June 28, 2009
Kiyomizu-dera was a temple for wishing. In fact, I had to wish to see it.
This would be the last stop in the whirlwind tour of Kyoto with my Japanese host. It was almost 5. By then, we were overwhelmed by the city’s scenic views and rich history, exhausted from day-long walking under the summer sun, and hungry – practically running on “low-batt,” just as my camera battery was. I was with a group of mostly strangers who had just met for the first time that morning. A tentative awkwardness pervaded our collective air. Plus, we had just come from Kinkaku-ji, a golden Zen temple I proclaimed as the loveliest spot on earth. Seriously, what could top that?
We reached Kiyomizu-dera, an ancient Buddhist temple complex sprawled over the mountain slopes surrounding Kyoto, by scaling a narrow uphill road flanked by traditional houses converted to souvenir shops. The promenade was a photo-op in itself: wooden Japanese houses, colorful local delicacies and even kimonos were all eye candy to visitors. What could have been a 5 to 10-minute walk stretched indefinitely.
Eventually, we made it to the Deva Gate, a massive bright crimson structure (repainted in 2004) that dwarfed trees and other buildings around it. Somehow, my gaze was drawn to a narrow three-tiered pagoda in pink, too funky or psychedelic a color for a supposedly religious structure (a pagoda houses sacred relics). But there it was – a pagoda after Hello Kitty’s pink-loving heart, called Koyasu Pagoda containing the image of the Koyasu Kannon (or Bodhissatva), a protector of women, especially during childbirth. Perhaps that explained its hot red and baby pink paint.
There we were – a bunch of total strangers, all hesitating to take the lead. Our host seemed absolutely spent, having driven us from the neighboring prefecture and around Kyoto. I certainly didn’t want to impose, but I was hoping against hope we would drop in despite the late hour. Finally, someone in the group overcame the typically Japanese reticence; he suggested we should go in – and I jumped at the chance.
We crowded at the viewing deck – a platform jutting out of the mountainside. In the olden days, it was used by devotees as a jump-off point for “the plunge.” Hardcore Buddhists literally threw caution to the wind and themselves to plummet from the precipice 13 meters down – all for the wishes to come true! Mind you, this ain’t bungee jumping. If they made it alive, their wish would be granted. About 85% had their wishes granted, not bad for a suicidal plunge. Apparently, the devotees’ bones may be broken but not their indomitable spirit. But what if someone made a death wish? Wishing had become less-defying nowadays, what with the numerous wishing fountains in the temple grounds.
Interestingly, the temple, originally built more than a millennium ago, was rebuilt in the 17th century without a single nail! How could it remain standing many centuries later, considering that this was earthquake-ville? Even the platform overlooking the cliff was merely supported by wooden pillars and crossbeams that fit snugly together. Think wooden Lego. This derring-do in architecture was another testament to the plunge-taking audacity of ancient Japanese Buddhists.
Thankfully, not everyone was compelled to take that plunge for their hearts’ desires. The name kiyomizu meant “pure water,” derived from the clear waters of Otowa Waterfall beneath the temple. Drinking the water was believed to be both physically and metaphysically beneficial. The waterfall forked into three channels where visitors could drink straight from the cascade. Each one bequeathed a particular gift – health, longevity, and wisdom. However, we could choose to drink from only two channels, as drinking from all three was regarded as greedy and would consequently cancel out all good luck.
I immediately forgot which two gifts I had chosen (I sure wished I didn’t vote out wisdom!). The cascading pure water was collected using an extra-long tin ladle. Despite the global scare of swine flu at that time, sanitation was a non-issue since the ladles were disinfected with ultra-violet light. My wish was that I would not get the bug. The water did taste clean – no aftertaste.
For some reason, I missed the love stones in a shrine dedicated to the god of love. It was believed that walking between the stones with their eyes closed would bring true love. It was no loss though, since I had already found my one true love.
Instead, we made our way back down the mountain slope. The sun had gone ahead of us, casting long shadows and forming dreamy silhouettes. I was just behind a young newly-married couple, holding hands while walking, happy to have their wishes come true – without having to take the Kiyomizu plunge, drink from the spring of wisdom, or walk blindly between stones. Or perhaps they had, just not literally – as I did. In life, we had to take the Kiyomizu plunge in a manner of speaking, broken limbs and hearts be damned.
On love – wish granted, done. On health – wish granted by a disinfected laddle. On wisdom – well, it would still remain to be seen.