Fushimi Inari Taisha (head shrine) honors Inari – the Shinto god of rice. Established in 711 AD, Fushimi Inari’s 1,300th anniversary was celebrated last weekend: October 8, 9 and 10. Tens of thousands of people came to celebrate with prayers, traditional music and dances, as well as more modern entertainment (Photos 1-4, and Taiko drum video, parts 1 and 2)
Photo 1: The go-honden (main shrine) of Fushimi Inari Taisha. The fresh wooden signs (lower left) carry the names of Tennou Heika (the Emperor, the largest sign on the left) and his family.
Photo 2: Shinto priests conducting the sacred rites for Inari – the god of rice – in the go-honden (main shrine). [Note: cameras were not allowed inside the go-honden).
Photo 3: Koto and flute players on the main stage, Fushimi Inari Taisha.
Most Japanese practice both Buddhism and Shintoism. Whereas Buddhism spread throughout Asia, Shinto – ‘the way of the gods’ – is uniquely Japanese and highly localized. Shinto shrines are dedicated to kami – gods or spirits, often associated with animals, trees or rocks (see Figure 5). Shintoism believes in the power and harmony of nature.
There are more than 100,000 shrines in Japan. The most important shrines are large and park-like, but each neighborhood has their own local shrine. In addition, most Japanese homes have both a small Shinto shrine (see Photo 6) and a Buddhist altar.
Photo 6: Shinto shrine at our Kyoto home. Most Japanese homes have both a Shinto shrine and Buddhist altar. This shrine is 70 years old. Reiko’s mother, Noriko Yasui, adds fresh water to the shrine daily (in the white-capped bowl, center of shrine).
Emperor Meiji decreed Ise Jinguu – the Grand Shrine at Ise – to be the head shrine of all Shinto. It enshrines Amaterasu Oomikami – the sun goddess and ancestor of the first emperor of Japan. This shrine is central to the divine history of Japan and the divinity of the imperial family.
By comparison, Fushimi Inari Taisha is a more populist shrine, and the largest shrine system in Japan. This position is not surprising given the central role of rice in Japanese culture. Inari has also become a god of commerce and wealth, which brings financial support from local and national businesses. Fushimi Inari Taisha has nearly 40,000 member shrines, each of which was represented this weekend in Fushimi.*
Torii and Kitsune
The entrances of Shinto shrines are demarcated by a torii – sacred gate – that separates the secular world from the divine. The torii of Fushimi Inari Taisha are famous for their brilliant vermillion color (freshly painted for the celebration). Moreover, they are arranged in long tunnels through the forest known as senbon torii – thousand sacred gates (Photo 7-18 show the main torii leading into Fushimi Inari and continuing through to the largest series of senbon torii). Each night of the celebration the senbon torii were lit by candles and lanterns. We walked these paths last night accompanied by the sound of an unseen flute player; our girls held our hands (see Photo 19 and video).
Photo 9: Shinto emphasizes purification and nature. Their rites often include salt, and all shrines have a temizusha (place to wash hands) near the entrance. Visitors fill a dipper with water, and pour water into each of their hands. A second dipper-full is used to rinse the mouth and the handle of the dipper (to cleanse it for the next user).
Inari shrines are also well known for their kitsune – foxes – the messengers of the gods. Pairs of kitsune bracket each shrine. Most kitsune carry something in their mouth: a tassel of rice, a key (to the granary), a scroll with sacred words, or a ball – which in Japanese plays on the word for ‘soul’. Two foods associated with Fushimi Inari depend on kitsune’s preference for oage – a form of fried tofu. Inari sushi is sushi rice wrapped in oage. Kitsune udon is a noodle dish with oage. Both foods are common in Japan, and particularly around the shrine (many of the earlier figures include kitsune; see photos 20-25 for more kitsune photos).
