八坂神社 Kindly Gods, Hybrid Dogs and Divorcing Religions

On my way to Kiyomizu-dera (see previous post), I ended up passing through Yasaka Shrine. I say ‘ended up’ because in truth I got the wrong bus to Kiyomizu and I had to get off earlier than I would have liked. This way actually turned out better but I’ve learned not to blindly trust Google maps’ route suggestions.

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Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社), founded in 656, is a shrine near Gion, the geisha area of Kyoto, so it’s a great place to go if you want to see geisha or maiko (geisha in training). In fact, it used to be known as Gion Shrine until the separation of Buddhism and Shinto during the Meiji restoration. This is a little known part of the Meiji restoration; the government decided to uphold Shinto as the ‘native’ religion to Japan and shun the ‘alien’ (though very much Japanized) Buddhism, resulting in the policy of Shinbutsu Bunri (神仏分離) in which the two religions were forcibly separated, resulting in the destruction of many Buddhist buildings and treasures as they were not legally allowed in Shinto shrines. This policy was intended to increase the popularity of Shinto, which focused on the divine right of the Emperor, while simultaneously reducing the wealth and power of the Buddhist sects.


Though it succeeded in destroying Buddhist buildings and partially separating shrines from temples, Shinbutsu Bunri did not have the intended effect of wiping out Buddhism (Japanese traditionally have Buddhist funeral rites and this was not something Shinto could replace) nor did it totally separate Shinto from Buddhism – there are still Buddhist temples dedicated to Shinto gods such as Inari, and there are Shinto shrines dedicated to Buddhist gods such as Kannon. Some scholars argue that Japanese Buddhism and Shinto are basically the same religion and cannot be understood apart from each other, though the policy of Shinbutsu Bunri succeeded in making the public perceive Shinto as ‘native’ and Buddhism as ‘foreign’. Thus Gion Shrine (which was a combined Buddhist and Shinto shrine) became Yasaka Shrine, a Shinto-only shrine.

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Inside the main gate of Yasaka shrine, two rather formiddable samurai figures sit facing outwards. Try as I might I can’t find any information about them, even searches in Japanese haven’t turned up anything useful. Though they remain a mystery, they are fairly intimidating and create a grand entrance to the shrine. I apologise for the edges of the pictures – I took them through the wire mesh in front of the statues.

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Yasaka Shrine is full of Koma-inu (狛犬) – Guardian Lion Dogs. These guardians are often found in Shinto shrines guarding the shrine from evil spirits. Conventionally one has its mouth open and one closed, this is actually a convention borrowed from Buddhism; one guardian is saying the Sanskrit letter ‘a’ and the other the letter ‘um’, these are the beginning and end of the Sanskrit alphabet and mean the beginning and end of all things. The guardian Koma-inu originated in Tang dynasty China and spread to the rest of East Asia. They were used in Japan from the Nara period (from 710 onwards) to guard shrines and houses. At shrines dedicated to the god Inari (such as Fushimi Inari) the lions are replaced with foxes, often holding grains of rice (Inari is the god of rice) or a sutra scroll.

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I saw a very new looking statue of「大国と白うさぎ」(Taikoku and the white rabbit) and was curious as to what it meant; it wasn’t a lion-dog like all of the other statues. It turns out this is actually a well known legend in Japan, which goes as follows:

A white rabbit was trapped on an island and needed to get to the shore so he decided to trick some sharks (its acutally a mythical sea creature usually translated to ‘shark’). He bet them that he had more family than they did and that they should all line up so that he could count them. When they had all lined up he used their backs to hop to shore. However, he gloated that he had tricked them just before he reached the other side and the sharks, angry that they had been tricked, tore off his fur, leaving him naked and injured. He came across some gods, who were feeling spiteful, and they advised him to swim in the sea water to ease the pain. Obviously this only made it sting and hurt in the wind. The kindly god Taikoku, brother of these mean gods, advised him to wash in fresh water and wrap himself in the down of bullrushes. Following this advice the rabbit recovered and the bullrushes became a white coat.

Unlike a parable, this story does not seem to have much of a moral, it feels more like a Just So Story – explaining the existence of white rabbits. Even so, I think its a nice story which shows that the hero is also imperfect (by tricking the sharks) and not all gods are nice.

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I had my book stamped at Yasaka Shrine, which cost the standard 300円. Though it was a popular shrine the stamping station was not too busy and they were very quick.


Yasaka shrine, as it is a popular shrine, has several food stalls just inside the main gate on the way up to the main courtyard. I decided to buy some takoyaki (たこ焼き) which are batter balls with octopus in them topped with a sweet barbecue-like sauce and bonito flakes (fish flakes). The insides of takoyaki always seem to be as hot as lava when fresh, and if you aren’t patient you will end up burning your entire mouth. It is really delicious though so its hard to wait. Takoyaki is one of the regional specialties of the Kansai area, which includes Kyoto and Osaka; Kansai is famous for okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes) and takoyaki, as well as several other foods.


While I was eating my takoyaki a pair of old ladies decided to talk to me. It started out normal enough; we agreed that takoyaki is indeed delicious and also boiling hot. Once they had established that I can speak Japanese, the following exchange took place:

Old lady: Are you here alone?
Me: Yes…
Old lady: So you’re not here with your boyfriend?

Me: No… I don’t have a boyfriend…
Old lady: ahh, you must be lonely.

Not exactly what one needs to hear when doing some solo-sightseeing but I found it pretty amusing. Japanese old ladies can be surprisingly blunt, though given the volume of couples dressed in kimono and yukata enjoying the koyo (turning of the leaves) around the temple, I suppose its hardly surprising that she’d mention my solo status. I assured her I’m quite happy being a tourist by myself and finished up my takoyaki.


On my way back from Kiyomizudera, I passed through Yasaka shrine once again on my way to Gion Shijo station. It was even more beautiful with the sun just setting through the crimson leaves. As I was taking some pictures of the gate a pair of geisha walked in front of me. Though I find it awkward taking pictures of other people just because of their clothes, their kimono were absolutely spectacular, so I took a few pictures. I don’t think they noticed (or they’re used to it) so its probably okay.

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I would definitely recommend a trip to Yasaka shrine; it’s free, you can see geisha, and the shrine itself is pretty big and fun to look around. My route of going from Yasaka shrine to Kiyomizu-dera doesn’t take very long (20minutes walk, including the hill up to Kiyomizu) and I would recommend it rather than getting the bus direct to Kiyomizu.

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