Kasuga Taisha (春日大社; Kasuga Grand Shrine) was founded in 768 as the tutelary shrine of the Fujiwara family and, for a while, held an important place in Shinto worship; indeed, the emperor still today sends a messenger here to participate in shrine rituals. The four sanctuaries are just visible in the inner compound, while the thousand beautifully crafted bronze lanterns hanging round the outer eaves are easier to admire. Donated over the years by supplicants, they bear intricate designs of deer, wisteria blooms, leaves or geometric patterns. The best time to see them is when they are lit up twice a year for the Mantoro (“Ten-thousand lantern”) festivals – on February 3 marking setsubun, the beginning of spring, and during Obon, the festival of souls, in mid-August (Aug 14–15) for the Chugen Mantoro festival. The bronze lanterns and the nearly two thousand stone lanterns, which line the path leading up to the shrine, are lit at dusk. Just before the entrance to the inner shrine is the Kasuga Taisha Shin-en garden (春日大社神苑 萬葉植物園), especially charming in early May when the dozens of varieties of wisteria are in bloom. The garden is also a living museum of over nine hundred flowers, herbs and other plants mentioned in the verses of the Manyōshū (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”) poetry anthology, compiled in the Nara and early Heian periods.

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