Hidden Kiyomizu-dera: Explore One of Kyoto’s Oldest Temples with a Monk as Your Guide

Mareike Dornhege
Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto
Photo by Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kiyomizu-dera is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Kyoto, founded in 778. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the current building, famous for its large wooden veranda that is held together without a single nail, was built in 1633. Here’s what just might be the best way to experience the temple.

Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto’s most iconic sites and therefore, unsurprisingly, rather busy at all times. If crowds aren’t your thing, and if you would like to immerse yourself in a deeper experience at one of the world’s most famous Buddhist temples, a private tour guided by an English-speaking monk might be ideal. Read on to find out what happens during these tours, what types of travelers would enjoy this most, and how to book the experience.

Spring view of Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto
Photo by Kiyomizu-dera Temple

What happens on this special tour of Kiyomizu-dera?

Reception in the Daikodo Hall

Your tour starts at the Daikodo Hall, which is usually off-limits to the public. Enter and you will be guided to a lavish guest room overlooking Kyoto from the hill on which the temple is located. With a cup of matcha beside you, a monk will welcome you to the temple and give you an overview of its history and what you can expect on the tour itself before you get started.

The sacred hall of 4000 buddhas

From there, you’ll proceed to a hall of buddhas. Located in the same building, this sacred place is also usually off-limits to the public. No photos are allowed, but you can enjoy the sight of over 4000 small buddhas adorning the walls of the multi-storey hall, floor to ceiling. You can finish off the experience by tossing colorful paper lotus seeds over the balustrade as an offering—make a wish, as the seed symbolizes its germination.

Jizo statues at Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto
Jizo statues symbolize children. These small statues have been collected from all over Japan, roadsides and forest paths included, and brought to the safety of the temple. | Photo by Mareike Dornhege

The Moon Garden

Next, you’ll step outside and walk along hundreds of small jizo statues, toward the Moon Garden of Kiyomizu-dera. Again, this gem is usually inaccessible to the public, and without a special tour can only be seen on a few days each year. 

The lush garden is the epitome of Japanese landscaping. Hop on the stepping stones toward the pond, or simply take in the view from the veranda—it is all yours while your guide explains its significance and throws in a Buddhist teaching or two, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Expect some master-disciple vibes as you mull over the question while gazing at moss-covered rocks and perfectly-shaped pines.

Fun fact: Kiyomizu means pure water, and the temple was founded on the site of a spring. Beneath the veranda, you can find a small waterfall from this spring, which is channeled into a pond. Catch and drink the water, and a wish will be granted to you, it is said. 

Monk looking out over Kiyomizudera Moon Garden
Our monastic guide and the Moon Garden. On many nights, lunar light will illuminate the garden perfectly from above. | Photo by Mareike Dornhege

Kiyomizu-dera Main Hall

From there, you proceed to the Main Hall of Kiyomizu Temple. You will be taken to the Inner Hall, where only monks enter to leave offerings to a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. 

The roof of the Main Hall will be under construction until the end of 2019. When we visited in June, our guide suggested we step (safely) onto the construction site itself with him, to see the roof being finished using traditional Japanese carpentry techniques. You can’t get more up close and personal with a temple than that!

Note: Each tour is tailored to the season, current events at the temple and your interests, so make sure to tell your guide what you enjoy.

Kiyomizudera Inner Sanctum
The main hall is under construction until the end of 2019, to redo the roof with layer upon layer of Japanese cypress bark. You can still enter the building, however. | Photo by Kiyomizu-dera Temple

The West Gate: Nirvana sunsets

This is probably Kiyomizu-dera’s most photographed view: the red gates perfectly frame the setting sun over a panorama of Kyoto. No wonder the monks built it with an image of nirvana in mind. On evening tours, the guiding monk will unlock the gate for you, and it’s all yours. You will hear further Buddhist tales while taking in the view. 

Who should book this tour of Kiyomizu-dera?

This insider tour gives you access to areas that are normally off-limits to visitors, so for anyone who is into a bit of VIP experience and not a fan of crowds, it is the ideal way to explore Kiyomizu-dera. Also, besides providing the stats and facts of the temple itself, our monk guide regaled us with Buddhist tales and riddles. It made the experience of walking around the vast temple grounds really come alive—this tour is a great option for anyone wanting to learn more about Buddhism. 

Finally, you get behind a lot of the red tape and “don’t enter” signs. So if you are looking for the best shots or angles you could usually not achieve, this is your ticket to the best Kiyomizu-dera photography. You can book this exclusive tour here.

View of Kiyomizudera in the hills of Kyoto
Photo by Kiyomizu-dera Temple

When can I go on this tour?

Kiyomizu-dera is open from 6am to 6pm. The monks will accommodate the tour, which lasts around 90-120 minutes, to match your schedule. However, they recommend either the early morning hours, before the crowds arrive, or late afternoon, so that you can catch the sunset through the West Gate when the temple is already closed, with yourselves being the only remaining guests (did we mention VIP experience?). 

No two tours are exactly the same; they are tailored and private. So if there is a specific area of the temple you would like to visit, just ask your guide if it’s possible. Our guide spoke fluent English, so communication was a breeze. 

How to get to Kiyomizu-dera

Kiyomizu-dera is about 2.5km from Kyoto Station. You can walk, which takes around 30 minutes, as the last bit will take you up a slope, or take a bus from the station. Kyoto has a good bus network for tourists, covering all the major sites. Kyoto is a short Shinkansen ride from Tokyo, and just 30 minutes from Osaka, making it one of the easiest routes to cover during your Japan adventure.

Things to do around Kiyomizu-dera

Make sure to plan in some time before or after the tour to explore the alleys around the temple complex. The most famous and popular is Sannenzaka—it is lined with restaurants, cafes and street food stalls where you can get your fix of a wide variety of sweets made with matcha, as well as yatsuhashi, Kyoto’s iconic sweet. There are also a large number of souvenir shops, ranging from those selling knick-knacks and magnets to high-end pottery shops that are just beautiful to marvel at.

Before you go: Read more about Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, as well as our guide to visiting temples and shrines in Japan.

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Filed under: Things to Do
Tags: Architecture, History, Japanese Garden, Monk, Spiritual, Temple, Things To Do In Kyoto, Tour, Tourist Attraction, Tourists, Traditional Kyoto, Views
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