Nara was the first permanent Japanese capital, established in 710 and modeled after Chang'an, the capital city of Tang China. Along with architectural designs, Nara also adopted the other traits of the Chinese culture, including Chinese written characters and Buddhism. There were many Buddhist monasteries, built in the new capital, which quickly gained so much political power and influence that in order to protect the government and the emperor, the capital was moved to Nagaoka in 784 and finally to Kyoto in 794. This period of Nara being the capital of Japan is known as the Nara period in the Japanese history, famous for the wide spread of Buddhism and building of many Buddhist temples, which are still preserved in Nara. Although Buddhism gained much power those days, Shinto, Japan's native religion, thrived and Shinto shrines were also built during this period.
The Kasuga Shrine (Kasuga-taisha in Japanese) is the most celebrated shrine and a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nara. It is considered one of 'Three Great Shinto Shrines' of Japan. The Kasuga Shrine was also a tutelary shrine of the Fujiwara, Japan's most powerful family clan of most of the Nara and Heian Periods.
Founded in 768, the Kasuga Shrine actually consists of four shrines, devoted to different Shinto deities. According to Shinto concepts of purity, the Kasuga Shrine was torn down and rebuilt every twenty years until 1863. Thus, it was rebuilt fifty seven times, but the rebuilding has always been based on the original plans, making it a brilliant example of the mid-8th century Japanese architecture.
The Kasuga Shrine is famous for its three thousand stone and bronze lanterns. These bronze lanterns within the shrine and the hundreds of stone lanterns, lining the shrine's approach, are lit during the Lantern Festivals in February and August, making the most spectacular sights of the shrine. Among other outstanding features are vermilion colors, which create a striking contrast to the surrounding verdant groves and graceful deer that return to their pens at the call of a trumpet in the evening.
The admission to the grounds is free, but if you want to have a closer view of the bronze lanterns and the warship hall, there is an admission charge to the inner grounds.
The Kasuga Shrine is located in the far end of the Nara Park (Deer Park), if approaching the park from the JR or the Kintetsu Station. This picturesque lawn park extends four km from east to west and two km from north to south. Groups of deer, messengers of the gods according to the Shinto religion, walk freely through the park. The symbol of the Deer Park is the Kofokuji Temple, a five-storied pagoda of fifty m in height, originally built in 730. The pagoda was damaged during the civil wars and rebuilt in 1426.
The park has a beautiful landscape and gives enchanting views of the temple and shrine rooftops that impress visitors throughout the seasons. Ukimido, a hexagonal gazebo, situated in the center of the Sarusawaike Pond, gives citizens and visitors a space to take a rest in. Naturally, the Kasuga Shrine, the Nara Park and its pagoda are no doubt a must to see in Nara.