Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lighting the Way...Kasuga Taisha Style

25th October, 2006 - Further up the hill from Tamukeyama Hachiman-gu, we walk further back in time - back to the time of Fujiwara-no-Fuhito, who figured so prominently in the making of Nara. There were two religious centres that were associated with the Fujiwara family. We've already seen the first, Kofuku-ji. The second is Kasuga Taisha.

As mentioned, Fujiwara-no-Fuhito (659 - 720AD) was centrally involved in the development of Nara, and had manoeuvred his clan in line with the Imperial family through marriage. It's good to have daughters if you're an up-and-coming noble. The same smallpox outbreak that had inspired Emperor Shōmu also however killed each of Fuhito’s sons in 737, thus forestalling the Fujiwara clan's rise to power.

From Tamukeyama Hachiman-gu, you arrive at the side entrance... Actually for over 1000 years there was a very strong link between the Shinto shrines and the Buddhist temples - a sort of co-evolution that only came to an end with the Meiji Restoration. This shrine is dedicated to Ame-no-Koyame - he is considered the ancestor of the Fujiwara. I always get the feeling that the deities of Shinto largely sprung from real people, glorified and ancestor-worshipped until they eventually took on a spiritual existence... around which legends grew. Then again... what do I know... ?;-p

The shrine is surrounded by bronze lanterns - donated by patrons. Of course - the donations weren't merely to the shrine, as there was an undeniable link between the powerful Fujiwara clan and what was essentially their own family shrine. Not that I'd cynically equate donations with power...

The Nandai-mon is the main entrance to the Shrine. This shrine is supposedly one of three most important Shinto shrines in Japan. I'm not sure why - or even who says these things. The Japanese love ordering things however - and I suppose when you've got so many shrines and temples, pecking ordering is important.

The lanterns line many of the walls and passageways. Nowadays the shrine has a feel of solid permanence... however the shrine itself was originally designed, like many in Japan, to be rebuilt every 20 or so years. That tradition has stopped however - clearly it takes a long time for the resident kami to put down roots.

Below is sort of the quintessential photo of Kasuga Taisha... why... well, if you're like 95% of the foreign tourists that come to Kasuga Taisha, then you're a tight-wad and this point is the furthest you can go without paying the admission price. The fence is carefully cropped out.

Yes - we'd finally reached our limit of temples that day and decided that we'd forego the experience and just view the shrine from a distance. Actually, this shrine is the basis of a complete Shinto shrine style known as Kasuga-zukuri, and is the second most common shrine style in Japan. Also if you are a tight-wad, then there's plenty for you to see in the vicinity of the shrine. Especially if you like stone lanterns.

Nara Kōen is well known for it's lanterns (both stone and bronze), and as you move up into the hills you find more and more. Lanterns are used beyond and within the shrine – and the Lantern festival is held here twice a year - unfortunately for us, those two times were February and August. Below is the view of the Nandai-mon from the outside.

There are around 2000 lanterns scattered across the park, and the Kasuga Taisha has the lion's share of them. You'd almost think you'd stumbled on a Lanterns-R-Us discount shop... everything must GO... crazy Crazy CRAZY! You like lanterns - we've got lanterns... out our wazoo.

 I can't imagine how long it takes to light all of the candles in the Lantern Festival (or how many matches give their lives)... it must be an incredible sight however. I'm sure in the twilight the forests of lanterns must make for an equally eerie sight.

Lanterns to the left... Lanterns to the right...

Stone, trees and moss... a perfect combination. Each of the stone lanterns, like their bronze counterparts, were donated to the park and shrine by worshippers.

As the afternoon settles in, we finish up with the lantern forest. The way down is always easier. My thoughts dwelling on the age old question. Is there such a thing as too many stone lanterns?

And then when you've had your fill... you can always return to main park and re-acquaint yourself with the deer. These animals are considered sacred in Nara - as the legend goes, the four spirits (kami) of Kasuga Taisha were brought to Nara on deer-back. Now they have free reign of the park...  And they want food... or anything that looks like it could be food. October is not a fun time for the deer however - every year the deer are de-antlered in October. Stops them getting too "keen" both with each other and the park visitors.

After our whirlwind visit through Nara - we went to the Nara National Museum to have a look through the various historical artifacts and objects from ancient Nara. At the time there was a special exhibit on... all about treasures from Emperor Shōmu's private collection. Actually, it sounded more interesting than it was. For the life of me, I couldn't get that into a short note written by someone to someone else regarding some administrative matter. Even if it was 1,000+ years old. It just lacked a personal touch to me (but perhaps that's just a cultural/language divide). Still they have some nice artwork in the museum... but unfortunately no cameras allowed. It was also a great opportunity to see some real otaku (nerd) Japanese that poured over each small item in awed wonderment. We even had one ojisan complaining derisively to us that the museum had made a mistake over one of their exhibit descriptions. Tsk tsk. Naughty museum.

As the night draws in, and the sun sets, we catch our breath, enjoy the view, and head back to Kyōto... we'd like to have stayed here more - but both T-chan and I were starting to wilt.

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1 comment:

  1. magnificent collection of photographs. Nara has to be on the list of places to visit when i get to Japan. looking forward to meeting one of those deers