A Pilgrimage to Purity

Asia, East, Japan

Tourists Soaking in the Afternoon Sun at the Gates of Kiyomizu-dera

Remember the dream I took you into not long ago? Remember that bright vermilion color amid the lush green foliage? Remember Inari and the foxes?

That was just the beginning of a journey to a magical realm I’m about to show you. No, I’m not exaggerating. Why not give it a chance and dive into this fantasy world I’m lucky to have seen before? All I ask from you is to clear your mind and trust me. Let me guide you into another dream. After all, Alice’s adventure doesn’t end once she goes down the rabbit hole, right?

Dreaming is important to begin a journey like this, because the place I will take you to shortly also began from a dream, a real dream a monk named Kenshin had when he was sleeping more than 1,200 years ago. In his dream, an old man appeared before him and instructed the monk to “go north and find a crystal spring.”

Now do you see those three streams from a waterfall that go down through that grey temple-like structure? That’s the Otowa Waterfall. If you think this was the crystal spring Kenshin found, you’re right. Look at that clear water! When I came here, even by just looking at it I already felt refreshed and rejuvenated. But before I say any more, let me tell you a secret. This spring, and that enormous wooden structure to your left, and a pagoda to your right which stands hidden behind the trees, they can all fulfill some of your wishes!

Let’s begin with the waterfall and take a look at those three streams flowing gently into the square pond. If you drink the water from one stream, you won’t have to worry about whether or not you will live a long life for it gives you longevity. The second stream gives you the ability to succeed in your studies; for us here in Asia, this is one of the most important things in life. As for the last one, that’s what you will probably find most interesting. Drink from it, and you will find the love of your life and live happily ever after. Are you contemplating taking a sip from all three? I would never suggest that. It’s considered greedy, you know. And since this is a holy site for the Hosso sect of Buddhism, of which greed is something to be shunned to attain enlightenment, I believe you should banish any hint of that thought.

I was told that upon finding the site of this “crystal spring”, Kenshin met a priest called Gyoei-koji who built a hermitage and practiced asceticism near the waterfall. The priest gave the monk a sacred tree and told him to carve the tree into a statue of the thousand-armed Kannon. Yes, we’re no longer in the land of Inari as you might remember from the last time I took you on a journey like this. We’re in the land of Kannon now, a bodhisattva (a person who has the qualities of a Buddha) you might know by different names: Guanyin, Kwan Im, or the Goddess of Mercy.

So where is that statue now?

One Stream for One Wish

Kiyomizu-dera’s Main Hall

The Imposing Kiyomizu Stage

Kiyomizu Stage and the Main Hall on the Forested Slopes

Like An Island in A Sea of Green

Take a look at that impressive wooden pavilion to your left again, and let’s go up there, shall we? As we walk, cast your eye on those large wooden beams. If you look closely, they’re joined together without a single nail, and they’re more than 300 years old. All those earthquakes that have rattled Japan since the day these pillars stood never succeeded in bringing down the structure. Now look up to the top of the platform. Seems quite high, doesn’t it? Would you believe me if I tell you that in the past, people actually jumped off that stage to get their wishes fulfilled? That’s another part of the secret I mentioned to you earlier, but once we’re up there it wouldn’t be wise to follow their example. Unless of course, you wish for broken bones.

So here we are, at the Main Hall of this vast compound. Do you still remember the monk Kenshin? Apparently two years after he resided at this lush mountain slope, a warrior by the name of Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro was hunting deer at a sanctuary where all living creatures thrived and flourished under Kannon’s compassion, including the deer. Kenshin, in a true Buddhist way, then preached to the warrior about Kannon’s virtuous deeds which successfully moved the deer-hunter’s heart. To demonstrate his regret and offer his gratitude for being taught the right path, Tamuramaro subsequently built a temple to enshrine Kannon’s statue and named the compound Kiyomizu, or “pure water”, after the very crystal water that had made Kenshin take the pilgrimage all the way to this part of Japan several years earlier. I didn’t get the chance to see that image of Kannon, though, and most probably you wouldn’t either unless you go during the Thousand-day Pilgrimage which, contrary to its name, is held for just several days a year.

That shouldn’t be a reason for you to feel disappointed, really. Come! Let’s walk to the very edge of this sturdy wooden stage, or what people now call the Kiyomizu Stage. If you feel like you’re looking out toward the open ocean, I know what you mean. The green forest canopy, stretching as far as the eye can see, resembles the waves, with that pagoda off in the distance rising like a lighthouse in the middle of this green ocean. However, that pagoda is anything but a lighthouse; instead of warning sailors of dangerously shallow waters in their vicinity, the structure – known as Koyasu Pagoda – is believed to bring an easy and safe childbirth to its visitors, and this is in fact the last secret of this entire temple compound that I need to tell you. But where are the storks, you might think. Well, things work a little differently in this part of the world, and white storks don’t deliver babies here. This is part of the reason why I’m so eager to take you on this kind of journey, so together we can learn something new about other cultures.

Do you believe me now when I told you that this magical journey was far from over? I still have many things to tell you, but I think for now I should let you ponder everything I told you today, because on my own journey sometime in the past, I too needed time to digest this magical realm that is Kiyomizu-dera. Oh, one more thing before I leave! Remember that big vermilion gate when you entered this place? It’s not that the Japanese like to paint everything the same color. Here, vermilion is believed to ward off evil spirits. Who would want people with ill intentions to come to this sacred place where wishes are one step closer to being granted and compassion emanates through the landscape everywhere you walk?

If anything, it also reminds us that having a pure intention is a must before taking the first step to pursue whatever we want in life, don’t you think?

