The Shrine was established by Yoshimitsu Minamoto, great-great grandfather of Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, at the time he was on the way to the northern part of Honshu to fight against an enemy clan. (Related page Taihoji). The battle started in 1082 and ended two years later. Back then, an epidemic was rampant in Kamakura. At the sight of suffering people, Yoshimitsu thought that erecting a shrine here as an offshoot of Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto and pray to its god would be a good idea since Yasaka Shrine was reputed for its ability to protect people against evils and epidemics. Yasaka Shrine accepted Yoshimitsu's request and permitted him to found a sub-shrine under the name of Kamakura Gion-sha, following Yasaka Jinja's old name Gion-sha. As expected, the epidemic simmered down after it was erected. People in Kamakura were grateful for the divine power and revered the god deeply.
One of the oldest shrines in Kamakura, older than Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, it has long been venerated by the people in Kamakura, those in Omachi district in particular, as a tutelary shrine to prevent sickness.
Like Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, the object of worship or enshrined gods here are those appearing in the Japanese mythology including Susano-o . When Yasaka Shrine was founded in 876, however, it was called "Gion-sha",
and was built to ward off epidemics in Kyoto. The epidemics were believed
to have been brought by the curse of Gozu-ten'no, or Gosirsa-devaraja in Sanskrit, which, according to Buddhist teachings,
resides in Gion Shoja (Jetavanavihara in Skt. An ancient temple in India built for Sakyamuni) as a guardian deity. After Yasaka Shrine was built to appease the curse of Gozu-ten'no, the epidemic then in prevalent in Kyoto was crushed out. From then onward,
people in Kyoto began to venerate the god.
A Gozu-ten'no statue on display at Daijiji's website, a Rinzai Zen temple in Aichi Prefecture.
In Kamakura, the Satake clan, Yoshimitsu's descendant, enshrined the souls
of their ancestors in the Shrine during 1392 to 1428, and therefore, the
Shrine was also called Satake-ten'no.
Paintings of Susano-o at MFA.
Later, merging of Buddhism with Shinto elements was seen between Gozu-ten'no and Susano-o because of their similarity in divine character. In other words, Gozu-ten'no was thought to be a vicar of Susano-o, thereby it became the main object of worship in Yasaka Shrine and its branch shrines as well.
After the Meiji Imperial Restoration in 1868, however, Gion-sha in Kyoto was forced to change its name to Yasaka Shrine following the government's instruction to segregate Shinto from Buddhism. This is the reason the structures at Yasaka Shrine still looks like a Buddhist temple. Likewise, Gion-sha in Kamakura also had to be renamed "Yagumo Shrine." However, people in this neighborhood continued to call the Shrine "Gion-san" (san is an honorific title), and the hills lying behind the Shrine is still called "Gion-yama" (Mt. Gion), where a hiking trail leads to Hokaiji district.
Gion district in Kyoto has long been so popular among Kyoto residents, that
Yasaka Shrine still retains its name of Gion with the spectacular Festival called Gion Matsuri (festival), one of the three Great Festivals in Japan. (The other two are Kanda Matsuri in Tokyo and Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka.) It starts on July 17 through July 24 every year. The climax is a parade of massive man-dragged floats, more than 30, all beautifully decorated, marching throughout streets in Kyoto. Originally, it was a ritual to pray to the god wishing to end a plague sweeping the city. Why in the dead of summer? Because, epidemics used to rage at this time of year.
Since there were many geisha houses in the area, geisha girls worshiped the god and joined the festival making it even more gorgeous. According to Memoirs of a Geisha written by Arthur Golden (1956-), there were 700 to 800 geisha serving in the mid-1930s at Gion district, and they must have made the festival brilliant. The story was made into a movie in late 2005, produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Rob Marshall, under the title "Sayuri", the heroin's name. Sayuri is played by Ziyi Zhang (1979-), a Chinese American actress. The movie was under sharp criticism from critics in Japan against the selection of the players, saying how the Chinese player can really act as a genuine geisha girl. I personally believe the producer and director had no choice but to appoint Ziyi Zhang simply because there was no Japanese actress who was pretty, capable enough and can speak English fluently. After all, the movie was made in America for American people, but it will give us a good chance to see how geisha girls were like those days at their peak era. Kimono and kimono-wearing manner must be finest of all, and it will be a yardstick to evaluate the movie because Sayuri was one of the top geisha of the days in Gion district, and Gion district was the center of geisha houses in Japan.
In case of Yagumo Shrine in Kamakura, the festival starts on the second Saturday of July and continues for three days, during which four portable shrines, not floats, march in a procession through the street of Omachi district hosted by the parishioners. The festival here is said to have begun in 1349.
Of particular significance in Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto and its offshoots including Yagumo Shrine here is that they have long been patronized and supported by the mass of people, not by the imperial court, nor by the government or by the Shogunate.
The present structures was built in 1929 after the old one was destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. On the left-hand side of the main hall is a treasure house, in which the four portable shrines, one made in 1724 and the others in 1860, old masks worn when Shinto music and dances are performed, stone monuments etc. are on display. Admission: 50 yen. The office is located south of the main hall over the fence.
Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto has approximately 3,000 sub-shrines nationwide. In Kamakura, there are two others named "Yagumo Shrine", one at Tokiwa, Nishi-mikado and the other at Yamanouchi. The name Yagumo came from the tanka poem written by Susano-o, which is said to be the very first tanka ever written, and it starts with the word Yagumo. Later, the word became to mean tanka itself.
(Updated August 2010)