See Nara's Well-Loved Shrine, Kasuga Taisha

Kasuga Taisha Shrine is an impressive vermillion colored Shinto shrine in Nara, Japan. This shrine is held with great importance in Nara and is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nara City is the capital of Nara Prefecture, which is located in the Kansai region of Japan. 

The History of Kasuga Taisha Shrine 

The Imperial capital of Japan was transferred by Empress Genmei from Fujiwara-kyo to Heijo-kyo (Nara no miyako) in 710, and it remained as the capital of Japanese civilization until 794.  

History says that the Kasuga Grand Shrine was built in 768 by Lord Fuhito Fujiwara, by the order of Emperor Shotoko. The shrine belonged to the Fujiwara family, a very powerful clan at that time. It was rebuilt faithfully every 20 years, adhering strictly to the original ancient design, because Shinto resisted architectural change.  

The shrine was erected and dedicated to several deities for the protection of the city. The deities are Takemikazuchi-o, Futsunushi, Ame no Koyane and Himegami, ancestors of the Fujiwara family.

Shintoism During The Earlier Centuries

Most of the Japanese society during this time were basically living in villages and were into agriculture. Shinto was and still is the native religion of Japan. The word "Shinto" comes from two characters of Chinese origin; “shin”, indicating the deity or god, and “to” which signifies a way or path. 

Shinto then means “The Way of the Gods”. Shinto followers worshipped nature because they believed that the elements like a waterfall, a landscape, a rock, a tree, or mountain have spirits or “kami.” They also worshipped ancestors or great leaders, as these people could also become “kami”.

A Shinto (jinja) shrine is built as a sacred place dedicated to the local kami and where “kami” live. Though they are called shrines, these shrines are used like temples. The presence of the “kami” is manifested by a symbolic object called a “shintai” A “shintai” can be a man-made object or a natural object representing the spirit. Oftentimes the object is concealed in an object for centuries. 

The Deer are Dear

The Kasuga Taisha shrine is located inside Nara Park, which is home to hundreds of free-roaming deer. The path leading to the shrine is in Deer Park. The deer are supposedly messengers of the Shinto gods and they have become a symbol of Nara city. It was believed that a deity appeared on the site, riding a deer. Since then, the deer are left to roam freely around the temple until today. The deer have been designated as natural treasures. Visitors buy deer crackers around the park to feed them. Most of Nara’s deer are quite tame but can get aggressive if they think you will feed them. 

The Forest of Kasuga Taisha Shrine

Kasuga Taisha Shrine, built within an atmospheric forest, was intended to create a deep sense of spirituality, and maintain harmony between humanity and the natural world. The Shrine is surrounded by a cypress forest with cedar trees, and Chinese black pines. Hunting and the cutting down of any tree have been banned since 841 in this forest. 

Light Up with Lanterns

What will attract your attention most are the hundreds of different sized moss-covered stone lanterns (Toro) on the side of the roads, leading to the shrine and the beautiful bronze lanterns hanging from the eaves of the corridors of the shrine. There are 3000 lanterns and they all symbolize all the 3000 Kasuga shrines spread throughout Japan. The lanterns are donated by a grateful citizen who wants to show their thanks and support to the shrine. 

There are writings on the lanterns to show which deity the lantern is dedicated to or the name of the person who donated the lantern. A leisurely stroll along the pathways will send you into a tranquil state. In that same forest are found other world treasures like the Kofukuji and Todaiji Buddhist temples.  

The Kasuga-zukuri architectural styled Kasuga Taisha Shrine is centered on a honden (main sanctuary hall that contains the kami or shaintai or object believed to contain the spirit of a deity) and a haiden (worshipper’s hall where ceremonies of purification rites and prayer services are held). It also has a Heiden (offering hall where people lay their gifts). 

Treasure hall (homotsuden) is to the west of the shrine, and the Meoto Daikokusha. Both buildings contain precious sculptures, weapons, masks, mirrors, and other artifacts which were imperial gifts given during the Heian Period. For a fee of 400 yen, you can admire over 3000 artifacts and 520 objects are considered national treasures and important cultural properties. 

It also has sub-shrines like the beautiful Wakamiya-jinja, founded in 1135 and reconstructed in 1863. This shrine is dedicated to married deities and is thought to bless visitors by matchmaking or bolstering the chances of marriage.

The Chumon Gate, built in 1613 has a two-story central roof and two wings which house the secondary shrines. The shrine’s main entrance is through the South Gate or the Nanomon. Next to the Chumon gate is a tree which is believed to be over 800 years old. Nearby also is a famous garden known as the “Garden of the Apple Tree” with an ancient tree from the time of Emperor Takakura. 

