were peering at us, mouths curled up with delighted smiles.

Now it was Shannon’s turn. He started at the pillar I’d ended with, and Jason, Jeremy, and I led him forward with our voices. As Shannon stepped forward, occasionally tripping on the uneven paving stones, I realized what a task it had been to lead me over the trail. The huge number of shrine visitors seemed doubly large trying to lead someone who couldn’t see. Many passed within inches of Shannon, and a few dashed between he and us as though they couldn’t move anywhere else to get around us. We formed a crude circle around him and tried and keep people back from him, giving him the widest berth that we dared.

In the end, Shannon made it to the final pillar as well, bumping it gently with his sandals. Just as I had done, he opened his eyes and search for me. I stepped forward to hug him, happy, hopeful faces all around.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

Address: 294 Kiyomizu 1-chome, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0862

Get there: From Kyoto Station, take the 206 bus bound for Kitaoji Bus Terminal or take the 100 bus bound for Kiyomizu-Dera/Gion/Ginkakuji.*  Alight at the Kiyomizu-Michi stop. Walk southwest on Matsubara Doori for just over half a mile. The road will end at the temple. For temple hours, visit their website.

*Note that only the 100 bus runs from Kyoto Station to Kiyomizu-Michi on weekends; the 206 bus does not run this route on weekends.

Price: Regular admission is 300 yen (~$2.50 USD). Admission for special after-hours event is 400 yen (~$3.30 USD).


  • Plan your trip around the cherry blossom and autumn colors. Kiyomizu Temple is known throughout Japan for the beautiful views from the stage during the spring and autumn, which means lots of tourists. If you want the view and don’t care about the crush, try to go during one of those seasons (approximately early April and late November, respectively). If you’d rather have a little more breathing room, avoid those times.

Based on my diary entries from November 14, 2013.


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