清水寺 Plunging into a Sea of Leaves

I’ve been lucky enough to get three extra days off university for ‘Dohshisha Eve’ (my university’s Christmas festival thing), giving me the chance to do some more wandering around Kyoto. It was also beautifully sunny, and it’s still koyo (turning of the leaves), so I simply had to take advantage of this luck and visit one of the most spectacular sights in Kyoto. On Thursday I took a trip around several temples (which will be posted about separately), but the temple that unsurprisingly outshone them all was Kiyomizudera, one of Kyoto’s 17 World Heritage Sites.

Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) is located in East Kyoto and is accessible by bus from pretty much anywhere, or you can get the train to Gion and walk through (I would recommend this as the area is worth seeing in itself and there are shrines on the way). Either way you will end up walking up the hill to Kiyomizu-dera as no sane bus driver would challenge the hill road up to the temple which is packed with tourists, shop keepers and, up to a certain point, taxis and rickshaws.

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Most of the popular temples in Japan have an ‘approach’ of shops selling o-miyage (お土産) which are presents to take home to your family. In Kyoto this is inevitably yatsuhashi (八つ橋), rice dough pancakes usually stuffed with red bean paste (I had them at Fushimi Inari) or anything flavoured with Matcha (green tea 抹茶). Kiyomizudera is no exception, with a very long approach up the hill, packed with shops selling touristy ‘typically Japanese’ stuff aimed at Westerners as well as O-miyage and better quality traditional goods aimed at Japanese. Most of the shops have big ‘no photo’ signs, probably because they don’t want people hanging around taking pictures without buying anything, but I embraced my inner anarchist and took a couple of pictures of the displays anyway. Purely for your benefit, of course.

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Once you have navigated the ever-growing throng of tourists,  many of whom stop randomly to take pictures or simply do not understand the concept of moving at a reasonable pace, you will eventually catch sight of the entrance gate of Kiyomizu-dera. It is unusual in that it is raised so far above the crowd on a series of steps. I liked the lions flanking the gate, I think they’re meant to be roaring but to me they were laughing at some hilarious joke. You do not actually have to go through the gate to get into the temple as there are paths either side, but the view from the top is worth joining the jam of people on the steps.

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In all honesty the crowd isn’t that bad, though I did go on a weekday; you won’t be able to take many pictures without someone walking across your photo, but movement is mostly unobstructed and it’s not busy to the point that its genuinely inconvenient and inhibiting. I imagine that on the weekend its absolutely packed though, so it would be best to visit on a weekday if you have the option.

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Kiyomizu-dera is an independent Buddhist temple that was founded in 778 by Enchin. It was rebuilt in the 17th century because it was burned down in a fire. It is dedicated to the Buddhist god Kannon, the god of mercy, a very popular god throughout Japanese history.

The legend of Kiyomizu-dera’s founding is that Enchin, a priest, received a vision that he would find the source of the Yodo river  (aka the Uji river, that flows through East Kyoto), and he went in search of its origin. During his search he came across a hermit who gave him a piece of wood possessed by the spirit of Kannon. Enchin enshrined the wood in a shelter, founding what would become Kiyomizu-dera. Later, an Emperor was hunting for a stag in the woods near the shrine, and Enchin gave him a sermon on why one should not harm animals (as he was Buddhist), the Emperor was moved and gave him money to create a proper temple.

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The most astonishing fact I’ve read about this temple is that it was constructed with no nails at all. This is amazing because it’s a very tall structure built on a mountain, and takes thousands of visitors tramping through it every day. I’m sure it’s withstood earthquakes too. I know that its possible to build a very sound structure with no nails, but for some reason this still amazes me. The main temple building is also thatched, which is pretty unusual (probably because most temples seem to burn down, and thatch is only tempting fate).

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While it does not have any nails, half of Kiyomizu-dera is actually under maintenance. Though this doesn’t spoil the beautiful view over Kyoto, it does somewhat ruin the atmosphere, especially with the loud drilling. Hopefully if you get the chance to visit, they will have finished. It is definitely still worth a visit regardless of the construction work. I still managed to get the iconic ‘postcard shot’ of Kiyomizu-dera’s platform with the city and the crimson leaves – it’s quite amusing that there is scaffolding just out of sight and the view was far from tranquil as it was accompanied by melodious drilling.

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The main attraction of Kiyomizu-dera is the platform that overlooks the trees towards a pagoda on the opposing mountain. In the Edo period people would jump off the 13 metre platform, the idea being that if they survived their wish would be granted. 234 jumps are recorded with a 85.4% survival rate, though I wonder if their wishes were granted, presumably they would be injured by the fall and I wouldn’t trust Edo period medicine (mostly herbalism and acupuncture, not great cures for a broken leg). As a result of this practice, the Japanese version of the English idiom “to take the plunge” is “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu”.

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The booth for shuin (朱印, stamping) is just at the end of the first platform and was run by a very nice monk who explained the different sections of my stamp to me. He will explain in either Japanese or English, so if you get yours done the language barrier is no problem (he will also give you a slip of paper with the information). You can also buy stamp books there with the main stage of Kiyomizu printed in gold on the front.

As you are probably wondering what the stamp explanation was:

The right hand side has the date (going down to the bottom right), followed by the character 奉拝 (Hohai) meaning to worship in the top right next to the date, the large central characters are 大悲閣 (Dai-hikaku) meaning ‘great benevolent palaces’, the final characters on the left are the name of the temple, 清水寺 (Kiyomizu-dera).

Most stamps follow a similar pattern, with 奉拝, often followed by the name of the temple (or its official rather than common name) and then its other name (usually common name on the left). The date is usually on the left or the right, there doesn’t seem to be a convention.

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If you continue on round the stage instead of going down the steps towards the water, you will reach a path leading up to the pagoda. The pagoda is pretty small close up (it looks like it could be huge and just really far away from the temple itself) but its beautifully detailed and you can look back towards the temple at the gallery you were just standing on. The view of the leaves is better from the temple but the view is still spectacular.

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I then walked down the hill towards the section of the temple under the gallery. The elevation makes the temple dynamic and interesting to walk around – you discover new areas as you walk around. Here there was a queue of people waiting to scoop water from an elevated spring. It is said that if you wash yourself and drink the water your wishes will be granted. I didn’t queue because an entire school had just joined the line and I didn’t particularly want to wait half an hour. When I have a wish that needs granting I’ll be sure to go back.

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While Kiyomizu-dera is firmly on the beaten track, and therefore subject to traffic, I can see why its become so famous. There is also an evening illumination of the leaves during Koyo, but I have heard that people start queuing two hours before the illumination opens – though I’m sure its worth the wait, I doubt I’ll be joining the line. Entrance to Kiyomizu on a normal day does cost money, a ticket costs 300円 (£1.60), which is cheap for such an attraction – many temples charge more for much less.

2 thoughts on “清水寺 Plunging into a Sea of Leaves

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