Festivals of Japan: Kasuga Wakamiya On-Matsuri in Nara Park
By John Asano
The Kasuga Wakamiya On-Matsuri is a winter festival held at Wakamiya Jinja Shrine within the grounds of Kasuga Taisha Grand Shrine in Nara. The festival is on for four days every year from December 15 to 18, with the main festival day on the 17th.
The festival, also known as ‘The Grand Festival of Kasuga Wakamiya Shrine’ was first held in the 12th century to pray for the end of an epidemic plague and for a rich harvest.
Kasuga Taisha Grand Shrine which hosts the festival was established in 768 and is Nara’s most celebrated Shinto shrine. The path to the shrine passes through Nara Park, where deer freely roam and are believed to be sacred messengers of the Shinto gods that inhabit the shrine and surrounding mountains. The shrine is famous for its lanterns, which have been donated by worshippers. Hundreds of bronze lanterns hang from the shrine buildings, and the approach to the shrine is lined with beautiful stone lanterns.
The Kasuga Wakamiya On-Matsuri features traditional Japanese performing arts such as kagura (Shinto music and dancing), dengaku (field music), bugaku (elegant court music and dance) and sarugaku (the precursor to noh drama). The festival could be called a time capsule as it brings alive the old traditional performing arts of Japan which are becoming a rarity today in modern Japan.
The highlight of the festival is the main festival day on December 17th known as Hon-Matsuri. It features the Jidai Gyoretsu (Procession of the Eras) with costumes from the Heian Period to the Edo Period (9th Century to 19th Century). The procession features around 500 participants dressed as priests, samurai warriors in armour, feudal lords as well as costumes from local traditional arts. It starts from kencho (Nara Prefectural Office) at noon and arrives at otabisho (near the approach to Kasuga Grand Shrine) around 3 pm. Local performing arts are dedicated to the shrine from 3:30 pm until around 10:30 pm, where the procession returns to Wakamiya Shrine just before midnight.
The Kasuga Wakamiya On-Matsuri is an elegant festival full of traditional culture and history that is one of the largest events in Nara.
Location: Wakamiya Jinja Shrine, Nara
When: December 15 – 18
Time: Jidai Gyoretsu (December 17) 12:00 pm to 3:00 pm
Cost: FREE Website: http://www.kasugataisha.or.jp/index.html
Kasuga Taisha Shrine is located to the east of Nara Park and is about a 30 minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station, or 45 minutes’ walk from JR Nara Station. You can also take a Nara Kotsu Bus from either Kintetsu Nara Station or JR Nara Station to Kasuga Taisha Honden Bus Stop.