Koyasu Pagoda, An Auspicious Place for Expecting Mothers

A Towering Vermilion Beauty

Jizo Statues within the Expansive Temple Compound

Prayers and Wishes, Sometimes with A Playful Twist

A Heron Eyes the Fish

Downtown Kyoto in the Early Morning Sun

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

44 thoughts on “A Pilgrimage to Purity”

  1. If I literally have lots and lots of money right now… I’ll go there this instant! thank you for uplifting my energy to save and go travel the world! 🙂


    • I too have to save to be able to travel to places like Japan. Keep your dreams alive, so one day when they come true you’ll be glad that you never let go off them.


  2. That I could watch and feel Kiyomizu-dera so vividly owes to the very engaging conversation you held throughout the journey, beckoning and ushering all the time into the secrets of the shrine. As usual, you have employed fetching photographs to add to the effect.


    • It’s always nice to hear from you, Umashankar. It was cloudy when I went to Kiyomizu-dera, but in a way it gave this compound a rather mysterious ambiance which in turn inspired me to write this story. I’ve seen photos of this temple in autumn when the green foliage changes its color into bright red, orange and yellow, making this magnificent heritage site in Kyoto even more impressive.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bama what a wonderful way that you have written this. A magical journey through this magical world. Gorgeous photos to match your beautiful writing.


    • Much appreciated, Sue! Every single corner of Kyoto I went to was magical in its own way. And of all such places, Kiyomizu-dera was undoubtedly among the most fascinating and beautiful.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed this journey, Debra! Japan is such a marvelous country; inspiration can be found wherever one goes.


  4. You’ve left me with many questions for myself ! I could use a magical journey right about now, but I wonder if I have the focus to set a strong and good intention? Beautiful photos – you entice me to consider Japan more and more each day


    • I believe many of us leave the comfort of our homes to travel the world with good intention. Along the journey, our values will be challenged, strengthened, and adjusted repeatedly, and that’s part of the reason why some wise people said that traveling is probably among the best things one should invest in his/her life. Thanks for reading, Lex! Book that trip to Japan; you won’t regret it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. canadajapanmext says:

    Your stunning pictures and the descriptive stories that accompany them transport your readers around the world on your journey. It’s always a pleasure reading your blog. Thanks for sharing your gift and your amazing adventures!


    • The pleasure is mine, really. I wonder if you’re currently residing in Japan — probably among the most fascinating countries to live in! Thank you for reading and leaving such a kind comment!


  6. Thanks for taking us on a tour of this magical place. Maybe the most amazing part for me is the pavilion made without nails that is still standing. Those people made some good wishes.


    • And when you go there one day, make sure not to jump off that stage, Jeff. There won’t be any cat waiting for you down there. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You took me on a sweet journey with wonderful words and photos. When I’m in Kyoto in May I think I’d better go there and see it for myself.


    • Thanks Alison! Looking forward to reading your own impressions of Kyoto. And I Hope the weather is pleasant when you’re in the city.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Ten years almost to the day… I was there, in Kiyomizu-dera. My first intercontinental trip, and it couldn’t have been a better one. Thanks for the good memories Bama!


    • I wonder how much less touristy Kyoto was back then. As far as I can remember, it was not until in recent years when the Japanese government decided to boost its tourism industry. Glad this post brings back those fond memories, Fabrizio!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Bama. Great post! Love the pictures and the description. The kind of travel writing that yanks the tourist out of me. Kyoto, next.


  10. I really enjoy the way you have described this magical place and its interesting characters. You caught me with your comment “Are you contemplating taking a sip from all three?” …Great post!


    • Hi Caroline! Thanks for reading. Humans are never satisfied, so it’s logical if one wants to drink from all the three streams. But logic is not what we need when visiting a place like Kiyomizu-dera; humility is.


  11. What a beautiful writing! Kyoto has long been on my bucket list, and reading this has makes me want to book the tickets now 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Dixie! Despite its growing popularity, I still found Kyoto a very relaxing city. Sublime architecture, impressive temples and mouthwatering food are only a few among many reasons to book that trip to Kyoto.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Which stream of holy water did you choose, Bama? 🙂 I am reading your posts about Japan to look for inspiration for my first trip to the country. Perhaps the Kansai region first.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good question! I didn’t drink from any of those streams. But if I had to, I think I would have chosen the one that would give me happiness for eternity. 😉
      Transportation in Japan is so efficient it won’t take you a long time to go from one city to another. Kansai was the focus of my trip to Japan, although I did visit the neighboring Chugoku region to the immediate west.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I intend to spend 1-2 days in Chugoku as well. Perhaps Hiroshima and some small towns. I read about the ancient town of Kurashiki on your blog. Is it close to Hiroshima?


      • James and I were thinking of going to Hiroshima as well since it’s easily reached from Okayama by Shinkansen. However, we decided to save the former for our next trip and visited Kurashiki instead, which is much closer to Okayama. If you do go to the latter, don’t miss the grapes! They’re not cheap but they’re definitely the sweetest and the most succulent grapes I’ve ever had.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. It was surreal, and so wonderfully peaceful, to be at Kiyomizu-dera first thing in the morning when most normal visitors were still in bed! Thanks for dragging me out that early to get a sense of the temple’s solitude before the crowds started coming up the hill. I may well have taken a sip from one of those three streams of holy water on a family trip to Kyoto more than 15 years previously, but I can’t remember the exact details.


    • At least that day we didn’t start the day as early as when we went to Nara. 🙂 Even on a cloudy day Kiyomizu-dera was beautiful and impressive. I hope one day I’ll get the chance to go back there in autumn! Now I’m intrigued which of the three streams you had taken a sip from, although I think I can kind of guess.

      Liked by 1 person

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