Kyoto: Calm and chaos at Kiyomizu-dera

We came half an hour before the temple closed. Just like at the Osaka temple, we were hoping that by this time, the crowd of tourists has already dissipated. But we were absolutely wrong.

Even at almost 6PM, the stairs and halls of Kiyomize-dera were still swamped with local and foreign visitors. Maybe we just got unlucky but there were several groups of Japanese students exploring the temple and taking souvenir photos at the entrance. We inched our way to the main hall and even got as far as the main hall but 10 minutes later the crowd became suffocating so we hurriedly left.


It was raining hard. Dusk has fallen. The sun was gone so it was not appealing to photograph the pagodas either. We explored the back gardens but these were too crowded as well. I was exhausted after our day trip to Wazuka and was not in the mood to bump into people. Robin amused himself with taking snapshots of the leaves while I rest under a maple tree bursting with autumn colours.

While on our way to the exit, I volunteered to take a photo of a Japanese tourist with her ageing parents. I remember my father and mother. I find it sad if she wouldn’t be in the same photo with them.


“We will come back tomorrow, before the temple opens,” we agreed.

It was our last day in Kyoto but we woke up at 5am nonetheless. We wanted to see at least two more attractions before heading back to Osaka. At 6am, we were on Bus 202 to Kiyomizu-dera.

I always find it special to wander the streets of a foreign place just before it wakes up. Dawn gives a different face, one that’s usually hidden from visitors.

The street lamps were still on. Although dawn has broken, the sun is still far from coming out of its slumber. We breath in the crisp, cold autumn air while climbing up the hill. There were only two other early-risers like us and they’re on their way to the temple as well. Most shops here don’t open until 11am. I was missing the sound of barking dogs and early traffic.


Ten minutes later, we got our entrance tickets. We were among the first visitors. We made our way past the orange pagoda, along the hallway dimly-lighted with intricate lamps and to the Main Hall where a couple of people were already praying.

An old Japanese woman was calmly standing at the edge of the veranda, facing the smaller Koyasu pagoda in the eastern hill. From the consistency of her breathing I assumed she was meditating. No noise would have disturbed her concentration that moment, even the murmuring of us tourists.

She was the most fitting image of the temple’s serenity in the early hours of the morning.


We left the woman in peace and walked towards the eastern hill, passing the Amida Hall and found a good spot to linger at the veranda of Okonuin Hall, which affords us a sweeping view of Kyoto skyline, the Main Hall and the pagoda.

Here we are going to wait for that perfect light to touch the pagoda. It is cold and we might have to wait a while but that’s the sight we came here for.

I was bundled up in woolen coat, cap and thick shawl but Robin was only wearing a flimsy cotton jacket. After half an hour he was already shivering. We hugged to keep him warm while watching the sun slowly paints the city with misty, pink rays.


But we were still shivering so to warm ourselves, we climb down the Otowa Waterfall and ended in this obscure garden adjacent to the waterfall. I spied two lovers happily jumping on the steps of the stairs while I sit beside the pond listening to the water gushing from the waterfall down to the small pond. It was so peaceful. If it hasn’t been so cold, I would have sat there for hours, just enjoying the tranquility that a Japanese garden offers.

To prevent freezing my bum off, we walked back to our spot at the Okonuin Hall to see if the sun was already touching the pagoda. It started raining and it has gotten even colder. The sunrise was taking too long to reach the spot for our perfect picture.

We were about to give up when all of a sudden a rainbow appeared in the sky. It was a like a dream, a most splendour panorama that even the temple’s gardener rushed to the veranda to take photos.


It was hard to tear ourselves away from the lenses of our cameras, to try to capture that beauty. But at one point, Robin and I put our gadgets away to let our eyes soak in the vision before us. This is how we will remember Kyoto, wrapped in an embrace, freezing cold while watching a magical view.

Never mind that we weren’t able to make that perfect shot.

Flickr photos by Robin Kuijs.