Hiking Inari Mountain
Fushimi Inari Taisha covers Inari Mountain. The main shrine is on the western side of the mountain, but countless smaller shrines ring the mountain all the way to the summit (233 meters, or 770 feet). We often go there on weekends, a 10-minute bike ride, and explore the many trails on the mountain (see map, Photo 26). There are stands of cedar and bamboo, streams and ponds, endless shrines and several small restaurants (serving kistune udon) as well as some great views of Kyoto (Photos 26-29).
Inari Mountain is part of the Higashiyama – the eastern mountains of Kyoto. This entire range of mountains is covered in temples and shrines. Fushimi-ku is the largest ward of Kyoto, named for its excellent spring water and famous for its sake.
* From Kyoto Shimbun (newspaper) Sunday, October 9, 2011.
Fushimi Inari Tales
Following are details on four short stories from the Inari home page, with translations (thanks Reiko!).
30. A final view of the go-honden (main shrine) under a nearly full moon, the last night of the celebration.
Fushimi Inari Tales: Four short stories of Fushimi Inari
These stories are available on the Fushimi Inari website: http://inari.jp/b_shinko/index2.html
Each story is told with a series of 3 animated pictures, each with a text box. Click the icon at the lower right corner within the text box to move to the next page. In some cases, you must wait a few moments for an animation to run before the ‘next page’ icon becomes visible/active. The text is only in Japanese. A simple translation and a few notes are available below.
First story: Hatano Irogu
Note: Hatano Irogu is a high-ranked (noble) man. This story explains the origin of Fushimi Inari Shrine.
- One day, Hatano Irogu made mochi (a rice cake) and used it for target practice.
- But when he shot his arrow, the mochi became a white bird and flew away to a mountain.
- Hatano Irogu followed the bird to where it landed, and found a field full of tasseled rice. He thought god must have made this happen, so he built a shrine here to Inari (the god of rice).
Second Story: Inari Trees and To-ji Temple
Note: To-ji temple is famous for its 57-meter tall five-storied pagoda, the tallest wooden pagoda in Japan. This pagoda was built in 826 AD.
- In 827 AD, Emperor Junna was sick for a long time. He asked a fortune-teller what was wrong with him.
- It turned out that he was cursed. The pagoda of To-ji Temple was built from trees cut down from Inari Mountain.
- The Emperor gave special honor to a group of lower-ranked (5th Ranked) noblemen in an attempt to please/appease Inari.
[This story does not indicate whether his act ‘worked’ or not. He died in 840 AD.]
Third Story: Seishounagon no Hatsumoude – ‘Seishounagon’s First Trip (of the year) to the Shrine’
Note: Seishounagon is known for her ‘Pillow Book’; this story comes from that book.
- February 2nd, early in the morning, two women went to Fushimi Inari. Going up the steps, they were very tired, but they kept telling themselves they wanted to reach the shrine at the top of Inari Mountain.
- By 10 AM, they were hot, tired and in tears, so they took a break.
- As they rested, they saw and heard two other women talking on the path. One woman, about 40 and wearing regular clothes, told the other woman, “I want to climb to the top seven times today, and I have already made three trips to the top. Therefore, four more times is nothing.” As the woman walked on, the two resting women were jealous of her ability.
Fourth Story: Onin-Bunmei no Ran – ‘The Onin War and Reconstruction of Fushimi Inari’
Note: The Onin era was a time of civil war in Kyoto, from 1467-1469. It was followed by the Benmei Era.
- In 1467 the Onin War began. The next year, the Yamana clan occupied Tofukuji Temple (a few miles north of Inari Mountain) and the Hosokawa clan occupied Fushimi Inari on Inari Mountain.
- The Yamana clan defeated the Hosokawa clan and burned Fushimi Inari.
- Afterward, there were no festivals held at Fushimi Inari until 1476. On November 23rd, 1499, the priests of Inari rebuilt the shinhonden – main hall – of Fushimi Inari.
[The Shinhonden is the main site for prayers; you put in money, clang the bell, clap your hands twice and pray.]