Take a Stroll in the Manyo Botanical Garden near Kasuga Taisha Shrine

The Asugataishashinen (Manyou Botanical Garden) is an area of 3 hectares of 250 varieties of plants, each described in Japan’s oldest collection of poems – the Manyoshu. The Manyoshu, meaning “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves,” is the oldest collection of Japanese poetry dating back to the Nara Period. 

The garden is divided into 4 parts, the Manyou Park, the Gokokuno Sato, the Tsubaki Park, and the Fuji Park. This incredibly beautiful botanical landscape is open to tourists all season. Wisteria flowers bloom in a large part of the garden during late April until early May. There are 20 varieties of wisteria with 200 wisteria vines in this Botanical garden. Wisteria is the symbol of the crest of Kasuga Grand Shrine as it was founded by the Fujiwara family.  Fujiwara means “wisteria-grove”. Wisteria is trimmed and supported by trellis to keep its shape. The shrine is abundant with wisteria, both cultivated and in the wild. 

Light Up Your Evening by Joining the Lantern Festival in Kasuga Taisha

The most spectacular time to visit Kasuga Taisha is during The Setsubun Mantoro Festival (February 2-4) and The Chugen Mantoro (August 14-15) Festivals. Visitors can see an amazing experience when all the lanterns are lit at night. These festivals have been celebrated every year for the past 800 years. On these lanterns are little papers written with people’s wishes. Such a breathtaking, mystical ceremony, lit only by candlelight, will take you back to bygone days when there was no electricity. The reflections of the lights on the red buildings of the shrine strike a surreal harmony. 

On March 13, is the Kasuga Matsuri (Monkey Festival) features gagaku and bugaku dance shows.  The Kasuga Wakamiya, on Matsuri, is a winter festival held at the Wakamiya Jinja Shrine from December 15-18. The festival, also known as “The Grand Festival of Kasuga Wakamiya Shrine” was first held in the 12th century to pray for the end of an epidemic plague and to obtain a rich harvest.

More about The Kasugayama Primeval Forest

Kasugayama Primeval Forest, at Mt. Kasuga, Kasuganocho, Nara-shi, is a primeval forest, meaning it is a virgin forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance. Mt Kasugayama is located on the west side of the Kasuga Shrine and is 498 meters above sea level. 

This ancient woodland of 250 acres near the summit, contains 175 kinds of trees, 60 bird types and 1180 species of insects. Hunting and logging are strictly prohibited. Since the Kasugayama has been tied to the Kasuga Grand Shrine, it is regarded as a sacred hill. 

Unchanged since the Nara Period, this forest has beech, oak, wisteria, and many other big trees. The paths that wind through the primeval forest are so peaceful and the forest truly looks beautiful and untouched. Very few visitors make it deep into the forest as to step away from the designated walking trail is prohibited. Japanese regulations protect the forest area.  This steep and sacred old-growth forest has a waterfall and some deserted Buddhist complex of shrines. Wild boar and deer usually live in this unique habitat. Bird watching is a favorite pastime for many to do while they go hiking deep into the quiet forest.  

Dive Deeper into History and Culture: Visit the Kasuga Taisha Museum

The Kasuga Taisha Shrine grounds also have the Kasuga Taisha Museum. It is a modern building near the main shrine that exhibits beautiful article collections and artifacts like maki-e lacquer boxes inlaid with gold, two large ornate drums rare swords, samurai armor and lots of artworks. It also displays some of the shrine’s relics. 

What Are the Hours the Kasuga Taisha Shrine stays open?

The Kasuga Taisha Shrine is regularly open from 6am-6pm on April-September but from October–March it is open from 6:30am-5pm. Treasure Hall closes 4 times every year while the exhibits are changed. 

Elementary school children pay only 200 yen. Middle High School students pay 300 yen. Adults pay 500 yen. Take note - credit cards are not accepted.

Information about the Kasuga Taisha Honden Bus Stop

The touring of the attractions at Nara Park can all be done on foot. To reach Kasuga’s path of lanterns, take the 12-minute Kasugataisha Honden bus from JR Nara Station or Kintetsu Nara Station to Kasugataisha Honden bus stop. 

The 25-30-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station is highly recommended to experience and absorb the beautiful surroundings leading to the shrine. And if you feel more energetic, take the 45-minute walk from JR Nara Station to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. Another choice would be to take the Nara Kotsu Bus from either Kintetsu Station or Nara Station to reach the Kasuga Taisha Honden Bus Stop. 

The Kasuga Taisha Honden Bus Stop is located inside a large parking lot, right next to Treasure Hall, or opposite from Manyo Botanical Garden.  A timetable is available (though it’s only in Japanese) to show the schedule when buses leave from Kasuga Taisha Honden Bus Stop. 

Where is Kasuga Taisha on the Map? 

The address of the Kasuga Grand Shrine is in 160 Kasuganocho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8212 Japan.

Now that you’ve read a report about the area and have a general guide of it, it makes it all the more worth it to travel here, and book a hotel.