Kiyomizu Dera (Kiyomizu Temple) could be called the premier temple of Kyoto. Here it is on the map. This Buddhist temple was first built in AD 798 and devoted to the deity that resided within an 11-headed Kanon statue. The current buildings were built in 1633 under orders from Tokugawa Iemitsu. It is a large temple complex that holds several famous sites and contains a good-sized shinto shrine. If you have time to only see one temple in Kyoto this would be it.
The temple complex rests on a hill and affords beautiful scenes of Kyoto. A large veranda facing the city is one of the famous sites at Kiyomizu. I read an old story about a nobleman chased by bandits on the temple grounds who broke off a screen door and glided to safety off the veranda. There’s even a common Japanese expression that specifically mentions this veranda.
Stone steps lead up to a shinto shrine with elegant buildings and a festive air. Two famous stones promise success in love if you can walk between them with your eyes closed. I’m guessing they work because my marriage has lasted almost seven years with no signs of a breakup.
Several guidebooks warn people away from Kiyomizu because of the “commerical feeling” of the place with numerous stalls selling amulets and similar items. The stalls didn’t seem all that noticeable to me and certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the temple grounds.
The buildings and religious sites at Kiyomizu Dera really are breathtaking. Plan to spend the better part of a day here and drink it all in. There’s a reason why photos of this place appear in so many posters and calendars around the world. Do yourself a favor and see the real thing.
Towards the back of the temple grounds you can find paths that lead you further uphill and to some buildings that are not as commanding as those towards the front. The crowds decrease back here and some great little shops serve Japanese food. I still remember slurping cold noodles and watching teachers lead a pack of preschool children through the grounds. My Japanese was good enough to tell me that the preschoolers thought the restroom entrance was far more interesting than the temple buildings. Perhaps one can be too young to appreciate historical landmarks.
I usually like to move fast and see a lot of sites during the day. Some places, such as Kiyomizu Dera, captivate me so much that I cannot help but find a seat and simply take in all that I see. Those who maintain the temple grounds took expert care in allowing the right trees and other plants to grow in such a way that they accentuate the buildings masterfully. From the flowing water to the rich, green moss to the ancient stone blocks that prop up certain buildings on the hillside – everything creates an image that asks you to stop and simply contemplate what you’re seeing. It’s so well done that the modern clothes of the people walking by can’t spoil the illusion that you’ve stepped back in time.