Thursday, July 22, 2010

Yasaka Jinja - Gion We A Go-Go

To Maiko or not to
27th October, 2006 - Leaving Kōdai-ji, we walked past one of the many traditional houses - when suddenly we came across this rather dramatic sight. At first we thought, it's a bit strange seeing a maiko (apprentice geisha or geiko in Kyoto dialect) just standing around admiring the autumn sunshine. Something was a bit odd... The reality is that this one of the places where you can pay to become a maiko for a day - or at least an hour or so.  Part of the attraction seems to be, being the main attraction. And why not... There's always plenty of people (including myself) willing to oblige with suitable oohs and ahhs and the click-click of camera shutters. Did I mention that my wife had even toyed with the idea?....

It's about 1.8 km, an easy stroll, from Kiyomizu Dera (A) all the way to Yasaka Jinja (C). We continue on from Kōdai-ji (B) a short distance later we arrive at Yasaka Jinja, or is more commonly known, Gion Shrine.

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Yasaka Jinja is one of the most important and beloved of all the Kyōto shrines. It was supposedly first established in 656 AD, and is dedicated to the Shinto gods, Susa-no-o (brother to Amateratsu Omikami) and his spouse Indahime-no-Mikoto, and five sons and three daughters.

The shrine can be entered from the south through this giant stone torii... one of the largest such stone gateways in japan. Though the main entrance is to the west (see further below)
Torii entrance to Yasaka Jinja
One of the things (make that two of the things) that jumped out to us where these drums? To be honest we had no idea what they were, why they were - or even how they were. There are no major festivals on in Yasaka Jinja at this time (that we know of)... so if anyone knows the answer, please post a comment and put us out of our misery. I know these are not normally here however, and they certainly do make for a distraction. Gold and silver... sun and moon?
Now that's what you call drums...
Today the shrine is most popular due to it’s relationship to the Gion area, and more importantly the Gion Festival (Gion Matsuri which occurs at the beginning of July and runs for 1-2 weeks). The festival began after a plague hit Kyōto in 869, and as the legend goes, the head priest of the shrine lead a group of devotees to the shrine to pray for Susa-no-o’s mercy – and the plague was lifted. That was lucky!

One of the most striking features within the shrine is the roofed stage area where religious ceremonies and dances are often performed. It makes for a dramatic sight at night (but alas... we had other plans for the evening).
Ceremonial stage.

The shrine itself owes a lot of it’s architectural design to Buddhism, as at this time there was a gradual melding of the two religions, to such a point that the shrine itself was administered by Buddhist monks. Most of the buildings now date from 1654 reconstructions. The most important building is the honden or spirit hall where the resident gods reside. The bells that hang from the front are for ringing... like a door-bell... to let the god know that someone's about to send a prayer their way.
Yasaka Jinja Honden

The main entrance to the shrine actually sits on Shijo-dori (facing the Gion district) and is entered via the Ro-mon gates, complete with it's Korean Lion-Dogs (koma-inu... or shishi in chinese) that are traditional guardians to many shrines. These fierce mythical animals are definitely the sort of sentries you'd like to see... but they can be a bit too ... er... direct... (legend goes, they throw their young off a cliff to toughen em up). Now there's some good parenting advice. Though it's impossible to tell from this figure, like the Nio guardians themselves, one dog has it's mouth open pronouncing "a", then other has it's mouth closed pronouncing "un"... the sanskrit form of the alpha and the omega.... the start and end of all things.
Yasaka Jinja's Ro-mon gate.

Just down the road from Yasaka Jinja is Mauyama Kōen. As one of the larger parks in Kyōto, this park is  famous for it’s cherry blossoms, and the weeping cherry tree (below)  illuminated at night.... when by all accounts it really is worth seeing. During the day... well... it's not the most attractive of trees. I'll take their word for it... and unfortunately we couldn't wait around to see. The park was the home of the 12th century poet Saigyo. It was a turned into a public park in 1871.
Weeping cherry tree
It is also famous for the gardens of Ogawa Jihei (1860 – 1933 AD) who rejuvenated many of Kyōto’s gardens – and was noted for his use of water sourced from the Biwako canal. On this day it seemed popular with high-school girls... it's like a by-gone era of innocence. Or a school excursion.

Whilst Maruyama isn't the best of gardens in my opinion, it's a favourite meeting place and a good location to catch your breath after a long day. Unfortunately for us - and more importantly for T-chan who was starting to get tired - we had a couple more things to do before we could call it quits.
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  1. I thought the maiko seemed like a tourist. When I see a photo of a maiko posing like that it always makes me suspicious. But I would have taken a picture of her too. She looks beautiful.

  2. I would love to see the weeping tree at night.

    There is one place in Tokyo where you can dress up as a Geisha. It's called Studio Mon Katsura in Harajuku. I didn't dress up as a Maiko, but I did try on a traditional kimono. A little pricey, but worth it!

  3. In Kyoto, it's sometimes difficult to tell the difference between real and costume. To some extent the whole city is like one giant costume party, wearing the trappings of history... living memories of a past life.

    To some extent - for visitors, that's as deep as we can go. The exterior costume.