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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

Japan: The Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, Mysticism and Melancholy

Updated: Mar 9

The Yasaka Shrine remains a living witness to Japanese history and culture. Founded over a millennium ago, this shrine has passed through various periods of Japanese history and continues to be a spiritual and cultural pillar of the city of Kyoto.

Japan: The Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, Mysticism and Melancholy

Photographing the temples and shrines of Kyoto in the evening has something magical about it. Night falls early in Japan. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage for photographers. Except for early risers (like me), who delight in the first morning light on the coasts.

On the other hand, for fans of night photography (of which I am also one... indeed, my days are very long), it is possible to take advantage of nighttime conditions as early as 5 PM in winter.

Most of the time, these places empty out quite quickly in the evening. Unlike temples, Shinto shrines never close. So you can fully enjoy these delicate illuminations that the Japanese have mastered. Walks in a mystical universe are guaranteed...

Origins and Creation of Yasaka Shrine

The Yasaka Shrine, also known as Gion Shrine, is a sacred Shinto site located in Kyoto. It was founded in 656, making it one of the oldest shrines in the country. Initially, it was dedicated to the deities Susano-o, the Shinto god of the sea and storms, and his wife Kushinada-hime. Later, other kami (Shinto deities) were also worshiped here.

My equipment: URTH Neutral Night Filter. The Exceptional Filters with Japanese glass, waterproof, stain proof, and anti-scratch. The reference for landscapes and night photography. Check it out here.

Architecture and Features

The architecture of the Yasaka Shrine is a fine example of traditional Shinto shrine architecture. The site features an iconic torii at its entrance, which is often the subject of photographs. It also includes a dance stage called "Maidono," a main building called "Honden," and several other smaller structures. Most of these buildings are constructed of wood and are characterized by a simple style, in line with the Japanese aesthetic principles of wabi-sabi, which value simplicity and imperfection.

Religious and Cultural Roles

Historically, the Yasaka Shrine has played a key role in the religious practices of the region. It is not only a place of prayer and ceremony, but also the center of one of Kyoto's most important festivals, the Gion Matsuri. This festival was inaugurated in 869 with the aim of appeasing the gods during an epidemic. Today, the Gion Matsuri is one of the largest and most famous festivals in Japan, attracting millions of visitors each year in July.

Current Function and Importance

Today, the Yasaka Shrine maintains its importance both religiously and culturally. It remains a favored location for various Shinto ceremonies, such as weddings or rites of passage. Additionally, it also serves as a place for relaxation and contemplation, particularly famous during the cherry blossom season, where locals and tourists come in large numbers to admire the sakura. The shrine is also a major tourist site, significantly contributing to the local economy.

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Nighttime Atmosphere

The Yasaka Shrine takes on a completely different dimension as night falls. The tranquility that sets in is almost palpable, a serenity amplified by the shadows and soft lights that project onto the wooden structures and stone paths.

In winter, lanterns illuminate the shrine, creating an almost mystical ambiance. Summer, on the other hand, often sees the site animated by nighttime festivals, where lights and decorations add a touch of festivity.

Seasonal Variations

The shrine offers a different atmosphere each season, even at night.

In spring, the cherry blossoms are often highlighted by special lighting, creating a romantic and dreamy atmosphere.

In summer, the heat and humidity give the site an almost tropical character, especially during the celebrations of the Gion Matsuri.

Autumn brings the reds and oranges of maple leaves, which are even more vibrant under soft lighting.

Finally, winter provides a cold but peaceful quietude, where snow can sometimes cover the roofs and gardens, creating a silent and immaculate landscape.

In my bookcase: Kyoto Gardens - Masterworks of the Japanese Gardener's Art.

My Library: Kyoto Gardens - Masterworks of the Japanese Gardener's Art.

Interest in Night Photography

For photographers specializing in landscapes and minimalist atmospheres, the Yasaka Shrine can be a rich testing ground at night. The interplay of shadows and lights offers multiple opportunities to capture striking images. The architectural simplicity of the site lends itself well to clean compositions, where each element can be isolated and highlighted.

Black and white photography can particularly convey the timeless atmosphere of the shrine, by eliminating color distractions and focusing on shapes, textures, and contrasts. Whether it's the meticulous details of the wooden structures or the abstract shapes created by the shadows, the Yasaka Shrine offers a multitude of subjects to capture.

In summary, the Yasaka Shrine at night is not only a place of great beauty and serenity, but also a playground for photographers in search of unique and changing atmospheres. As are, in fact, many other sacred sites in Kyoto.

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