A Visit to Kasuga Shrine (Nara Park, Japan)

Kasuga Grand Shrine (Kasuga Taisha), is one of Japan’s most important, and popular, Shinto shrines. Originally established in 768, the shrine acquired special notoriety and status in 965, when Emperor Murokami began sending imperial messengers to the shrine to report and seek the patron kami’s advice on affairs of state.

Over the next few weeks, my Monday posts will take you on a tour of Kasuga Taisha, and share a little about it’s history and the role it plays in Japanese culture. (All of the photos are mine, and were taken during my research trip to Japan in June, 2015.)

Kasuga Taisha lies in the heart of Nara Park, home to numerous shrines and Buddhist temples, as well as 1200 sika (deer) that, although no longer legally considered sacred objects, still enjoy protected status and have no fear of visitors. (For more about the deer, and photos of their shenanigans, click here.)

16G24 deer

The approach to Kasuga Taisha lies along a wooded path that runs almost half a mile from the nearest road (conveniently, a city bus stop sits immediately beside the start of the path, making it easy for foreign visitors to find):

16G24 Kasuga path with lanterns

Near the start of the path, you’ll notice a few stone lanterns standing along the edge of the gravel road.

16G24 Kasuga Lanterns

As you walk, the lanterns become more numerous.

16G24 Kasuga path with deer

Kasuga Taisha is actually famous for its lanterns–tōrō in Japanese. Thousands of them line the paths and hang from the eaves within the shrine, including some of the oldest extant tōrō in Japan.

A crow met me near the sign announcing the entrance to Kasuga Taisha – in Japanese, a good omen, because the eight-span crow is considered a messenger of the kami (gods, or divine beings).

16G24 Kasuga entrance with crow

Sub-shrines are common at Shinto holy sites; in addition to the primary altars and buildings dedicated to the patron kami, Shinto shrines often feature smaller sub-shrines dedicated to other kami (and not always lesser gods – sometimes, the sub-shrines honor stronger deities than the primary ones enshrined at the main shrine altar – however, at Kasuga Taisha, most of the sub-shrines are for lesser kami).

16G24 Kasuga Taisha sub-shrine

Like many Shinto shrines, the “final approach” to Kasuga Taisha features a line of small shops selling food, drinks, and souvenirs. Although the shops are fewer, and the offerings less elaborate here than at some shrines and temples in Japan, these shops do sell “deer crackers” (“Not tasty for humans. For Deer Only.”), so the sacred sika hang around in hopes of a treat.

16G24 Kasuga entrance (torii)

To the left side of the path as you approach the entrance to the shrine, a deer-shaped fountain provides a place for visitors to purify themselves in accordance with Shinto custom. (The ritual, which I’ll blog about another time, involves a ritual rinsing of the hands and mouth.)

16G21 Deer fountain

Beyond the fountain the path slopes upward and a pair of staircases lead to the main gates of the shrine. One staircase leads up to the left of the entrance:

16G24 kasuga entry stairs

Providing a sideways view of the entry gates:

16G24 Kasuga (side entrance)

While the other, more crowded path leads directly to the gates:

16G24 Kasuga Taisha gates

Like many Japanese shrines and temples, Kasuga Taisha’s size makes it difficult to get a good close-up image of the gates (they overfill the frame) – and the hundreds of lanterns lining the path make it difficult to get a photograph from a decent distance.

16G24 Main gates Kasuga Taisha


Through these gates lie the shrine’s major buildings and sacred sites…and I hope you’ll join me next Monday, when we continue our journey inside the gates! 

Have you visited Kasuga Taisha, or any other Shinto shrine? What did you think of the experience?