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 tenth 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 neighbourhood.
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 five 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.”
Born in 1945, Hiromu Tanaka owns a sweetshop called Gangetsudo, which his family has run for generations; he is also chairman of a neighbourhood chamber of commerce. Deputy chief of the temple’s security association, he leads activities and plans responses to emergencies.
Ryoshiro Ueda Water-cannon team.
“Opens the valves and aims the cannon.”
Tomio Taniguchi Cultural relics removal team.
Yoshikazu Takahashi Hose division leader.
Mitsuhiro Umeoka Cultural relics removal team.
Kunikatsu Azai Security and evacuation team.
Shoen Matsumoto Chief’s assistant and temple monk.
Yoshinori Fukushima Hose team.
Takeshi Iwatsuki Hose team.
Kunikatsu Azai Koichi Kimura hose team.
Yusuke Iio Water-cannon team.
Tatsuya Kuze Hose team.
“He runs a souvenir shop.”
Yoshiaki Ito Water-cannon team.
Masanobu Okada Hose team.
Kokyu Onishi Hose team and temple monk.“
His father is the association’s chief.”
Kazuhiko Taniguchi Hose team.
Toshiyuki Azai Hose team.
Yoshiharu Sakakibara Hose team.
Hiroyuki Yasuda Water-cannon team.
Kazuaki Nakanishi Hose team.
Seishi Yamaguchi Security and evacuation team.
Shozo Nozoe Water-cannon team.
Shuichi Sugiyama Cultural relics removal team.