What does the fox say? It says it all – silently – at the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shinto Shrine, one of the most impressive visits one could make in all of Kyoto.
Foxes (kitsune), regarded as messengers of Inari, play important roles at Inari shrines. Like the song that went viral, there are hundreds of stone foxes scattered and hidden across the Fushimi Inari complex. Often they are depicted holding a granary key in their mouths, visual symbolism reflecting Inari as the protector of rice and cereals, a role so revered in ancient Japan that foxes are often referred to themselves as Inari.
With endless expanses of crimson-colored wooden torii (See Trampled Torii for more on those iconic contours of the Far East) layered amongst a wooded and peaceful mountain spared from the city’s urban sprawl, the massive religious complex offers an escape to a spiritual world unto its own.
Yes, it’s a Shinto Shrine. But this place is oh so much more. Ancient. Mysterious. Moving. Immense. Describing it as “just another shrine” would be like saying that the Vatican is just another church…. What Fushimi-Inari encompasses is an entire realm of various shrines large and small, nestled amid thousands of torii, all spread across an entire mountain just outside Kyoto proper. For me and Jody, our repeat visits to the shrine – during the day and at night – are some of our more memorable adventures in our flirtations to date anywhere in the Far East. It not only ranks as one of the most impressive sites in Kyoto, but it’s one of the most important to the Japanese people who live there. See Honeymoon’s Atomic Fireworks Saves Kyoto for more on what makes this locality so special.
Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) is the lead shrine of Inari. Situated at the base of Inari Mountain, the complex consists of four major religious areas along with dozens and dozens of sub-shrines and alters winding through numerous trails spanning over 2.5 mils and ascending to the mountain’s peak 725 feet above.
Inari was initially dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in 8th century Japan. But as the role of agriculture diminished, the Inari deities were repurposed more broadly as protectors of business and commerce. Thus, the guardian spirit or god Inari became the patron of business. Since times distant merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshipped Inari. This explains, in fact, the shear and almost uncountable number of torii located here, of which over 10,000 are said to be standing. Each has been donated and inscribed by a Japanese business or business person thankful for their prosperity and in the hopes of gaining additional favor with the gods for the future. The resulting long tunnels of torii are some of the most iconic visions in Japan; the torii.
The earliest structures were built in 711 CE, but were re-located in 816 to the present-day site. However, the main shrine structures we see today were all built around the 14-15th centuries, including the main gate (楼門, rōmon, “tower gate”), and the main shrine (御本殿, go-honden). Today the shrine, one of the earliest Shinto Shrines in Japan, is the country’s most popular, most visited, and serves as headquarters for some 40,000 Inari shrines scattered throughout Japan.
Interspersed along the shrine’s paths, small food stands serve Kitsune Udon (“Fox Udon”), a noodle soup topped with pieces of aburaage (fried tofu), a treat favored by foxes. You can also try Inari sushi, fried tofu wrapped around sweetened rice.
The hike around the shrines long and crossing paths is impressive to each and every sense. Light plays with the torii tunnels during the day….. But it is in the late afternoon and throughout the night where it takes an eerie and more spiritually moving turn. There in shadows of the descending day, the small graveyards, miniaturized shrines and silent alters take on a mysterious air.
The Japanese, being a very superstitious people, hold that the Inari shrines are possessed by foxes at night. While foxes are generally seen has sacred and benign, they also are known to be somewhat mischievous – as foxes are everywhere) – especially at night. Jody and I, just to be safe and in the hopes of avoiding any accidental mammalian-based bewitching, visited together, even though the bitter cold of the night was calling Jody back to our lukewarm Machiya in Kyoto’s Gion District (read Timeless Townhouse for more on our stay at a traditional Geisha home at the turn of the last century). For the record, Jody was a foxy lady even prior to our visit.
We recommend that, if possible, a visit to the shrine should be timed for the very late afternoon, when the crowds start to fade along with the harsh light of the day. The chance to explore the torii tunnels alone in the tranquil forests is both spiritually moving and all-things romantic. Having these sites and sights to yourselves is simply a magical experience.
“The secret of the fox, Ancient mystery, Somewhere deep in the woods, I know you’re hiding…My guardian angel….” ~ The Fox – What Does the Fox Say?
See my Flickr Set “Kyoto” for more photos of our visit to that iconic Japanese city.