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Meet the team with a burning desire to protect Kyoto's Kiyomizu-dera temple

Monks, shopkeepers and business owners ready to rush in should fire threaten one of Japan's most cherished treasures

The Kiyomizu-dera Temple Security Association counts shopkeepers, business owners and monks among its members.   © Taro Terasawa

The wooden gates and halls of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera temple are among Japan’s most cherished treasures; the oldest of the Buddhist temple’s ancient structures has clung to the side of Mount Otowa for more than 1,200 years. But much of what worshippers see today was built in 1633, four years after a fire -- the 10th in the temple’s recorded history -- tore through the complex.

There hasn’t been a fire at Kiyomizu-dera in about four centuries. But if one were to break out, Hiromu Tanaka would lead the Kiyomizu-dera Temple Security Association’s efforts to save the site.

“We can get here first to battle the fire, even before the firetrucks,” says the association’s spry 74-year-old deputy chief, who also runs a sweet shop in the neighborhood.

Formed in 1949 after a fire devastated a major Buddhist temple in nearby Nara, the Kiyomizu-dera Temple Security Association counts shopkeepers, business owners and monks among its 50 members -- all men. They respond to all emergencies, from earthquakes and flooding to mudslides. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship: Tanaka’s shop is one of dozens that sell souvenirs, crafts and ceramics to the temple’s 5 million annual visitors.

“If Kiyomizu-dera were to burn down we would be left with nothing,” he says.

Twice a year the group takes part in firefighting and rescue drills. Dressed in traditional happi coats and helmets, members sound the alarm, connect hoses to hydrants, douse the temple’s veranda and rooftops, evacuate worshippers and save priceless relics and statues from the inner sanctum.

“We’re thankful to have people nearby who think of this temple as they do their own homes,” says Kokyu Onishi, a third-generation monk at Kiyomizu-dera. “The fact is, this temple wouldn’t have survived 1,200 years if locals didn’t think it was worth protecting.” 

This report first appeared in Monocle magazine. To find out more about the magazine and to subscribe, visit monocle.com.

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