Last Monday, we walked along the approach to Kasuga Shrine, which winds through Nara Park (in Nara, Japan).
This week, we pass through the massive wooden gates:
…to tour the grounds of the shrine.
Just inside the gates, a courtyard gives visitors a view of the heiden and buden, where visitors can offer prayers. Offerings from the Japanese emperor are placed here temporarily (before being offered to the kami inside the shrine’s main sanctuary) and ceremonial dances are conducted here as well.
To the right of the heiden, a garden contains a number of smaller (but still important) shrines:
And to the left, a lattice supports a 700 year-old wisteria named Sunazuri-no-fuji (wisteria flowers drooping down to reach the sand on the ground). When it blooms each May, the blossoms measure over a meter in length.
Kasuga Shrine honors four of Japan’s most important Shinto kami: Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, Futsunushi-no-mikoto, Amenokoyane-no-mikoto, and Himegami. The deities are enshrined within a part of the shrine not normally open to visitors; only the emperor of Japan and the kannushi, or high priest, of Kasuga Shrine are allowed to enter the sacred space.
The chumon – pictured above – is the entrance to the main sanctuary. (Photographs are allowed from this point, but no closer.)
However, once every hundred years or so, the images of the deities are removed from their places within the shrine (with proper rituals) for restoration. During the 3-6 month period when the deities are absent, visitors can pay a special fee (about $5) to tour the shrine’s main sanctuary and receive a special amulet blessed by the high priest of Kasuga Shrine.
During my research trip in June 2015, I toured Kasuga Taisha–and happened to visit during the 100-year restoration period, so I was able to visit not only the public portions of the shrine but also the main sanctuary where the deities normally reside. Due to the holy nature of that area, no photographs are permitted – and unfortunately, the restorations have now concluded, closing the area to public view for another hundred years.
Kasuga Shrine’s famous tōrō (lanterns) are present inside the shrine as well; while most of the lanterns outside are made of stone, and stand on pedestals, the ones inside are mostly hanging lanterns made of bronze and other metals. They hang from the eaves of the cloisters that surround the inside of the shrine:
Kasuga Taisha (“Shrine”) is a lovely example of the way Shinto shrines are preserved and restored; despite its age, it continues to function as living, active shrine to this day, and although a large percentage of its many visitors are tourists (some foreign, but the vast majority are Japanese), Shinto worshippers also still visit the shrine on a daily basis, praying and making offerings to the kami.
Have you ever visited a Shinto shrine? Would you, if you went to Japan?