Kiyomizudera is one of the most popular temples in Japan. Also known as the “Pure Water Temple,” it’s a Kyoto highlight, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and unequivocal must-do. This post features my photos from the temple, plus tips for avoiding crowds, and other assorted info about it. (Last updated July 27, 2019.)
Perched in a beautiful location between one of Kyoto’s most beautiful historic districts and the Higashiyama foothills, Kiyomizudera Temple ranks #3 on our Top 100 Temples & Shrines in Kyoto, Japan. In fact, aside from Fushimi Inari Shrine (#2), it’s the spot we visit most in Kyoto. Since originally writing this post a few years ago, we’ve returned to Kiyomizudera over a dozen times and experienced it in every season.
The two most notable and unique experiences are during autumn foliage and spring cherry blossom seasons. I wrote about the latter in our Visiting Kiyomizudera Temple for Night Illuminations During Sakura Season post and the former in our Kiyomizudera Fall Colors Evening Lighting post. Kiyomizudera is always not to be missed, but during those special events, you will want to visit twice. Additionally, just about all of our 1-Day to 1-Week Itineraries for Kyoto, Japan include a stop at Kiyomizudera…
Before we get into tips for experiencing this temple, let’s start with a bit of background. Kiyomizudera was built in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall and the literal translation of the temple’s name to “Pure Water Temple.”
Since its original founding, most of Kiyomizudera’s buildings have been destroyed numerous times due to fire, and have been rebuilt again and again. Most of the present buildings were reconstructed in 1633. Kiyomizudera Temple was registered on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto in 1944.
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 make after ending Philosopher’s Path at Nanzenji (where Philosopher’s Path ends) is also very good. 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 this path is already known, it’s just not promoted as a top “walk” in Kyoto. This is probably because the first section of the path that connects Nanzen-ji Temple to Maruyama Park is just through a plain section of Downtown Kyoto, but everything after that through the park and Higashiyama District is excellent. Some of the prettiest machiya townhouses in Kyoto can be found along these narrow paths.
Basically, once you leave Nanzenji, you head past Shorenin Temple and Chionin Temple before passing through Maruyama Park and entering the Higashiyama District. 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.
It’s a good thing this walk is so lovely, because Kiyomizudera is not all that convenient to any train or subway stations in Kyoto. The nearest option is Kiyomizu-Gojo Station along the Keihan Railway Line, and that’s about a 20 minute walk. Fortunately, most of that walk is through the Higashiyama District, so it’s not too bad. The alternative is taking the bus from Kyoto Station, but that’s a miserably crowded experience, and the lines for the Kiyomizudera buses are often really long.
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.
Note that once you get up to the steps of Kiyomizudera, you can see a decent area of the temple before entering the paid area that (more or less) begins with the main hall.
Now, we highly recommend paying to enter, but this is worth mentioning because you could return a second time for sunset or sunrise if you’re really into photography and shoot a decent amount without going “inside” the temple.
As for the paid area of Kiyomizudera Temple, there’s a lot to see. 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 be completed right before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. This is a monumental undertaking that has been taking place in phases over the course of the last several years. The final component of this project is a roof replacement of the main hall.
Unfortunately, this has temporarily transformed the view below into the one above. I won’t sugar-coat the visual impact this has at Kiyomizudera, as the wooden stage jutting out from the main hall with Kyoto in the background is the iconic scene at this temple, and the scaffolding around the main hall is visible from pretty much everywhere in Kiyomizudera. It’s a bummer, but it’s necessary, and we still do not hesitate to recommend a visit. Even during the refurbishment, Kiyomizudera remains one of the top spots in Kyoto.
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.
Some days of the year, Kiyomizudera Temple is 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. If you can get here before 8 a.m., you will avoid the worst of the tour groups, as well as the congestion in the Higashiyama District, which gets pretty bad.
Moreover, if you do opt to take the bus to Kizomizudera, those early morning ones are by far the best option. Once the morning rush hits, you’re looking at very cramped buses that are standing room only. Coming from Kyoto Station, the line for these buses is often really long, too. Not a fun way to start your day.
Kiyomizudera features prominently in our 1-Day Eastern Kyoto Itinerary and our 2-Day Kyoto Highlights Itinerary, each of which offer strategy for visiting it for sunrise or sunset. If you’re trying to map out a touring plan that avoids crowds and efficiently visits some of Kyoto’s best spots, consult those.
My other big recommendation is to visit a variety of temples in Kyoto. That’s sort of Kyoto’s “thing” so it’s likely you’ll visit several during your stay, but what I mean by that is that you should visit well-known/popular temples like Kiyomizudera, but also under-the-radar ones.
As cool as Kiyomizudera is, it’s a poor representation of the true spirituality of Kyoto’s temples. It’s crowded, the area around it is heavily commercialized, and not conducive to introspection. Again, unless you arrive before 8 a.m.
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.
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 trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
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!