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Yasaka Pagoda

By Takeji Asano 1900-1999

Moonlight at Yasaka Pagoda

Moonlight at Yasaka Pagoda

Among the 1600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines, palaces and gardens in Japan, the Yasaka Pagoda, also known as the Hokan-ji Temple, is one of the most historic in Japanese culture and one of the most prominent pieces of architecture in the city of Kyoto. This Pagoda is a prime example of Japanese art, which has its own traditions and cultural roots. The Yaska Pagoda is also recognized for its earthquake safe construction.

A 1500 Year History for Yasaka Pagoda

Founded in 794 by the Emperor Kammu, Kyoto is one of the oldest cities in Japan. Its original name, Heian-Kyo means capital of peace and tranquility and the city was later elected to be the second capital of Japan. The Yasaka Pagoda had already been built in 589 and dates back to the prince Shotoku Taishi. The Pagoda was repeatedly destroyed and burned in war, but was always reconstructed to its original form. It was last rebuilt in 1440 by the Shogun Zoshinori Ashikaga.

Although details from the early history of the Yasaka Pagoda are scarce, there is information about the burnings. In 1179, the Pagoda was burned in a dispute between the rivals of the Kiyomizu Temple and the Yasaka Shrine. The temple was again rebuilt by Shogun Minamoto Yorimoto in 1191 and records show that the temple burned again in 1291 and 1436.

An Earthquake Safe Landmark

The pagoda rests on a bank in Eastern Kyoto. At 46 meters (151 feet) high, the temple stands out as a landmark of the city. Located between the Yasaka Shrine and the Kiyomizu Temple, the Pagoda is surrounded by residental buildings. The Pagoda also has a small traditional well attended garden at its base.

The pagoda became a motif for artists, one of the many available interesting sights in Kyoto. Famous artists like Teruhide Kato (b. 1936), Clifton Karhu (1927-2007), Tomikichiro Tokuriki (1902-1999), Toshijiro (Nenjiro) Inagaki (1902-1963) and Takeji Asano (1900-1999) were inspired by this pagoda and created many famous works.

The construction and design of the pagoda were never altered, despite being rebuilt several times after different blazes. The design, which consists of a long central wooden beam, is earthquake safe and remains a model for experts today who construct buildings in earthquake prone regions.

The pagoda has 5 levels and each can oscillate freely around the central beam. In this manner, the pagoda absorbs each shock and directs the movement to the ground. The sophistication of this design probably dates back to the reconstruction of 948, when a dangerous tilt of the padgoda was repaired.

Religious Context

The Yasaka Pagoda is dedicated to the five great Nyorai, who are depicted in sculptures and murals inside the pagoda. The epithet Temple Hikan-ji reveals in its suffix that it was not a main temple but rather a secondary one. At the base of the pagoda are four finely carved Buddha statues arranged around the points of a compass.

The passages and dark steps inside are worth a look. One should notice not only the paintings and sculptures but also the traditional ornamental painting of the wooden construction. The view from tiny windows above also offers a glimpse of the modern city.

Yasaka Pagoda - Video

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Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura