Most people make the trek to Nara to see the Great Buddha, which is magnificent indeed, and Horyuji Temple, the birthplace of Buddhism in Japan. But there's an overlooked gem in Nara Park that outshines the rest, at least in color: the vermillion-hued Kasuga Taisha Shrine.
Shaded by verdant woods and imparting an atmosphere of dignity and serenity, the shrine was founded in 710 by Fujiwara-no-Fuhito, the patriarch of a remarkable family that for centuries wielded great power in the imperial court, due in no small part by the clan's prowess in marrying off their daughters to emperors. In 768 the Kasuga Taisha Shrine became the tutelary shrine of the Fujiwara family, assuring its continued upkeep and a revered place in history. Until 1863, the shrine was torn down and rebuilt every 20 years, in keeping with the same ancient Shinto practice followed by the Ise Grand Shrines, the most venerable shrines in Japan. Further testimony to the Fujiwara's status as the second-most powerful clan in Japan after the imperial family is the fact that Nara Park is home not only to the Fujiwara tutelary shrine, but also to the Fujiwara tutelary Buddhist temple, Kofukuji Temple. It once boasted as many as 175 buildings on its grounds, giving it significant religious and political power. Today only a handful remains, including one of Nara Park's most familiar landmarks, a five-story pagoda. But it's Kasuga Taisha Shrine that I enjoy visiting the most, probably because of its eye-popping color and 3,000 lanterns that adorn the property. The lanterns are everywhere, along the path and hanging from eaves, making for some of the best photo-ops I've come across at a shrine. I've never had the fortune to witness when they're lit twice a year, in February and August, but their combined effect must be mesmerizing. Since virtually all empresses hailed from the Fujiwara family, I think what intrigues me most about Kasuga Taisha Shrine is its connection to the feminine side of the imperial family. It's easy to imagine their collective spirits residing happily here.