Arts & Culture


Ancient Kyoto: Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kyoto was the main centre for the evolution of religious and secular architecture and of garden design between the 8th and 17th centuries, and as such it played a decisive role in the creation of Japanese cultural traditions which, in the case of gardens in particular, had a profound effect on the rest of the world from the 19th century onwards. Buddhism had already been introduced from China and Chinese culture was having a profound influence on Japan when the capital was moved from Heijo-ko (Nara), after 10 years at Nagaoka, to Kyoto, under the name of Heian-ko, in AD 794. The city plan was modelled on Chinese cities such as Changshan, capital of Tang China. It was the heart of the aristocratic society that clustered around the imperial court for the four centuries of the Heian period (794-1192). For most of this period there was a prohibition on the building of Buddhist temples inside the city, apart from the two imperial temples (To-ji and Sai-ji).

Properties on the World Heritage site that date from the foundation of Heian-kyo are Karmwakeikauchi-jinja (Shinto shrine), Amomioya-jinja (Shinto shrine), Kyo-o-gokoku-ji To-ji (Buddhist temple), Kiyornim-dera (Buddhist temple), and Enryaku-ji (Buddhist temple); the two large Buddhist temples of Daigo-ji and Ninna-ji are representative of the early Heian period. By the end of the Heian period the military samurai class was growing in power, and the resulting unrest, coupled with the fact that the world would enter its final years, according to Buddhist doctrine, in 1052, led to an increase in religious fervour. The Buddhist temple of Byodo-in and the Ujigami-jinja date from this period.

A civil war in 1185 led to the establishment of a samurai military regime at Kamakum; however, the imperial court remained at Kyoto. The Sekisui-in at Kozan-ji is the best example of the residential architecture of this period, which ended in 1332 with the establishment of the Muromachi Shogunate. This period saw the building of large temples of the Rinzai Zen sect, such as Temyu-ji, and the creation of Zen gardens, of which that at Saiho-ji is a representative example.

At the end of the 14th century, the Muromachi Shogunate reached the apogee of its power, and this is reflected in buildings such as the villa of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, which later became the Buddhist temple Rokuon-ji. The villa of a later shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, built in a more refined style in the mid-15th century, was also converted into a temple, Jisho-ji. Garden design was refined into pure art, as demonstrated by the garden of the abbot's residence at Ryoan-ji. Much of Kyoto was destroyed in the Onin War (1467-77), but it was rebuilt by a new urban merchant class, who replaced the aristocrats who had fled during the war. In 1568 Oda Nobunaga seized power, and he was followed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified the country and built a 23 km wall round Kyoto. The centre of power moved to Edo (present-day Tokyo) when a new shogunate was established under Tokugawa Ieyasu. The authority of the Tokugawa Shogunate was given material form in Kyoto with the construction of the strong castle of Ngo-jo at the heart of the city. At the same time Hideyoshi's defences were dismantled.

The political stability of the Momoyama period (1573-1614) saw a new spirit of confidence among both the military and the merchants, reflected in the opulence and boldness of the architecture, represented by the Sanpo-in residential complex and garden at Daigo-jo and the prayer and reception halls at the Buddhist temple of Hongan-ji, moved from Osaka to Kyoto as a symbol of the city's revival. The beginning of the long Edo period (1615-1867) saw Heian temples and shrines, such as Kiyomimdera, being restored in traditional style. During this period the supremacy of Kyoto as a centre of pilgrimage became established. After the Meiji restoration of 1868 the capital and the imperial court moved to Tokyo.

One of the results was the adoption of a modernization policy that led to the transformation of Kyoto into a modern city. This caused the city's cultural heritage to be neglected; however, the national government was aware of what was happening, and introduced the first ordinance for the protection of antiquities in 1871. This was superseded in 1897 by the important Ancient Shrines and Temples Preservation Law, which marked the beginning of the protection and conservation programmes of modern Japan.

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The Kiyomizu-dera Temple complex, perched high atop a mountain overlooking Kyoto, dates back to 778. The current buildings, including a graceful pagoda, were constructed in 1633 without use of a single nail, on the order of the ruler Tokugawa Iemitsu. The temple was originally affiliated with the Hossō sect, one of six schools of Nara Buddhism, but since 1965 it has been independent.

Kiyomizu-dera has long been an important place of pilgrimage, with countless pilgrims climbing the high mountain to worship the bronze statue of the many-armed goddess Kannon.

The temple’s Main Hall, named a National Treasure by the Japanese government, was built with a “stage,” (really a series of platforms) to focus attention on the view below. It draws multitudes of visitors to view the cherry blossoms in spring and the changing color of the leaves in autumn.

During the Edo period, when the Tokugawa shoguns ruled in Kyoto, however, people believed that if they jumped off the stage at Kiyomizu-dera, 13 meters (42 feet) high, their wishes would be granted. Fifteen percent of those who tried died, and people are now are expressly forbidden to make the jump.

Pilgrims also make a stop at the temple’s Otowa waterfall, believing that wishes made while drinking the water will come true. Many believe that each of the three separate streams of the waterfall has different wish-granting powers.

The temple’s smaller Jishu-jinja Shrine is dedicated to Ōkuninushi, a god who can help people make good matches. Legend has it that if a person can walk through the stones, placed six meters (20 feet) apart, they will find true love.

The Kiyomizu-dera temple complex contains 15 buildings that have been designated Important Cultural Properties. In 2007, Kiyomizu-dera was one of 21 finalists for the New Seven Wonders of the World.
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