IT WAS late in the afternoon and the sun was almost ready to set in the west. From a quick tour of the Higashiyama ward, I entered Gion district, the last stop for the day.
I was eager to finally roam the city’s fame district. It has been on the bucket list for quite a while. Before reaching it, I got sidetracked by a shrine along the way.
The Shinto shrine of Yasaka-jinja was not on my list. I’m lucky to have chanced upon it because it’s one of the most important shrines in Kyoto.
The shrine’s history dates back to 656, the year believed it was founded, 150 years before the Heian era. It honors the deities Susanoo-no-mikoto, Kushiinadahime-no-mikoto, and Yahashira-no-mikogami. As the capital grew, so did Japan’s adoration to the shrine.
Today, there are 3,000 satellite shrines across the country with the Kyoto shrine as its headquarters.
It was once called the Gion Shrine, but during the Meiji restoration when shrines and Buddhist temples were separated its name was changed to Yasaka-jinja. The loclas, though. The locals though may still refer to the shrine as “Gion San” or “Yasaka san.”
Yasaka shrine is the host to one of Japan’s most famous festivals, the Gion Matsuri. The annual festival held in July is celebrated for an entire month with parades highlighting the event on July 17th and 24th.
An epidemic that hit the city in 869 brought about the famed festival.
From the Gion Shrine, the mikoshi (divine palanquin or portable shrine) was paraded through the streets to ward off the plague. It became an annual festival and turned famous.
New Year is also a busy time at Yasaka-jinja. People come by the thousands for the traditional Japanese New Year rituals and celebrations.
The shrine may not as large as the other renowned temples in Kyoto but it has its attractive features as well. Take for example the architecture of the Main Hall, a designated Important Cultural Property, it combines the haiden (offering hall) and honden (inner sanctuary) in one building. It’s a rare structure designed in the shinden-zukuri Yoshiki style (called the Gion-zukiri style), which was used for aristocratic residences during the 9th-12th centuries.
It was “buden” decorated with lanterns on all its sides that caught my attention. The buden is the building/stage where the sacred dance (kagura) and music are offered to the kami during ceremonies. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to catch it at its most attractive—at night when all the lanterns are lit up.
The quick tour also showed me a couple of sub-shrines: the Okuni Shrine, dedicated to Okinishu, who is regarded as the “God of Marriage” (his statue with the hare of Inaba stands at the entrance of the shrine); and the Utsukushi-gozen Shrine, aka the “beauty shrine”, dedicated to the three Munakata goddesses— Ichikishima-hime-no-kami, Tagiri-hime-no-kami and Tagitsu-hime-no-kami. Women of all ages come to visit and use the water from a small rock basin. Legend has it that washing the hands and face with the “Biyosui”, the skin and heart will be beautified.
Yasaka-jinja also gets busy in April as the crowds pass through the temple on their way to catch another thing of beauty at the Maruyama Park—the cherry blossoms. The park is one of the most popular spots for hanami (cherry blossom viewing).
The sun was kissing the western horizon when I entered Gion’s Hanamikoji Street. I crossed my fingers that I get to spot a geisha or two.
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