Spirits of the Forest

April 13, 2007

by Akiko Omatsu
Fushimi Inari Shrine
At the foot of forested Inari Mountain in Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward, a short train ride south from Kyoto Station, stands Fushimi Inari Shrine, the main sanctuary of thirty thousand Inari shrines scattered in all parts of Japan. This ancient place of worship, which is the largest Shinto shrine in Japan, appears in the pages of literary classics such as The Pillow Book (Makura No Soshi) and The Gossamer Years (Kagero Nikki), but what most distinguishes the shrine is the enchanting maze of footpaths running behind the buildings and up the mountain, lined with more than a thousand closely-packed red torii gates.

These paths, which appear in the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha,” form a beautiful vermillion “tunnel” covering about four kilometers. If you walk up the mountain at a modest pace, it takes about two hours. In Kyoto, it is popular to come around the mound or small shrine up on the mountain, a primeval area rich in atmosphere. This brief pilgrimage is called oyamameguri. Along the way you encounter ponds and small waterfalls… and perhaps spirits of the forest as well.

It is said that the shrine, originally established in the 7th century, burnt down (along with much of Kyoto) during the Onin War (1467 - 1477). The present buildings were reconstructed later in the Muromachi era (1336 - 1573) and are now certified as an important cultural property.

The word “Inari” in a shrine’s name means that the shrine is sacred to a deity named Ukano Mitama no Okami (宇迦之御魂大神) which controls grain. The divinity of Fushimi Inari Shrine (and its many fox spirits) is said to bring prosperous business, big harvests, road safety and so on, so the a faith of many people in the deity is generous.

There are many statues of foxes (kitsune) around the grounds of the shrine. The foxes’ mouths hold rice or a scroll, or a key to the granary. They gaze at people, often from high positions. It is very funny because each face is different. Take a close look!

Within the inner shrine is a small roofed area protecting two stone lanterns, each of which is topped by an omokaru stone. It is said it that if you make a wish, and then pick up one of the stones with both hands, and you feel that the stone is lighter than you expected, your wish will comes true. But if you feel it is heavy, your wish will be unfulfilled.

Fushimi Inari Shrine has many festivals throughout the four seasons. For example, there is an Adults’ Day Festival in January, a Spring Festival in February, an Industry Festival in April, a Rice Planting festival in June, a Harvest Festival in October and a Fire Festival in November. The shrine also draws millions of visitors for New Years celebrations. Call up Kyoto’s Tourist Information Center for detailed and up-to-date information in English (Tel. 075-371-5649 ).

For access by train, take the JR Nara Line and to Inari station (two stops from Kyoto Station), or alternatively, ride the Keihan line and get off at Fushimi-Inari Station. It’s a short walk to the shrine from either station.

As with most Shinto shrines, entrance to Fushimi Inari Shrine is free of charge. Moreover, the shrine is always open. The spirits of the forest await your visit.

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