The Story Behind Kyoto's Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kiyomizu-dera | Jaemin Lee / © Culture Trip
Christine Bagarino

No trip to Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto is complete without a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Kiyomizu-dera. The temple complex is home to some of Kyoto’s best-known landmarks, including a three-story pagoda that stands over a hundred feet tall and a temple hall with a viewing platform that overlooks the entire city.

Perched on a hillside in eastern Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera is reached by way of Sannenzaka, a winding shopping street bustling with artisanal handicrafts, restaurants, and sweets shops. A visit to Kiyomizu-dera involves quite a bit of walking, but is certainly worth the effort.

Jaemin Lee /
Jaemin Lee /

Kiyomizu, the Temple of ‘Pure Waters’

Jaemin Lee /
Jaemin Lee /
Jaemin Lee /

Otowa-no-Taki (Otowa Falls)

Founded on the site of Otowa-no-Taki, Kiyomizu-dera Temple gets its name from the pure water of these falls. At the temple, visitors can drink from the water of Otowa-no-Taki via long-handled dipper ladles.

Jaemin Lee /
Jaemin Lee /

The main hall

The original temple hall was erected by the Japanese general Sakanoue no Tamuramuro, shortly after Kiyomizu-dera was founded. The general had come to this mountainside to hunt deer as an offering to the gods for his sick wife, when he encountered Enchin who lectured him on the sanctity of life. The general became a profound devotee to Kannon and built a hall to properly enshrine the wooden statue of Kannon.

Over the years, many temple buildings were erected within the Kiyomizu-dera complex but burned down in fires. Most of the buildings standing today were either reconstructed or restored during the 17th century, by order of Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu. This includes Kiyomizu-dera’s brilliantly colored three-story pagoda.

Jaemin Lee /

The most famous building within the Kiyomizu-dera Temple complex, however, is undoubtedly the main hall, with its wide wooden viewing stage that juts out over the mountainside. The stage is supported by 168 wooden pillars made from thick tree trunks over several centuries old. The flooring of the stage itself was constructed from cypress boards using a special method of interlocking wooden joints without a single nail.

Jaemin Lee /

Although the exterior of the main hall is undergoing renovations through 2020, visitors can still access the viewing stage for a stunning panoramic view of the Kyoto basin.

Jaemin Lee /

Kiyomizu-dera Temple, 294 Kiyomizu 1-chōme, Higashiyama-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu, Japan

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