08 May 2016

Nara (Japan) - Kasuga Taisha Shrine of Lanterns

Date of Exploration : 2 Apr 2016

It wasn't easy to break free from the adorable deer of Nara Park but when we finally managed to break free from their disarming cuteness through restraint from taking any more photos of them, we finally made our way to Kasuga Taisha (Kasuga Grand Shrine 春日大社).

A key attraction in Nara City, Kasuga Taisha Shrine is famous for the thousands of stone and bronze lanterns that crowd its vicinity as well as within its walls. The number of lanterns I came across was truly bewildering!

Through its countless lanterns, Kasuga Taisha Shrine shines as one of Japan's most unique devotional expression of Shintoism.

Established in 768AD, the shrine has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998 and stands today as a living architectural record of the period where Japan began to move out of the shadow of China.

Getting Here - Follow the Path of the Stone Lanterns

Getting to Kasuga Taisha Shrine takes about 30 minutes on foot cutting across Nara Park from the Kintetsu Nara Station. However, our journey took triple the time because we fell under the charms of the park's free ranging deer, stopping often to snap photos and buying special deer biscuits to feed them.

It also took us a bit of asking around to get on the right path to the shrine because while there maps around the park, there weren't many signposts to point the way. Or perhaps we missed the signages because we were constantly distracted by scouting for photo opportunities with the deer. The way to Kasuga Taisha Shrine is pretty straightforward and we knew were on the right path when we started spotting the shrine's iconic stone lanterns.

Follow the path of the stone lanterns that line a rustic trail leading to Kasuga Taisha Shrine.

More deer along the way milling in and out of the forest and stone lanterns. When you come to a split road, take the path on the right to reach the front entrance of Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The path on the left is for people who are leaving the shrine.

I told myself no more deer photos but couldn't help shooting more as the scenery changes from Nara Park's forested setting to the ancient frame of Kasuga Taisha Shrine's stone lanterns to lens the deer in. This buck poking its head out amongst the stone columns is so kawaii hor? :o)
Entering the Realm of the Kamis

Kasuga Taisha is a Shinto shrine that is dedicated to four minor folk spirits / deities (kami in Japanese) :

Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto (god of thunder) - Also known as Kashima-no-kami, he is often depicted as subduing a giant catfish that causes earthquakes
Futsunushi-no-mikoto (spirit of swords) - Priests performing rituals and rites typically bear a Nihonto sword

Amenokoyane-no-mikoto (ancestor of the Nakatomi clan) - He is the protector deity of the clan and a guardian appointed by the goddess Amaterasu omikami to guard a divine mirror; and he is enshrined with a Himegami (female consort deity)

* The suffix "-no-mikoto" is an honourary title given to a spirit or venerated person that connotes 'winged being'

The crimson arch (torii) marks the perimeters of the shrine and the path (sandō) leading to Kasuga Taisha Shrine's main entrance gate. The number of stone lanterns intensifies as you get closer to the entrance gate. As my visit coincided with the sakura season, an explosion of pink blooms cascaded over a section of the stone lanterns next to the entrance gate. So pretty!

An assembly of stone lanterns fringes the entrance gate of Kasuga Taisha Shrine with a glorious pink sakura tree punctuating the scene beautifully.

While it's free to browse around the area in front of the offering hall just after the entrance gate, a fee of ¥500 is collected for entry into the inner prayer halls. We were curious about the inside so we paid the fee at the counter where a deer spirit boy extends his hand out as if asking for money. There are also wooden cards, some shaped as the head of a deer, that can be purchased to write wishes on and hung at the shrine.

Inside the shrine's compound, hanging bronze lanterns took over from the stone ones. This is the chumon (middle gate) flanked by oro (roofed veranda) that guards the shrine's main sanctuary which houses the shrines of the 4 kamis.

Framing the chumon with a pair of stone lanterns that are more ornate than the ones seen outside the shrine.

We could walk around the veranda corridors that surround the main sanctuary but entry into the sanctuary is not allowed and so we didn't get to see the classical Nara architecture of the 4 spirit houses.
There are approximately 3,000 lanterns in and around the shrine and they are lit twice a year... once in early February, and another in mid August. This angle can be shot at the free zone without having to pay to go in.

Where do the lanterns come from? They are donated by devotees.
Nobody lights a lantern to see the sun.

If I wore green, I could be that superhero who charges up his power with lanterns!
If you can't wait till February or August to see the lanterns lighted up, there's a dark room towards the back where you see what they look like when lit.

The lantern needs the candlelight to shine, or it'll just be an empty shell; and the candle needs the lantern to protect it or it might get blown out. The candlelight is like the soul and the lantern is the body. Our soul gives purpose our body and we must keep our body strong to allow the soul to keep shining. Cheem boh? LOL.

There are actually a lot more things to see around Kasuga Taisha Shrine. There is the Kasuga Taisha Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden, a Treasure House and 12 shrines along a path outside the southern side of the main shrine complex. The shrines that are dedicated to 12 gods of luck. Looks like Lady Luck no longer needs to work alone now. 

Among the shrines is the Meoto Daikokusha shrine, which is the only shrine in Japan dedicated to married deities. In other words, this is a love shrine for those who want to pray for a good match or for a blissful marriage. Too bad we didn't get to visit. If we did, maybe we wouldn't have become me.

For opening hours, fees and more information, do visit the two links below that I found very helpful :

Kasuga Taisha Official Site
Japan-Guide.com Kasuga Taisha

Related Posts :

Deer Moments at Nara Park

Todaiji : The Great Eastern Temple of Shingon Buddhism

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