Travel guide to visiting Kiyomizu-dera in Japan

A Buddhist shrine where compassion reigns supreme


294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0862, Japan

GPS: 34.995853229966, 135.78655957684

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Kiyomizu-dera is a Buddhist place of pilgrimage with several sacred shrines. It is located on the hills of Kyoto, east of the Japanese city. This complex of temples was erected at the end of the 8th century by the shōgun (general) Sakanoue no Tamuramaro under the aegis of Kanmu (or Kammu), 50th emperor of Japan. His accession to the throne marked the transition from the Nara period (marked by the emergence of Buddhism from China) to the Heian period (corresponding to the golden age of imperial Japan). During his reign, the Crown Prince moved the country’s capital twice and finally established his court in Heian-kyō, in what is now downtown Kyoto.

Devastated by several fires, Kiyomizu-dera was rebuilt identically by the third shōgun of the Tokugawa dynasty (Tokugawa Iemitsu) in 1633 during the Edo period. It is associated with the Hossō school, one of the oldest teaching places of Japanese Buddhism. This temple is considered a national treasure and remains one of the most valuable assets in Japan. It also includes a Shinto shrine, Jishu-Jinja, serving as a place of worship for a mixture of ancient religious and animist beliefs in the history of Japan. Kiyomizu-dera occupies a vast spiritual space meaning “Temple of Pure Water” in reference to the sacred waters of the narrow Otowa-no-taki waterfall, located below the main hall.

Loaded with history and myths, the main pavilion (Hondō) of Kiyomizu-dera includes a vast veranda supported by a hundred massive wooden pillars assembled without the aid of a single nail. This traditional construction method, called Kakezukuri, is particularly used on steep slopes or rocky hills. It is intended to be in perfect symbiosis with its natural environment. The main hall of Kiyomizu-dera is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, the bodhisattva Kannon (also known as Guanyin). It conceals a statue with 11 heads and 1,000 arms which is only unveiled to the public every 33 years (the last performance took place in 2010). In addition to being able to visit the site at night, two major seasonal events contribute to the beautification of Kiyomizu-dera every year. The sakura (cherry blossom) in the spring and the momiji (Japanese maple tree) in the autumn are among the most eagerly awaited moments by the inhabitants of Kyoto who flock in their thousands to attend the show.

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  • Wooden pagodas, temples and shrines in traditional Japanese style; the aesthetic and spiritual value of this holy place (Kannon Reijo) full of compassion
  • The main hall Hondo (an all-wooden building perched on the steep cliff of Mount Otowa) housing the statue of the eleven-headed and thousand-armed Bodhisattva Kannon; the teachings of the deity Kannon that have been handed down from generation to generation for centuries
  • The Nio-mon or Deva Gate (main entrance), a two-storey structure 5 metres long, 10 metres wide and 14 metres high; the Sai-mon Gate (western entrance) which is perfectly located for watching the sunset or meditate
  • Jishu-Jinja Shrine dedicated to Ōkuninushi, god of love among others; The neat gardens of the Jōjuin Temple and the collection of statues of Buddhist deities
  • The three-storey Koyasu Pagoda bringing benevolence to pregnant women; the clear, pure and sacred waters of the Otowa waterfall
  • Zuigu-do Hall (housing the Daizuigu Bodhisattva and the darkened Tainai Meguri Hall); Okuno-in Hall (superb view of the main hall Hondo and Kyoto city)
  • The cherry blossoms in spring, the green vegetation in summer, the reddish maple trees in autumn and the snow-covered landscapes in winter; the traditional events held within the shrine: Nissokan (meditation on the setting sun), Seiryu-e (parade of artists and a blue dragon as an incarnation of Kannon), Thousand-Day Pilgrimage, the New Year’s Eve Bells, Syusho-e (week of prayers) and Nehan-e (exhibition of the Painting of the Buddha Entering Nirvana)
  • The visit of the site illuminated at nightfall (night tours are specially organized in season); the discovery of the Moon Garden at Jōjuin Temple (depending on the calendar); the panorama of Kyoto city from the hill and the Higashiyama district (named after the nearby mountain range)
  • The pedestrian, historical and lively streets of the area (Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka); the age-old traditions of the inhabitants (dressed in kimono or yukata); the other Buddhist temples located nearby (Yasaka Kōshin-dō and Seikan-ji)
  • The temple’s 1,200-year-old foundations are located at the site of a pure water spring uncovered by a priest on a path leading to the summit of Mount Otowa (Higashiyama mountain range).
  • The Kiyomizu-dera complex is composed of about thirty buildings. It has been burnt about ten times since the 8th century. In order to protect it, an association for the security of the temple has been created and its members include merchants, company managers and monks who are responsible for intervening quickly in the event of a fire starting.
  • From the 17th century onwards, the temple platform was incidentally used as a springboard from which people jumped to grant their wishes (15 metres above the ground). This dangerous practice is now forbidden but has become a linguistic expression commonly used in Japan: “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” is the English equivalent of “to take the plunge”.
  • The Otowa-no-taki waterfall, composed of three small pipes, would bring longevity, love and success to all those who would drink it. To use its three channels instead of one for water supply is considered excessive and would have the opposite effect. This waterfall is said to have healing properties as well as a natural propensity to satisfy prayers.
  • The Buddha’s ashes are said to rest in a building called Taho-kaku. It also contains a large black stone, 4 metres long, on which the Buddha’s footprints are engraved in black marble (this relic is called Bussokuseki).
  • At the Shinto Jishu-Jinja Shrine, two love stones are positioned 18 metres apart. It is said that if you reach the opposite stone with your eyes closed, your quest for love will be fulfilled without outside help (it will be fulfilled through a third person if you need to be guided to reach the stone).
  • Kiyomizu-dera has 200 small stone statues of Jizo (or Kṣitigarbha) that can be compared to a cemetery. This Buddhist deity is known to be the friend and protector of children. Tradition has it that mourning parents who lost their child at a very young age hang a bib on one of these statues (to help their soul to reach the afterlife).
  • The main pavilion (Hondō) of Kiyomizu-dera has undergone extensive restoration work over the past 15 years. The structure now has a new thatched roof made of hinoki (Japanese cypress).
  • Kiyomizu-dera is easily accessible on foot from Kyoto railway station (Kiyomizu-Gojō). It is a 25-minute walk. There are also several bus lines that serve the area around the temple (Gojozaka and Kiyomizu-michi stops).
  • The doors of the shrine open to the public at 6 am (closing time varies according to the time of year). Guided tours are sometimes given by an English-speaking priest. He can maybe help you to better understand the great compassionate nature of the deity Kannon and the divine spirit of this unique Japanese shrine.
  • A visit to the gardens of Jōjuin Temple is not to be missed (attached to Kiyomizu-dera, this place is only accessible to the public few days per year in spring and autumn). At nightfall, the moon is reflected in a pond in a bewitching atmosphere.
  • The nearby historic and lively Higashiyama ward is full of shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Some of them sell Yatsuhashi, a Japanese confectionery made from raw or baked rice flour, a speciality of Kyoto.

Where to eat

  • % Arabica Coffee
    (the coffee is fabulous)
  • Wakana
    (green tea is amazing)
  • Kikunoi
    (the kaiseki master)

Where to go

  • Nishiki Market
    (appetizing and must-see)
  • Maruyama Park
    (cherry tree sanctuary)
  • Sanjusangen-do
    (zen temple)

Where to stay

  • Guesthouse Soi
    (modern and welcoming)
  • Gion Ryokan Q-beh
    (very convenient hostel)
  • Motonago
    (typical and central location)