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?
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?