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.

清水寺 Plunging into a Sea of Leaves

I’ve been lucky enough to get three extra days off university for ‘Dohshisha Eve’ (my university’s Christmas festival thing), giving me the chance to do some more wandering around Kyoto. It was also beautifully sunny, and it’s still koyo (turning of the leaves), so I simply had to take advantage of this luck and visit one of the most spectacular sights in Kyoto. On Thursday I took a trip around several temples (which will be posted about separately), but the temple that unsurprisingly outshone them all was Kiyomizudera, one of Kyoto’s 17 World Heritage Sites.

Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) is located in East Kyoto and is accessible by bus from pretty much anywhere, or you can get the train to Gion and walk through (I would recommend this as the area is worth seeing in itself and there are shrines on the way). Either way you will end up walking up the hill to Kiyomizu-dera as no sane bus driver would challenge the hill road up to the temple which is packed with tourists, shop keepers and, up to a certain point, taxis and rickshaws.


Most of the popular temples in Japan have an ‘approach’ of shops selling o-miyage (お土産) which are presents to take home to your family. In Kyoto this is inevitably yatsuhashi (八つ橋), rice dough pancakes usually stuffed with red bean paste (I had them at Fushimi Inari) or anything flavoured with Matcha (green tea 抹茶). Kiyomizudera is no exception, with a very long approach up the hill, packed with shops selling touristy ‘typically Japanese’ stuff aimed at Westerners as well as O-miyage and better quality traditional goods aimed at Japanese. Most of the shops have big ‘no photo’ signs, probably because they don’t want people hanging around taking pictures without buying anything, but I embraced my inner anarchist and took a couple of pictures of the displays anyway. Purely for your benefit, of course.


Once you have navigated the ever-growing throng of tourists,  many of whom stop randomly to take pictures or simply do not understand the concept of moving at a reasonable pace, you will eventually catch sight of the entrance gate of Kiyomizu-dera. It is unusual in that it is raised so far above the crowd on a series of steps. I liked the lions flanking the gate, I think they’re meant to be roaring but to me they were laughing at some hilarious joke. You do not actually have to go through the gate to get into the temple as there are paths either side, but the view from the top is worth joining the jam of people on the steps.


In all honesty the crowd isn’t that bad, though I did go on a weekday; you won’t be able to take many pictures without someone walking across your photo, but movement is mostly unobstructed and it’s not busy to the point that its genuinely inconvenient and inhibiting. I imagine that on the weekend its absolutely packed though, so it would be best to visit on a weekday if you have the option.

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Kiyomizu-dera is an independent Buddhist temple that was founded in 778 by Enchin. It was rebuilt in the 17th century because it was burned down in a fire. It is dedicated to the Buddhist god Kannon, the god of mercy, a very popular god throughout Japanese history.

The legend of Kiyomizu-dera’s founding is that Enchin, a priest, received a vision that he would find the source of the Yodo river  (aka the Uji river, that flows through East Kyoto), and he went in search of its origin. During his search he came across a hermit who gave him a piece of wood possessed by the spirit of Kannon. Enchin enshrined the wood in a shelter, founding what would become Kiyomizu-dera. Later, an Emperor was hunting for a stag in the woods near the shrine, and Enchin gave him a sermon on why one should not harm animals (as he was Buddhist), the Emperor was moved and gave him money to create a proper temple.

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The most astonishing fact I’ve read about this temple is that it was constructed with no nails at all. This is amazing because it’s a very tall structure built on a mountain, and takes thousands of visitors tramping through it every day. I’m sure it’s withstood earthquakes too. I know that its possible to build a very sound structure with no nails, but for some reason this still amazes me. The main temple building is also thatched, which is pretty unusual (probably because most temples seem to burn down, and thatch is only tempting fate).

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While it does not have any nails, half of Kiyomizu-dera is actually under maintenance. Though this doesn’t spoil the beautiful view over Kyoto, it does somewhat ruin the atmosphere, especially with the loud drilling. Hopefully if you get the chance to visit, they will have finished. It is definitely still worth a visit regardless of the construction work. I still managed to get the iconic ‘postcard shot’ of Kiyomizu-dera’s platform with the city and the crimson leaves – it’s quite amusing that there is scaffolding just out of sight and the view was far from tranquil as it was accompanied by melodious drilling.

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The main attraction of Kiyomizu-dera is the platform that overlooks the trees towards a pagoda on the opposing mountain. In the Edo period people would jump off the 13 metre platform, the idea being that if they survived their wish would be granted. 234 jumps are recorded with a 85.4% survival rate, though I wonder if their wishes were granted, presumably they would be injured by the fall and I wouldn’t trust Edo period medicine (mostly herbalism and acupuncture, not great cures for a broken leg). As a result of this practice, the Japanese version of the English idiom “to take the plunge” is “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu”.


The booth for shuin (朱印, stamping) is just at the end of the first platform and was run by a very nice monk who explained the different sections of my stamp to me. He will explain in either Japanese or English, so if you get yours done the language barrier is no problem (he will also give you a slip of paper with the information). You can also buy stamp books there with the main stage of Kiyomizu printed in gold on the front.

As you are probably wondering what the stamp explanation was:

The right hand side has the date (going down to the bottom right), followed by the character 奉拝 (Hohai) meaning to worship in the top right next to the date, the large central characters are 大悲閣 (Dai-hikaku) meaning ‘great benevolent palaces’, the final characters on the left are the name of the temple, 清水寺 (Kiyomizu-dera).

Most stamps follow a similar pattern, with 奉拝, often followed by the name of the temple (or its official rather than common name) and then its other name (usually common name on the left). The date is usually on the left or the right, there doesn’t seem to be a convention.

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If you continue on round the stage instead of going down the steps towards the water, you will reach a path leading up to the pagoda. The pagoda is pretty small close up (it looks like it could be huge and just really far away from the temple itself) but its beautifully detailed and you can look back towards the temple at the gallery you were just standing on. The view of the leaves is better from the temple but the view is still spectacular.


I then walked down the hill towards the section of the temple under the gallery. The elevation makes the temple dynamic and interesting to walk around – you discover new areas as you walk around. Here there was a queue of people waiting to scoop water from an elevated spring. It is said that if you wash yourself and drink the water your wishes will be granted. I didn’t queue because an entire school had just joined the line and I didn’t particularly want to wait half an hour. When I have a wish that needs granting I’ll be sure to go back.

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While Kiyomizu-dera is firmly on the beaten track, and therefore subject to traffic, I can see why its become so famous. There is also an evening illumination of the leaves during Koyo, but I have heard that people start queuing two hours before the illumination opens – though I’m sure its worth the wait, I doubt I’ll be joining the line. Entrance to Kiyomizu on a normal day does cost money, a ticket costs 300円 (£1.60), which is cheap for such an attraction – many temples charge more for much less.