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From darkness to light at Japan’s Kiyomizu-dera

The darkness was absolute. Not the kind that eyes get accustomed to. I blinked repeatedly to get my bearings. Gripping the beaded rope that ran along the wall, I proceeded slowly, barefoot, on the cold stone floor.

My husband and I had followed a small group of people down a nondescript flight of stairs at Kiyomizu-dera — one of Japan’s most popular Buddhist temples. The stairs led to an underground tunnel called Tainai-meguri. The pitch-black tunnel symbolised entering the womb and being reborn. It was a journey through darkness towards enlightenment.

Only a few minutes earlier, we were on a platform at Kiyomizu, the 1,200-plus-year-old temple, overlooking the mountainside and perched halfway up Mt Otowa. Shrouded in mist, the needle-shaped spire of Kyoto Tower jutted amid densely packed low-rise buildings. The views changed with every season. Pink cherry blossoms dominated in spring and myriad shades of green took over in summer. Red, yellow and brown leaves were the highlight in autumn, and snow drew a white veil over the landscape in winter.

The Kiyomizu-dera: where the old still rules

The Kiyomizu-dera: where the old still rules  
| Photo Credit:
Farha Mukri

All around us, 30 Buddhist buildings blended with clusters of trees in the 1,30,000 square metre grounds, as if they too had mushroomed from the ground. Like the mossy green-and-brown Kiyomizu stage we had been standing on. It jutted out of a steep cliff and was built without a single nail, using a traditional Japanese construction method. A number of rails penetrated the 18 pillars made from 400-year-old zelkova trees to form joints. The resulting scaffolding had weathered several natural disasters since its reconstruction in 1633 and was bursting with visitors in blue raincoats and floral kimonos.

Elsewhere in the sprawling grounds, people drank water from the Otowa waterfall, in hope of longevity, love and success. Youngsters made their way between two love stones outside Jishu shrine to determine their fate in matters of the heart. Those looking to test their physical strength attempted to lift the 90-kilogram spear of Benkei, a legendary giant warrior monk.

Standing tall

  • Kiyomizu-dera (or ‘Pure Water Temple’) is one of the most popular temples in Japan. Located in the hills east of Kyoto in Higashiyama, the temple was founded in 778AD on the site of the Otowa Waterfall and re-constructed in the 1630s.
  • The three-story pagoda at the temple is among the tallest of its kind in Japan, at 31 metres high.
  • The bell tower of the temple was first constructed in 1596.
  • Kiyomizu-dera was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1994, as part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.

Kiyomizu-dera’s deity is Kannon Bodhisattva, the goddess of mercy and compassion. The name Kannon is the combination of two contrasting ideas — Kan (one’s mind) and Non (surroundings and others). Her teachings say that the ideal way of life is to view the world with unprejudiced eyes, to understand another’s pain and joy.

Far from the world

Down in the tunnel, I tried to conjure up images of the vermilion pagodas and gates with intricate flower detailing awaiting me outside. We were just steps away from the bustling main gate, yet the outside world had dissolved.

There was hushed chatter in Japanese, followed by nervous laughter, among the young women ahead of us. It grew quiet as we made a sharp turn and continued walking. Finally, a soft overhead spotlight directed our eyes to an engraved stone where we could make a wish.

Walking in the unknown darkness was an act of faith — perhaps faith in Kannon or a different God or simply faith in oneself. Kannon’s teachings of watching the world with one’s whole heart, and not just the eyes were easier to assimilate in Tainai-meguri. Silence made it possible to focus inwards, while darkness smudged the boundaries between myself and others.

A minute later, we were at the staircase that led us back outside. Once again we joined the temple crowds, just as easily as we had slipped away. A quiet feeling of calm lingered and followed me along, like the burning incense stick in the prayer hall, slowly diffusing its aroma in the air.


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