Photograph of the week: Yasaka Pagoda, Kyoto, Japan


A trip to Kyoto, Japan, with its 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and over 1600 temples and shrines, can feel overwhelming. A whirlwind of activity amongst a riot of glowing gold and vibrant vermillion. So much to see, so much to do, so little time. Given that this could be considered the home of Zen, however, with hundreds of Zen gardens dotted all around the city, it makes sense that it is a city best explored at a gentler place. Or you stand to lose out on all that makes Kyoto so extraordinary – like the quaint streets leading to the picturesque Yasaka Pagoda, for example.

Photo of the Week: Kyoto, Japan

Aimless wandering can yield magical sights of years gone by; a fuller picture of a place steeped in cultural riches and historical significance. You only have to stroll the narrow paved stone lanes of the historic district of Gion and Southern Higashiyama to know the truth of this.

Soak up the charm of the Japan of yore as you make your way along the street of Yasaka-dori, lined with wooden houses and paper lanterns, before catching your first glimpse of the picturesque Yasaka Pagoda – also known as Hōkanji Temple or Yasaka-no-to Pagoda. As you meander, take the time to stop into traditional merchant shops selling local specialties such as Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, sweets and pickles; sip tea at a traditional tea house; and marvel in sightings of geisha in their exquisite kimono and striking white makeup rushing to and from appointments.

Once you reach Yasaka Pagoda, there is much more to marvel in than just a pretty pagoda. Built in 589, it is the oldest pagoda in Kyoto and a prime example of Japanese art. Destroyed and burned more than once, Yasaka Pagoda has not changed in its design once from its original form, always being reconstructed to its identical glory. Last rebuilt in 1440 by the Shogun Zoshinori Ashikaga, this original form is also highly functional: the design, which features a long central wooden beam, is earthquake safe and remains a model for modern day experts tasked with constructing buildings in earthquake prone regions.

Located between the Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizu Temple, Yasaka Pagoda is a short five minute walk from Kiyomizu-michi Bus Stop, having taken the Kyoto City Bus 100 or 206 from Kyoto Train Station. Visitors to Yasaka Pagoda are sometimes allowed entry up to the second floor and no further – although this in itself is a rare opportunity. For your best shot at entry, visit between 10am and 4pm daily, but don’t be surprised to find the pagoda randomly closed – open hours are irregular at best. If you are lucky enough to gain entry, the fee is 400 yen.

Regardless of whether or not you get to go into the pagoda itself, the entire area is a real gem of Kyoto. The shops and restaurants here are typically open around 10 in the morning and close around five in the evening, except during the 10-day long Higashiyama Hanatouro Festival in March when the streets are lined by thousands of lanterns and many of the area’s temples, shrines and businesses have extended hours and special illuminations.

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Comments (12)

  1. Piers says:

    The spirit of Zen is not merely for exploring around Kyoto. I think that it should be applied to so much travel.

    Though as the Pagoda’s opening hours are quite random perhaps a feeling of Zen is required here, particularly if you have travelled a long way only to find the Pagoda closed!

    • Paul Johnson says:

      Yes, good point, Piers! I think much of the beauty of the pagoda can be enjoyed from the outside, but if anyone can offer any insights into when is best to visit to go inside, then please let us know!

  2. Jenny Fisher says:

    Japan is, and always has been, top of my bucket list. Hopefully one day I’ll actually make it there. Such a stunning photograph. It’s hard to believe that pagoda was built back in 589, that’s beyond incredible. I’m glad the rebuilding is ensuring its continued sanctity and resilience to the elements.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      Yes, it’s very hard to believe. Of course, it’s been re-built several times since then, but apparently the reconstruction is to somewhere near its original form.

  3. Margaret J says:

    When’s the best time to visit here, ie when is it less crowded? As one of the biggest and most noteworthy landmarks in the district I’d guess a lot of tourists flock there. It would definitely make for a fantastic photo opportunity, and your photo is beautiful.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      Kyoto definitely gets busy. They say the best times to visit are October/November and March/April/May. However, if crowds are not your thing, you will definitely want to avoid the cherry blossom season which starts in late March and ends early April, but maybe also Golden Week (early May) and foliage season (November). Bear in mind that certain times of year maybe very hot and humid (June-August), very cold (December-February) or very wet (mid June to late July)! Thereafter, if you visit places like this early, then this will help minimise on the crowds.

  4. Carolyn says:

    First of all it’s amazing that the pagoda dates back to the year 589 and secondly it is brilliant that it was rebuilt accurately in 1440 and constructed so that it can withstand earthquakes. It says a lot about Japan’s respect for its heritage that it was restored so carefully.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      Yes, despite their love for all things modern, the Japanese do hold tradition and culture in high esteem. In Kyoto you will find many old shops with hundreds of years of history, preserving traditional crafts, and traditional recipes retained by local restaurants, etc.

  5. Chris H. says:

    The Yasaka Pagoda is so different to everything that we do in the west. I know that Japan had some lengthy spells of isolation, imagine what the first visitors must have thought when they first saw such delicate beauty.

    I’ve never been to Japan but friends who have say that the Japanese way of doing things is so different that it makes for a very enlightening experience that really challenges the way that you think.

  6. Cindy says:

    I’d never heard of a Zen garden until I read this. Obviously I get the idea that a Zen garden will be a very calming place for meditating and finding tranquility but are there are any common features to these gardens?

    • Paul Johnson says:

      I’m no expert but I think to be a true Zen garden, there are no flowers – just gravel, stones and boulders. Someone else might be able to correct me on this, though…

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