ÒI remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and crisscross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.

As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and the other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir then sprang up of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.Ó

Thus wrote Sei Sh™nagon in her diary, a thousand years ago. A Japanese noblemanÕs daughter, she lived a quiet life in Heian-kyo, home of Kiyomizu-dera, the Buddhist Temple of Pure Water. Kiyomizu still stands today, a testament to the power of the Japanese past.

I cannot claim Sei Sh™nagonÕs eloquence, but I understand her difficulty in describing such a beautiful world as that of Heian-kyo. Kiyomizu-dera, ancient and strong, peaceful and altogether lovely, falls quite outside the experience of the Western mind; it speaks to the heart in ways that clumsy, fumbling English could not hope to accurately express.

The weight of millennia presses down upon Kiyomizu. I stood on the terrace (thirteen hundred years old, built without a single nail, old and grooved wood) and placed my hand on the railing. As the breeze rippled through my hair, I tried to imagine. What did it feel like to be here, a thousand years ago? How many centuries old was the slimy patina I felt underneath my fingertips? I touched dirt and sweat and oil from the hands of Emperors and Sh™gun and peasants; who will touch these paltry few remnants of my existence, a century from now?

In America, age cripples places. Buildings become feeble and cantankerous like grouchy old men, and soon perish. We worship Progress, the New. But in Japan time brings a building to life. Kiyomizu-dera does not stoop like Atlas under the weight of the centuries, but more closely resembles Nut, forever arching into the sky, ladylike and great, delicate and ageless. Enduring. Everlasting. Immortal.

After pausing on the terrace, balanced on the very tip of the mountain, looking down below into the endless sea of verdant green (plants flourish in the rainy season; IÕd never seen such brilliant colors before in my life), I turned into the largest building. Back under the dark wooden eaves, in a musty corner, sits a statue of the goddess Kwanon. A merciful spirit, who blesses women in childbirth and gives grace to the suppliant, her short image is nearly invisible in the gloom. A faint, dull shimmer, the barest hint of a face: all that can be seen of her ancient solid gold figure.

This startled me. In America the cross is suspended in the air for all to see, over all, shining brightly; but in Japan the gods hide in pitch-blackness Ð for shadows are sacred.

Off to the right pours a small waterfall, clear, pure water Ð from which the temple draws its name - gushing from an underground stream through spouts shaped like Chinese dragons, varnished with maturity like everything in this temple. Tourists are given small cups on long wooden handles and invited to stretch out and sip from the water of the falls. One spout is said to bring wealth, another intelligence, and the third longevity. I swallowed some; it tasted cool and refreshing, and maybe I sensed the faint metallic tang of the rocks through which it had traveled to reach me.

The air at Kiyomizu is rich with history. I breathed it in, thick and sticky in my lungs.