During my stay in Kyoto, I visited an ancient temple called Kiyomizu dera. Kiyomizu was founded in 780 (the present buildings date from 1633) at the Otowa Waterfall, in the hills just outside of Kyoto. No nails were used at all for its construction, and it is fronted by a large wooden veranda that gives breathtaking views of distant Kyoto and the bright flowering cherry blossoms that sweep across Japan each spring. Its name means Pure Water Temple, and the water that runs throughout the temple and surrounding woodland is said to have purification powers. It is a beautiful and serene place, perfect for strolling among the swaying bamboo trees, listening to the burbling water and the whispering leaves. Many solemn visitors come to the Otowa Waterfall to drink the water using cups attached to long poles, dipping into different ponds that are said to hold various wish-giving powers. Others visitors are more boisterous, visiting the Jishu Shrine which is dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking (Ōkuninushi). If you successfully walk between the two stones which are set in front of the shrine with your eyes closed (the stones are about twenty metres apart), you will find love. That shrine seemed to be surrounded by laughter and smiles.
Away from the busy shrines that occupy most of the visitors’ attention, you can disappear into the most extraordinary place. Concealed underneath the temple is Zuigudo Hall, a pitch black basement complex dedicated to Buddha’s mother, which is designed to symbolize a mother’s womb. Somewhere deep within the darkness there is a large, smooth stone with the Sanskrit word for ‘womb’ carved into its front. The stone gives off a strange eerie glow, the only source of light in the Hall. It is believed that if you touch the stone and make a wish, the Buddha will grant it. However, to reach the stone you must walk through the passage in utter darkness, with only a fairly slack hand-rope to guide you. The idea is that the darkness initially brings fear, but as you journey towards the statue you will achieve clarity by overcoming fear and so are ready to make your wish. Even if you don’t believe in wishes, the experience is pretty intense.
You begin by removing your shoes and stepping down into the cool, dark basement. It only takes a few steps to move into complete darkness. Even though you can hear other people around you, it’s easy for a primitive fear of the dark to suddenly take hold of you. You realise how dependent on the rope handrail you are. I tried to take my hand off of it a few times – but always left it hovering just above the rope, and didn’t have the courage to go for long without it (bear in mind that the route doesn’t follow a straight line, and there are usually people in front and behind you). At first it was quite noisy in the tunnel as friends whispered and giggled, but gradually either everyone fell silent because of the experience, or my awareness of the noise they made began to dwindle. It’s hard to tell. It was difficult to guess how far you were going – you don’t notice yourself instinctively taking tiny pigeon footsteps, and your body goes into an automatic state of alertness. After a while I felt myself relaxing into the experience, though. The floor below seemed to be smooth and flat, and I began to trust my sense of my surroundings even without the ability to see. I didn’t visit Kiyomizu with a particular wish in mind, but by the time I reached the wishing stone I understood the power of this ritual and gladly touched the glowing stone to make my wish. Did it come true? I’m not telling.
Featured writer: M E Palmer
Does traveling in Japan interest you, read more about Japan in our post, Tackling Tokyo in Three Days.