Of the three cities I’ve ever been to in Japan (a long list, I know), my favorite is definitely Kyoto.
At one time the seat of government of Japan, Kyoto’s cultural history is preserved in a way that is impossible in a fast-growing, busy city like Tokyo. In every way that Tokyo is noisy and overwhelming, Kyoto is quiet and unassuming.
Until it’s a weekend with nice weather, and then it’s overrun with tourists.
But this happens for good reason. There are tons of gardens, temples, and shrines here to be found, a silent commentary on the thousands-of-years-long history of Japan.
We arranged for a student guide through a local tourism club, and one of the first places they showed us was Kiyomizu-Dera, probably the most iconic Buddhist temple in Kyoto. I’ve seen many friends post pictures of this site, so we figured we ought to go see it as well.
Perched high on a hill overlooking Kyoto, a hike up here is not for the unprepared. We had to make a few stops to catch our breath on our way up, partially because of all the stairs, and partially because of all the tourists.
Though the temple was ridiculously crowded, we took some time to appreciate the hillside. The fall colors are just starting to appear in Kyoto, so while most everything was still a very vibrant green, there were splashes of color here and there.
The entrance to Kiyomizu is guarded by a large Niomon, housing two warrior-guardians protecting the temple.
As we walked through the gate, I could see one of the warriors looking at me.
Even though it was a Saturday, school kids were everywhere. A few younger children took a look at me, thought for a second, and then offered up a cautious “Hello!”. I said hello back, lighting up their faces and kicking off a chain reaction of increasingly enthusiastic hellos from the other children.
A large metal object stood off to the side. Our guide told us that if you were able to lift it (it was oddly shaped and weighed over 100 kilos) your wish would be granted.
The most recent incarnation of Kiyomizu was constructed nearly 500 years ago. It’s actually a complex of many sites, including a main temple hosting a statue of Buddha, and a fountain. Incense was burning, the strong smoke purifying those who came to worship.
Our guide mentioned that the smoke was also used as a way to help cure whatever ails you. You simply need to waft the smoke over whatever body part concerned you. Some men wafted the incense smoke over their joints, to relieve pain. Some women wafted it over their face, to make them more beautiful. All wafted smoke over something before entering the temple.
In front of the temple, raised a hundred feet off the ground, was a great stage where traditional dances have been performed for hundreds of years in full view of the gods. Whether that be Buddha seated in the temple behind, or the Shinto nature-gods – the two religions are very closely intertwined – the stage is uncovered offering unobstructed views to those “high” enough.
As so much of Buddhism seems to be related to the making and granting of wishes, there was a story related to this stage as well. Apparently, it was said that if you jumped over the railing and made a wish, it would be granted if you survived the fall.￼
If you didn’t survive, you would go to heaven.
So at least there’s that.
Despite the rocks at the bottom, in practice, this route to wish-fulfilling had a survival rate of 85%. That’s pretty good, if you ask me. There are, of course, no statistics on a granted wish rate, but I would hope that it’s similarly high.
Down at the base of the main temple is the feature that gives this site its name. Kiyomizu stands for “purified water”, so Kiyomizu-Dera is “purified water temple”. A fountain with three flows rests here, where travelers and worshippers alike may drink the waters. Each flow has a separate meaning, and will aid you in that regard.
Drink from the left to protect your health.
Drink from the right to gain more knowledge.
Drink from the center to find love.
Some people need more help than others, evidently.