The Kasuga Grand Shrine is one of the most important Shinto Shrines in Japan. The paths leading to the shrine and the grounds within the complex have thousands of stone and bronze lanterns conveying a feeling of beautiful harmony and religious mysticism.
A Shinto shrine is a place of prayer and worship of the Kami. For the Shinto faithful, the Kami is the embodiment of a deity that originates primarily in nature. Thus, Kami may be a natural phenomenon like the wind or thunder, or objects of nature such as the stars, mountains and rivers, or rice, trees and animals. Also are Kami, both ancestral spirits of noble families and those of the common people.
Therefore, Shintoism is a polytheistic belief system. It is the main set of religious practices followed in Japan, which in many cases is integrated with the practice of Buddhism. It is estimated that, across the country, there may be at least one million Shinto shrines. These range from the great shrines of historical importance to the small shrines at the roadside, or in a corner of the house. People visit a Shinto shrine or erect one in their home to pay respect to the kami or to pray for good fortune.
When the stone lanterns are lit, the side openings are partially covered with paper to extend the burn time of the candles.
Kasuga Grand Shrine (known to the Japanese as Kasuga-Taisha), in the city of Nara, Kansai region, is one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan. The shrine complex was established in 768, but is believed that the original designation of the site as a place of Shinto worship dates from the beginning of the Eighth Century, around the year 710.
The shrine is located on the eastern side of Nara Park, at the foot of two mountains, Mt. Kasuga and Mt. Wakakusa. Both mountains are considered sacred and believed to be the place from which the Shinto deities (Kami) first descended. Since nature is the focus of the Shinto religion, Shinto shrines are frequently located at hillside forests or near natural environments.
The Temizuya. While clearing of the soul takes place during the walk along the path to the Shrine, purification of the body occurs at the Temizuya, a water fountain and basin at the entrance to the shrine where worshipers wash their hands using the small wooden ladles.
The Minamimon (South Gate). This is the main entrance to the shrine complex. Since the 8th Century the structures are renovated every 20 years, according to Shinto tradition.
Among the best known features of Kasuga Shrine are its 3000 lanterns. About 2000 stone lanterns, known as “tōrō”, line the paths to the shrine and additional 1000 brass and bronze lanterns adorn the buildings of the complex, mostly hanging from the eaves of buildings or inside the sanctuaries.
The lanterns have been accumulating over 800 years as donations from religious people as symbols of their faith. In ancient times, the lanterns used to be lit by Shinto priests every day. However, now all the lanterns are lit twice a year, during the “Man-tōrō” festivals of early February and mid-August.
Near the entrance to the Shrine one can buy a "Onikuji" for ¥200. The Onikuji is a small piece of paper, in the language of one's choice, where one's fortune is written. People tie the piece of paper to the twig of a tree to either promote good fortune or negate unfavourable predictions.
The Fujinaminoya. A hall in the inner section of Kasuga Shrine with an astounding collection of brass and bronze lanterns. These lanterns remain lit continuously.
A visit to Kasuga Grand Shrine in Nara, Japan, is a very interesting and educational experience. The complex is open every day (winter hours are 6:30 to 17:00 hrs.). Entrance to the grounds is free of charge except for a paid inner area (500 yens [about US$ 5.80]) which allows a closer view of several buildings with bronze lanterns and to the Main Worship Hall.