Way of the gods

by Stefani on 17-December-2007

Kiyomizudera Temple

It would be hard, impossible probably, to visit Kyoto and NOT end up at a temple or shrine. I mean, considering that the city is home to around about 3,000, there’s one every which way that you turn.

Interestingly though, at least among the handful that we toured, they are all really distinct and have their own unique purpose and beauty. I was really excited, as someone who considers her faith basic to her daily life, to see the heart of Japanese worship.

These are ancient places, either dedicated to a particular Shinto god (shrines), or to the practice of Zen Buddhism (temples).

On our very fist night in Kyoto, we visited Kiyomizudera, which was having a special “light up ceremony” which, apparently, only happens three times a year. Basically it means the place, and the grounds, are lit up like Christmas. The atmosphere is similarly festive. We went back again, a couple of days later to experience it by the light of day.

To arrive at Kiyomizuderu, you must ascend a winding little street, surrounded by shops. Each of them is bursting with trinkets, pottery and cloth goods, which threaten to distract you from your mission. I could have spent days there and never made it to the top at all. There’s also loads of yummy mochi, ice cream and other treats being offered to the tourists, pilgrims, and most especially the laughing school kids on field trip.

Japanese School Chums

Owing to the special event, the place was CROWDED. We were pressed so close that I was nearly carried up by sheer force of the crowd.

Ascent to Kiyomizudera Temple

Once we reached the top, we gawked at the beautiful architecture for a bit, and marveled at the view of Kyoto and the surrounding countryside.

View From Kiyomizudera Temple

Then, before I knew exactly what happened, I found myself shoeless, entering a pitch black tunnel meant to represent “the great mother’s” womb. I seriously could not see my hand before my face. It was cold. Panic and dread swept over me (read: impending claustrophobic snit) . I was supposed to be looking for a glowing stone that would bring good luck. I saw it and booked it out of there FAST!

Outside, if you are so inclined, you can drink from the famed waterfall, to gain wisdom, love or health. You can walk, eyes closed, from one love stone to another. If you make it, it is said that you will find your true love.

You can hang your wishes for the coming year.

Wishes and Prayers

You can participate in tea ceremony or stop for noodles.

You can have your fortune told. If you like your fortune, take it with you. If you don’t, hang it and leave it behind.

Bad Luck

You can light a candle. I’m not real clear why, but you can. I think it has something to do with the smoke carrying your prayers to the gods or your ancestors.


You can toss coins and ring a bell that will carry up your prayers. You can rub this statue for healing. If your shoulder hurts, you rub the shoulder. If your leg hurts, rub the leg, and so on.


It was a lot to take in. The unfamiliarity, the festivity, the bustling, laughter, the lights at night, or the amazing foliage during the day, the smell of tea and mochi, girls in uniform or kimono, not a sign I could read or a word in English. All strange and at once alarming and gorgeous.

Japan, in other words. Japan.

molly December 17, 2007 at 7:55 pm

I love, love, love the picture of the three school girls, arm in arm in arm. What a fascinating trip into the soul of another culture. So, did you like your fortune or did you leave it behind?

Tracy December 18, 2007 at 6:27 am

That is astounding. Did you do any of the things? Fortune? Candle? Rub the statue?

Sarah Jackson December 18, 2007 at 7:06 am

Fantastic. What an amazing experience. I love nothing more than experiencing other faith practices – it really gets me thinking about what I practice and why, which is oh so important to me. I’m also curious – did you leave your fortune on the wall or bring it home with you?

emily December 18, 2007 at 10:08 am

i love every last little bit of this. the post, the traditions, the photos, the whole darned thing. but maybe my favorite part is how you can leave your fortune behind if you don’t like it.

Alice Hess December 18, 2007 at 1:24 pm

I am loving reading your posts about your trip! Great photographs and stories!

Amber December 18, 2007 at 9:10 pm

Your description is so fun—it’s what I would expect my own description to be: reverent yet foreign. Traveling to distant places can be so educational not only for that place but also yourself, as well…

(Love the photos!)

Anne December 18, 2007 at 10:14 pm

These pictures are just beautiful and I love hearing about your trip; thank you for sharing it with us.

Karen December 19, 2007 at 9:20 am

Your blog is . . . exceptional? . . . outstanding? . . . warm? . . . funny? . . . inspirational? . . . down to earth? . . . can’t find the right word, but I thrive on your posts. Thank you!

The view from the temple made me blink. And then choke up a little. Normally it’s only Hallmark commercials that achieve that. Or school recitals. Well, any kind of reassuring loveliness out in the world that exists right alongside all the less admirable parts. So thanks for taking that picture and bringing it home.

cloth.paper.string December 19, 2007 at 11:06 am

i’ve so loved seeing and experiencing japan through your lens and prose, stefani. the fortunes blowing on the line and the view of the foliage are my favorites.

Molly Hyde-Caroom August 2, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Your pictures are fabulous and Kyoto was my favorite trip while in Japan….truly wonderful….thank you for sharing your gift, these photos really capture what it looks like…

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