Nara’s Kasuga-taisha shrine and the divinity of nature

After we had to cancel our pilgrimage hike across the Kii Peninsula because of Typhoon Hagibis, HOB and I visited the tourist information center in Nara to try to find another hike.  I read that there was a primeval forest nearby and wanted to see if we could hike there.  The friendly man at the TI gave us a map and showed us an 18K trail through the forest to a temple; a hike he said was once was used to train Samurai.  (I don’t need to remind you that visitor services and tourist information staff are my heroes, do I?)


This hike!  So lush, and real nature, not the cultivated kind the Japanese specialize in.  We were loving this magical walk so much until….out from the primeval forest emerged a perfectly contemporary forest ranger who said we had to go back because of the danger of falling trees due to the typhoon.


So we doubled back to a park we’d passed earlier where we’d seen a sign for a shrine called Kasuga-taisha.

The path to the shrine runs through a forest of giant Ichiigashi trees.


After the Ichiigashi trees, we started to see lots of lamps.  Hundreds of lamps.  Thousands.  And deer, which are considered sacred in Kasuga-taisha.


Can you see the deer carved in the lamp?


There were signs around warning us to keep our distance from the deer.  Not to worry: I didn’t get knocked down by a sacred deer.


Kasuga-taisha has been around since the 8th century and it is quite active.  Elegantly dressed families, many in traditional Japanese dress, poured into the shrine for ceremonies, to worship, and to pose for photos.




Shrines in Japan are Shinto, a religion I don’t know much about.  I think the general idea is that divinity is latent in all of nature.

To worship at a shrine you bow twice and then clap your hands two times to wake up the resident deity.  Then you bow a final time.

Kasuga-taisha has four resident deities—I wonder if they ever get annoyed at people waking them up all the time; do deities need to nap?  Anyway they do seem to like you to put a coin in their offering box, so hopefully that makes up for the lack of sleep.


I know what a danger it is to be drawn to a religion simply because it is foreign and therefore compelling, but even so, ah what a lovely religion Shinto seems to be.  I assure you, it felt just right to worship the divinity inside this 1000 year old cedar tree.


Another thing I learned about Shinto is that their shines were traditionally destroyed and rebuilt every 20 years.  As much as my overwhelming hope is that historic, UNESCO-protected places such as the gorgeous shrine of Kasuga-taisha will be protected and preserved, this 20 year cycle of destruction and rebuilding also makes perfects sense.  It too feels natural.


A postscript to my last post about losing our cat Janacek: HOB and I live near a cat shelter and “just happened” to take a peak inside…and came out with this beauty.  Until a month ago he was a stray and had been treated for fleas, mites and a mouth infection.  Our new cat is nothing like Janacek; he’s already wiggled his muscular little body into places Janacek never ventured, including the shower (while I was using it!) and inside the refrigerator.  HOB has succumbed to his nonstop charm offensive while I might take a bit longer to fall in love, though surely this cuddly and curious cat will win me over soon.

We named him Shinto.


How we got to Nara: train from Kyoto.
Where we slept: Oak Hostel Nara. Price: €60 for a double. Recommended: yes.


  1. I’m surprised by the amount of stuff you managed to do even with a typhoon coming.

    Those aggressive deer ate up my map the last time I was at this shrine. I’m surprised they didn’t attack you. Maybe the typhoon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We did manage to do lots of cool stuff in Japan, though sometime I’d like to go back and do the trip we’d originally planned (and I had done so much research for.)

      I kept my distance from the deer, less from fear of attack and more from fear of Lyme disease.


  2. Congrats on your new best friend Shinto! I sadly lost one of my three cats last week, making ours a two-cat household which should be enough. But sooner or later I’ll probably stop in at the shelter “just to look.” As for appreciating various kinds of temples, you might want to look at Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “Holy Envy” about that very subject. Happy holidays to you, HOB and Shinto!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So sorry to hear you lost your cat last week! It is hard to overstate how much our cats become part of the family. How are your other two Colorado kitties feeling about it?

      Thanks for the tip about Holy Envy—just put it on hold at the library.


      1. Actually the one who died was crabby and bossy in her old age (like me, I guess). So the other two are pretty content. Driving with them from Minnesota to Colorado this week, and for me it’s a relief not to worry about the old frail one, though I miss her terribly.


  3. Dear WOB thanks for another splendid posting of your interesting travels. Once again we often discover something beautiful and wonderful when our plans go “astray”. Shinto looks like another wonderful find. Don’t you wonder what he might be writing about you to his friends at the shelter? Have a good holiday back in wintery Chicago. My best to you and HOB.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Dear former shelter roommates, I am living close by with two strange humans. They make me eat food from cans and won’t let me raid the garbage can or chew on the plants. Those funny people gave me catnip mice to play with—don’t they know cats prefer real mice? Okay, got to go knock some books off the dresser. Say hi to that rowdy cat with the furry ears who kept trying to scratch me from her cage. PS, what kind of name is Shinto anyway?”


  4. Sorry to hear about yet another stoppage due to the typhoon.

    Regarding the deers, I must admit something barbaric and most probably blasphemous to the good Shintos out there.

    When I went to Nara it took all my self control not to try to steer one of said anymals towards a pot to turn into stew! Stew and polenta, Piedmontese style, is one of my favourite dishes and it gets even better with boar, chamois or deer meat. I know, I shall reincarnate into a dung beetle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Having grown up in a rural area with venison as my main source of protein, I can’t fault your taste. We didn’t know about exotic things like polenta, but I suppose venison chili with corn bread was a close relative..

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, both are made with corn so they’re first cousins I’d say

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Glad that the new cat member is Shinto. The spirit… 🙂 When I was visiting the Shinto shrines, I did feel very removed since I am unfamiliar with the religion. Very different for me compared to wandering around in cathedrals and churches in Europe because at least I knew the basic stories and iconography.

    My warmest wishes for a wonderful Christmas wife of bath!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am quite familiar with European church art and architecture too so I tend to be more engaged because the buildings and the art inside them are telling me stories I’m familiar with. However, Shinto (and really all religions focused on deism) feel right to me so I don’t have that removed experience you have. Mostly when dealing with unfamiliar religious I worry I’m going to accidentally cause offense.

      Merry Christmas and happy 2020 to you as well Jean!

      Liked by 1 person

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