In Kyoto: The Kiyomizu-dera Temple

THE fourth stop on Day 4 in Kyoto was a most interesting temple (and I dare say the most magnificent) I’ve seen by far. The Kiyomizu-dera Temple is the third UNESCO World Heritage Site (listed in 1944) visited for the day. It’s also a part of the 17 Historic Monuments of Kyoto. Making it more interesting is its entry to list of 21 finalists for the New Ancient Wonders of the World.

I’m not surprised. Seeing the temple, it is an architectural wonder.

First, here’s a brief history of the place. Kiyomizu-dera Temple was founded in 778, in the early Heaian period, by Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, a general and a shogun.

The Kiyomizu-dera Temple complex is spread over the 130,000 square-meter grounds that rest on the halfway up Mt. Otowa, one of the peaks in the Higashiyama mountain range on the eastern part of Kyoto. Enshrined in the Main Hall’s naijin (inner chamber) is the Eleven-headed Thousand-armed Kannon Bodhisattva, Kiyomizu-dera’s principal image.

Kiyomizu means “clear water” or “pure water” and the Otowa waterfall found within the complex is where the temple takes its name from. From the nearby hills, three water channels fall into a pond located beneath the main hall. The water from each channel is said to have wish-granting powers (good health, success in studies and romantic relationships) making the pond one of the popular spots in the temple.

Thirty Buddhist buildings comprise the complex. Although the Kiyomizu-dera Temple was founded more than a century ago, most of the buildings destroyed by fire over ten times in the course of its history. The present buildings were constructed in 1633.

The most popular structure—and the most awe-inspiring— of all the buildings would be the Hon-Do, the main hall. It has a wooden platform called the “Kiyomizu Stage”. It was built by the traditional method of Japanese construction without the utilization of a single nail.

That’s just the start of features of this architectural wonder. The 190-square meter stage covered in 410 hinoki (Japanese cypress) boards is built jutting off a cliff and hangs nearly13 meters above ground, about the height of a four-story building. Like they say, height is an advantage, the stage, apart from its use for performances dedicated to the Kannon on Buddhist religious services occasions, offers a magnificent view of the Kyoto cityscape.

Supporting the stage are 18 pillars made from more than 400-year old zelkova trees, the largest of which spans over twelve feet in length with a girth of two meters. Beams go through the pillars and form a scaffolding support for the platform. The reinforcement is so sturdy that it has withstood countless earthquakes since its construction in 1633—and the hundreds of tourists it accommodates on a daily basis today.

Here’s another interesting story about the Kiyomizu Stage. The expression “to take the plunge” takes a literal translation at this spot during the Edo period. It was once a tradition “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” for one’s wish to be granted, if you survive, that is. This practice is prohibited today.

If you’re wishing for romantic relationships and can't jump off the cliff, you still have two areas in the temple to wish for it. Try drinking the water from the Otowa falls located below the Main Hall or head up to the Jishu Shrine and pray to Okuninushi, a god of love and good matches (Cupid comes to mind).

At the Jishu Shrine is a pair of “Love Stones” set 18 meters apart. True love is granted to those who can successfully walk to the other rock with their eyes closed, if you can’t, it will be long before love is realized. Worry not for you can seek assistance in the crossing, but that would means you will be needing “a bridge” to your sought after romantic relationship.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple is one very interesting place to visit when in Kyoto. Make sure to put this on your list of must visit temples.

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