Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto is one of the most popular temples in Japan. This post features my photos from the Temple, plus tips and other assorted info about it. This Temple is another of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, and ranks as probably my second favorite site in Kyoto after Fushimi Inari Shrine. It was built in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall and the temple’s name literally means “Pure Water Temple,” which is dervied from the pure water of the falls. Kiyomizudera Temple is located at the base of the eastern mountains of Higashiyama, and it feels like a variety of structures rising out of these mountains.
Variety is probably the best way to describe why Kiyomizudera Temple is such a strong attraction in Kyoto. It has a large main hall, pagoda, a shrine, the waterfall, great views into downtown Kyoto, views into the cherry and maple trees, and views into the mountains. It has cultural significance and is visually stunning in a number of ways, making it an easy pick for a must-do in Kyoto.
Also in terms of “variety,” one of the things I like best about Kiyomizudera Temple is actually the walk there. Kyoto is renowned for Philosopher’s Path, the walkway on which Nishida Kitaro (don’t feel bad, I didn’t know who this was either), a Japanese philosopher, used to mediate. The path is a beautiful, intimate stroll that is scattered with temples and other sites, which is why it remains popular today.
Well, as beautiful as that walk is, I think the “path” we made after ending Philosopher’s Path at Nanzenji (where Philosopher’s Path ends) is even better. I’m going to call it Philosopherz Path 2: Tha Remix, and hope schoolchildren once learn about the contemplative crazy philosopher photographer Tom Bricker and this path someday. Kidding, of course, as I think this loose path is already more or less known, it’s just rarely promoted as a top “walk” in Kyoto. In my case, the “walk” there was more like a run there with 20 pounds of camera gear after some confusion as I was racing to beat the sunset, but that’s a funny story for another post (the walk back after the Temple closed, on the other hand, was GORGEOUS)…
Basically, once you leave Nanzenji, you head past Shorenin Temple and Chionin Temple before entering the Higashiyama District. This is one of my favorite quiet little areas of Kyoto, especially after night falls and the streets essentially go silent.
As you’re walking through this area, you suddenly see Yasaka Pagoda towering above the little shops and houses. Continuing further, you pass Kodaiji Temple before arriving at Kiyomizudera Temple.
Update: We’ve since been back to Kiyomizudera on subsequent trips to Kyoto a few times and have repeated (more or less) this same route. I wrote about this in greater detail in our 1-Day Kyoto Cherry Blossom Itinerary post.
Additionally, I shared thoughts about Visiting Kiyomizudera Temple for Night Illuminations During Sakura Season in another follow-up post. Suffice to say, Kiyomizudera Temple is stunning year-round, but it’s especially gorgeous during cherry blossom season!
Even though it’s not part of the temple itself at all, this is a big part of why I think Kiyomizudera Temple is a must-do. That approach is just second to none, and offers a bit of variety and a beautiful historic district, before arriving at the final destination.
As for the temple itself, as noted above, Kiyomizudera Temple has a lot going on. From the statue of the eleven faced, thousand armed Kannon in the main hall to Jishu Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking, to Otowa Waterfall to the three-storied Koyasu Pagoda to another pagoda amongst the trees on the far side of the grounds, there’s a lot to see here. You can read about each of these structures here on the Temple’s official website. I’m more focused on giving tips for visiting as opposed to giving you the full history (which you’ll learn about at the temple, anyway).
Currently, Kiyomizudera Temple is undergoing a substantial refurbishment project that is slated to last several years. I don’t know when, exactly, this is to be complete, but from what I understand it likely won’t be before the end of the decade. There were large wraps at the entrance during my visit, and while this impacted my photos (and the angles I chose), I don’t think it was a big deal. As you can see, I still managed photos without any scaffolding in the frame. I understand that the main hall will see a full-scale refurbishment in the next few years, and this could be a significant impact.
My big tip for visiting would be to go for sunrise, sunset, or night. Which you choose depends upon the season. The temple opens at 6 am and closes at 6 pm daily, so if sunrise is before 6 am or sunset is after 6 pm, seeing these won’t always be possible. As for night, it’s only open at night (6:30 pm to 9:30 pm) from mid-March to mid-April for the spring bloom, and mid-November to early-December for the fall colors, and is specially illuminated during these times.
Most days of the year, Kiyomizudera Temple should be open for sunset. This is my pick for the best time to go if you want stunning photos, due to the orientation of the Temple’s key structures. The downside to a sunset visit is that it definitely will be more crowded than sunrise or early morning, but most visitors have left by this time of day, so it isn’t nearly as busy as the middle of the day.
If you are more concerned about crowds than photos, you might try visiting Kiyomizudera Temple early in the morning, as it is one of the more popular spots in Kyoto. The problem with this recommendation is that it isn’t realistic for most people reading this. In a perfect world with unlimited time, I’d recommend going to every spot in Kyoto early in the morning to avoid crowds. This would require multiple weeks, and just isn’t pragmatic. Realistically, you probably have 1-3 days in Kyoto, and I’m going to assume you’re also visiting the Silver Pavilion and doing the Philosopher’s Path (at a minimum) on the same day you’re going to Kiyomizudera Temple, and in terms of crowds, it’s much better to start early in the morning at Silver Pavilion and end the day at Kiyomizudera Temple.
My other big recommendation is to not make this the only temple you visit in Kyoto. For 95% of you, this is a non-issue, since that’s sort of Kyoto’s “thing”, and visiting only one would be silly. The reason I say this shouldn’t be the only one is because it’s a poor representation of the true spirituality of Kyoto’s temples. It’s crowded, heavily commercialized, and not conducive to introspection.
I’m not sure if this is a controversial thing to say, but I think regardless of your religious beliefs, at the best temples and shrines in Japan, you can have spiritual experiences. For me, a spiritual experience is different from a religious one in that it is internal to oneself and can mean different things to different people. It’s one of those things you can’t really articulate, but you know it when you feel it. I feel spiritually moved when I visit Fushimi Inari and several other temples in Kyoto. I don’t feel that way here. Rather, I view Kiyomizudera Temple as beautiful sight-seeing with cultural significance. Your mileage may vary on this–that’s just my take.
Overall, Kiyomizudera Temple has so much going on and so much variety as compared to other temples in Kyoto, Japan that it makes my list of highly recommended things to do. I’ve found that many of the other temples in Kyoto can sort of blur together, which is not really a knock on any of them individually as they are all stunning. Kiyomizudera Temple is different from the norm. The approach is a beautiful walk, and the grounds of the temple are filled with things and views you won’t find elsewhere. It does have some weaknesses, but these are far overshadowed by its beauty and unique qualities it brings to the table.
If you’re planning a visit to the Japan that includes Kyoto, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to determine everything you should see and do while there.
Have you visited Kiyomizudera Temple? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this temple interest you? Share any other questions or thoughts you have in the comments!