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Kasuga Taisha: A Kyoto Day Trip to See the Unforgettable Sight of 3,000 Lanterns

Kasuga Taisha: A Kyoto Day Trip to See the Unforgettable Sight of 3,000 Lanterns

Date published: 3 October 2019
Last updated: 24 November 2020

The Setsubun Mantoro is held annually in February at Kasuga Taisha on the day of the Setsubun (“the day before spring”). The sacred fire is dedicated to the gods and 3,000 lanterns flicker in the cold winter air, creating an atmosphere of mystery and solemnity.

Kasuga Taisha, located in the east of Nara Park, was established 1300 years ago to watch over the city of Heijokyo (the old name for Nara). It is said that the deity of the shrine, Takemikazuchi no Mikoto, first came to the peak of Mikasayama from Kashima.

▲Scarlet colors of Kasuga Taisha viewed against the greenery of the trees

Takemikazuchi no Mikoto rode into Nara on a white deer and thus became known as the protector of the deer. According to legend, this is why to this day many deer live in Nara Park and the surrounding area.

Kasuga Taisha has more lanterns than any other shrine in Japan. Around 2,000 stone lanterns line the path to the main shrine, with another 1,000 lanterns hanging at the shrine itself. There are 3,000 lanterns in total.

Lanterns have been dedicated to the shrine from the late Heian period onwards, their donors praying for things such as happiness and good health for their families, or success in business or good fortune in battle. Many of these lanterns show signs of their age – they are covered with moss and have faded lettering.

▲Lanterns line the approach to the shrine

Many of Kasuga Taisha’s lanterns have deer patterns carved on them, and there are a variety of different motifs.

▲Plump-looking deer in relief. Look at the cute shape of the deer!
▲ Male and female deer on two sides of a lantern. Seen from close up, the poses are unique!
▲Look closely and you can see autumn leaves above the deer. It’s a familiar pattern from Japanese playing cards.
▲Sleeping male and female deer at the base of the lantern.
▲Cute view of a deer from behind
▲Compare it with this view of a real deer!

Find the right lanterns and become rich!?

Look closely at the columns of these lanterns. Most of the 2,000 columns are inscribed with the characters 春日社 (Kasugasha). But out of these, there are 15 lanterns with the inscription 春日大明神 (Kasuga Daimyojin). Legend has it that if you find three of these by evening, you’ll become a millionaire. I found two but couldn’t find the third one... To do this you have to taking a close look at all the lanterns whereas you’d usually just pass them by without thinking.

There are plenty of other rare lantern designs that we don’t have time to mention today. Try looking for these different lanterns before the Mantoro begins.

However, you need to be careful you don’t get lost walking amongst the lines of lanterns. It’s a bit like a maze!

▲Stone lanterns with Kasuga Daimyojin inscribed on it. Where could it be?

An elegant teahouse where you can sample kayu (rice gruel), the old Edo specialty

An elegant teahouse where you can sample kayu (rice gruel), the old Edo specialty

If you need some sustenance ahead of the Mantoro, why not stop by at the cafe at the side of the path to the shrine. It’s called Kasuga Ninaijaya.

As the kanji suggests, the name of the cafe (荷茶屋) literally means a teahouse (茶屋) that you carry (荷う) on your shoulder. It refers to the practice in the Edo period of teasellers carrying a box of tea and a teapot balanced at either end of a wooden pole. These were the original mobile tea houses of Kasuga shrine! This place is also mentioned as one of the highlights of Nara in the Yamatomeishozue (Guide to Notable Sights), an Edo-period travel guide to Japan.

▲Exhibit of a tea box and tea kettle on a rod
▲Illustration of the cafe in the Edo period in the Yamatomeishozue.

This teahouse opened on a permanent basis in 1983 to mark the 50th anniversary of the nearby Manyo Botanical Garden.

The specialty here is Manyo kayu (rice porridge). It changes monthly and features seasonal herbs from the Manyoshu (an anthology of Japanese poetry). There are a variety of seasonal favors to try, such as nanakusa (seven herbs) in January, nanohana (rape blossom) in March, or yomikigi (mugwort) in May.

The rice porridge uses sake and salt dedicated to the gods of Kasuga, with kelp dashi and white miso. It has a subtle sweetness which warms you inside even in the depths of winter.

▲Manyo rice porridge with pickles (1,000 yen, tax excluded). In February the rice porridge has soybeans in it, and is served with shirae (tofu and vegetables) made with Japanese butterbur.
  • Kasuga Ninaijaya
    • Address 160 Kasuganocho, Nara City, Nara Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0742-27-2718
    • Opening hours: 10:00AM - 4:00PM (8:00PM on Feb 2).
      Closed: Mondays except in April, May, October and November. May close on certain days depending on the season.

These enchanting lanterns will make you forget the cold!

Walk up the approach lined with stone lanterns and enter the shrine from the south gate.
Go from the South Corridor to the East Corridor, pass in front of the main building and then onto the West corridor. The pre-Edo lanterns are a green rust color, while the newer Heisei lanterns are glistening gold. There are around 1,000 lanterns hanging here.

▲Close-up view of hanging lanterns. Lots of these lanterns date back to the Edo period.

The lanterns are lit at around 6 o’clock. There’s a mystical atmosphere here, in total contrast to what it’s like in the daytime. Feel free to make a votive donation (3,000 yen per donation)

▲The warm glow of the Mantoro lanterns (Photo courtesy of Kasuga Grand Shrine)
▲The Nakamon (Middle Gate) is also lit up (Photo: courtesy of Kasuga Grand Shrine).

This ceremony was also held during the Muromachi and Edo periods. The traditional Setsubun chant is “Demons Out! Good Fortune In!” This year why not experience Setsubun at Kasuga Taisha amidst these mystical lanterns?

main Photo courtesy of Kasuga Taisha
Text by:EditZ

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