Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Lanterns of Kasuga Shrine

--Susan, every other Sunday

Kasuga Taisha (Kasuga Shrine) is one of Japan's most important Shintō holy sites. The shrine was established in 768, in what is now Nara Park (located in the city and prefecture of Nara, Japan).

Most people know Nara Park for its sacred, and friendly, deer.

The hondō, or main worship hall, enshrines four deities: Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, Futunushi-no-mikoto, Amenokoyane-no-mikoto, and Himegami. The deities have Buddhist analogues as well, and are worshipped by priests from nearby Buddhist temples as well as the Shintō priests who manage Kasuga Shrine.

The hondō at Kasuga Taisha

Among other important religious and cultural features, Kasuga Taisha is known for the thousands of bronze and stone lanterns that line the temple's halls and paths. (The total number exceeds 3,000.) Each of the lanterns represents a donation to the shrine--a practice that continues to this day.

Rows of toro (standing lanterns) near the worship hall.

The oldest lanterns are almost a thousand years old:

Despite the moss, this lantern is only about 400 years old.
During the medieval period, only samurai and the wealthiest merchants could afford to donate an entire lantern. Many famous samurai, including members of the Tokugawa shogunate and other daimyō (samurai lords) donated lanterns--which still stand at the shrine today.

Some of the lanterns donated by famous dudes.

However, groups of common people also joined together to donate a toro as a group. This one was donated by a group of 800 different people who pooled their money to pay for this single lantern.

The lantern on the right was donated by 800 individuals, working together.
Kasuga Taisha's hanging lanterns are made of bronze. They start out golden:

Recently-donated lanterns. Each represents a donation of 2 million Japanese yen.

...but slowly acquire a greenish-grey patina, a process that takes 40-50 years.

Older, but no less beautiful.

Until the end of the Meiji Era (July 30, 1912) the lanterns were lit every night at sunset. Today, they're lit only twice a year: on December 31, and during the August Obon celebration, when the veil between this world and the next grows thin, and the spirits of the dead return to visit (and hopefully bless) the living.

Watching for the ancestors, or just waiting for treats? Hard to tell.

Since most visitors won't be able to return for the lighting ceremony, Kasuga Taisha maintains a "dark room" filled with illuminated lanterns, so visitors can experience a piece of the lantern ceremony at any time of day, every day of the year.

I love Japanese lanterns--their five-tiered shape represents the Buddhist elements (earth, water, fire, air, and spirit), and at night they give a lovely, gentle light. At Kasuga Taisha, they also pay homage to centuries of faith in the deities that protect Japan and the Japanese people, which makes them even lovelier.

If you find yourself in Nara, by all means, go see the deer--but don't forget to visit Kasuga Shrine and its famous lanterns too.


  1. Once again I learn from you, Obi Won Kenobi. My only question is, what do you mean by “five-tiered?”

    1. Jeff, the lanterns have five sections - if you count the base, the stand, the box that the fire is placed in, the roof, and the little round bit on top of the roof. Each of those is a tier.

  2. Gorgeous!! And, when it comes to lanterns, older is more beautiful to my eyes.

    1. It is to mine too :) I love historical objects, especially ones made of stone that acquire mosses, lichens, and character as the years go by.

  3. That's a lovely shrine and the lanterns are very moving. One thing I love about Modern Japan (where I actually live) as opposed to Meiji Japan (were I write) is the sophistication of the museums, treasure houses, temple and shrines. Ceremonies may only occur once or twice a year (and may sometimes be hampered by weather) but there's often a beautifully produced video of the ceremony at its best that one can watch any time, with narration and even subtitles, so you know what you're seeing, and "backstage" footage that one wouldn't get to see at the real ceremony. Very nice!