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.
The location of the temple was established in 778 CE during the early Heian Period by the Buddhist monk Enchin. A vision he saw in a dream instructed him to find a spring of the purest water. Following the Kizugawa River to the foot of Mount Otowa, Enchin encountered an ascetic mountain priest who gave him a piece of sacred mountain wood. From this, Enchin carved the wooden figure of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, which he enshrined in the monk’s mountain hunt.
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.
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.
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.
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.