Kasuga’s grand treasures hold history high

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

Around a half-century after Heijo (present-day Nara) became Japan’s capital in 710, Minister of the Left Fujiwara no Nagate constructed Kasuga Grand Shrine at the behest of Empress Shotoku in 768. The shrine complex went up at the foot of the sacred Mount Mikasa, the closest mountain in the direction of the rising sun.

Subsequently, four Shinto deities were transferred to the buildings that became Kasuga’s main sanctuary, the history of which is traced through artworks currently on show at the Nara National Museum. One deity, Takemikazuchi no Mikoto, traveled from the province of Hitachi on a sacred white deer, while Futsunushi no Mikoto relocated from Shimosa. Amenokoyane no Mikoto, the ancestral deity of the Nakatomi clan from which the Fujiwara family came from, was joined by his consort, Himegami of the province of Kawachi, rounding out the grouping enshrined in the east of the Heijo capital.

The spiritual assemblage led to Kasuga Grand Shrine being designated one of the three guardian shrines of the Imperial court along with the Grand Shrines of Ise (the royal family’s ancestral shrines) and Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine.

Kasuga was simultaneously the shrine of the Fujiwara clan and, by marrying their daughters into the Imperial family, the Fujiwaras attained a near monopoly on high-ranking court positions. Approximately 70 percent of Imperial mothers hailed from the Fujiwara lineage, resulting in a powerful and persuasive genealogy. Faith in the family fortunes, their numbers and status, were coupled with the prosperity of Kasuga.

Kasuga veneration spread from the shrine’s territories to encompass the precints of Kofukuji temple, resulting in a late Heian Period (794-1185) Shinto-Buddhist syncretism, which posited that Buddhist deities from foreign countries manifested as Japanese Shinto gods. The multiple “Kasuga Mandala” hanging scrolls on display at the Nara National Museum depict the landscape around the main shrine, the Kasuga Shinto deities and their Buddhist equivalents. These scrolls were produced for worship from afar and as a prayer in lieu of pilgrimage.

Donations to the deities were primarily from aristocrats — top ministers, the military elite — or imperial gifts. Koshinpō (shrine treasures) included clothing, furniture and musical instruments that were donated for the practical use of enshrined deities. Works that were later designated National Treasures, such as the “Kenukigata Long Sword (Tachi) with Mother-of-Pearl Inlay on a Gold Ground” (12th century), and other decorated military attire including the “Oyoroi Armor with Red Lacings and Plum Warbler Decoration” (13th century) are examples of the pinnacles of craftsmanship and the period’s aesthetic tastes.

As a form of time capsule, the Kasuga repository has earned the sobriquet “Heian Period treasures,” a successor to the collection of Silk Road treasures amassed in Japan in earlier times. Kasuga’s possession of transmitted cultural treasures is the largest of any creed, numbering 352 National Treasures, and 971 Important Cultural Properties.

Beginning as a core devotion of the court, Kasuga’s influence spread among the townspeople and into rural areas — there are reportedly more than 3,000 Kasuga-affiliated shrines throughout the country. Final exhibition sections concern the sumptuous ritual festivals focusing on performance and costume, like the Kasuga Wakamiya On-Matsuri festival, while another addresses the shrine’s confraternities active in the Nara vicinity and beyond, in which the devoted gather to foster the faith today.

“Commemorating 1,250 Years Since the Founding — Kasuga Taisha: Centuries of Worship Revealed in Sacred Treasures” at the Nara National Museum runs until June 10; ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.narahaku.go.jp/english,