Kyoto Stories and Tips

Fushimi Inari -- Spring rain

Fushimi Inari Photo, Kyoto, Japan

Little shrine
with rice cakes, of course...
spring rain

Kobayashi Issa, 1818

In the Shinto religion, powerful spirits or kami abide in a multitude of natural objects such as mountains, waterfalls, and even exceptional people. There are innumerable kami, but the most important have shrines devoted to them, where people pay their respects and make offerings. One such kami is Inari, the deity of the rice harvest and (by extension) success and prosperity. As you can imagine, Inari is quite a popular figure, and about a third of Shinto shrines are devoted to him/her. (I equivocate as Inari is regarded as both male and female.)

Foxes are regarded as the messengers of Inari, and so at these shrines pairs of stone foxes or kitsune stand on either side of the gates and sometimes elsewhere on the temple grounds. Around the neck of the fox statues red votive bibs are placed, while often the fox figure bears a scroll or key (presumably to a granary) in its mouth.

Perhaps the most famous shrine to Inari is in Fushimi, an area of southeastern Kyoto easily reached by train. I took advantage of the "goodwill guide" service arranged at Kyoto’s Tourist Information Center to set up a visit there. The nice thing about this service is that it’s so flexible – itineraries are worked out between the guide and visitor (I spoke with my guide by phone the evening before we met). Not only that, but having someone on hand to explain local customs and provide travel guidance is invaluable.

My young guide, Genku, a student majoring in international studies at a local university, meets me at my hotel one morning and off we go, Genku threading his way effortlessly through the maze of subway and train tunnels that normally leave me bewildered. Immediately I sensed that this was a day I could afford to relax, with little worry about getting lost or not knowing what to expect. Genku, though diffident and at times struggling to express himself, is a treasure. In what seems like no time we arrive at Fushimi Inari.

A flight of stone steps lead up to the imposing gates of the shrine, and just inside is a pavilion with stone water basin and dipper cups for ritual washing of hands and mouth prior to entering the shrine. There is, of course, proper etiquette for this procedure, and Genku shows me the exact sequence of steps.

First, using the dipper, pour water over your left hand with the right hand holding the dipper. Then shift the dipper into the left hand and use it to rinse the right hand. Pour water into the cup of the right hand to rinse your mouth with. (Sometimes, he explained, the rinsing of the mouth can be omitted, but at any cost don’t drink from the dipper.) After this, rinse the dipper at the tap and set it back in place.

Properly cleansed, you are now ready to approach the haiden, the building where visitors worship. This is normally the largest building on the grounds of the shrine, and in front of it there will be a box for offerings and a rope attached to a bell. Approach the haiden from the side, to show modesty, rather than straight on.

It is necessary to alert the kami to your presence, and this is done by pulling on the rope to ring the bell. After this, bow deeply twice, clap hands twice, and bow once again. Make a wish or offer a prayer in silence, hands with palms together in front of you. When finished, take a few steps backwards and then to the side, as it's disrespectful to show your backside to the kami.

This bowing and clapping ritual is simply a way of doing what’s most important at a shrine – showing respect. If the exact sequence is not performed, it’s of little consequence if the visitor’s motives are sincere.

Many worshipers leave coins in an offertory box by the bell rope or place offerings of food at the shrine. The kitsune are said to be particularly fond of a type of fried tofu, and shops near the shrine sell these little cakes to enjoy with tea or to leave at the shrine. Rice and sake are other popular offerings.

Of course the main reason foreign visitors come to Fushimi Inari is to see the thousands of torii that form a tunnel-like pathway along the hillside. This torii pathway, featured in the film "Memoirs of a Geisha," is a stunning sight, the torii set closely together, one after another, in a seemingly infinite progression.

A soft rain is falling as we make our way along the path. Each of the thousands of torii is inscribed with the name of its donor – an individual, family, or business – all hoping to gain the goodwill of Inari and thus be successful in their endeavors. I ask Genku how many torii there are at the shrine, but of course he has no inkling, and undoubtedly the number changes as new torii are added. Later I read that the pathways ramble for some four kilometers along the hillside, with spots hither and yon for sub-shrines and groups of kitsune figures.

I’m thankful of the rain, for this normally busy shrine is quiet and relatively uncrowded. The further along the pathways we progress (for there are multiple bifurcating paths from various junctures), the older and more faded the torii seem, and the kitsune statues further along have grown green with a patina of lichen and moss. The rain patters on the woodland trees and trickles along cement gutters on the side of the path. The rice farmers, no doubt, are thankful for this spring rain, portent of bountiful crops to come.

A lucky fox
deigns to come out
spring rain.

Kobayashi Issa, 1819

I’m torn between a desire to hike the entire route and an equal desire to attend to my growling stomach. The stomach (as is often the case) wins, and we return to the main entrance.

Before we leave, however, I participate in a popular shrine activity – having my fortune told by omikuji or "fortune lottery." For 100 yen, I draw a slender bamboo stick from a round dispenser. On the stick a number is written which corresponds to a piece of paper that I can retrieve from an attendant. I’m once again thankful of Genku’s help, as he guides me through the procedure and helps me claim the correct slip.

"What does it say? " I ask.

He ponders the slip of paper for a bit, knitting his brows together, then ventures, "You will have good luck . . . maybe."

This seems to me to be a somewhat tepid fortune, but at least it has a fair likelihood of coming true. I spot a wooden stand nearby with hundreds of fortune slips attached to it, and I ask Genku if this is where I should leave my fortune. "Not unless you want to get rid of an unfavorable one," he says. "Then you can leave it there so it won’t come true."

This seems to me an excellent system all around – keeping good fortunes and disposing of the bad ones. And so, tucking my (possibly) lucky fortune slip into my pocket, I turn and we depart the shrine of Inari, exiting under the watchful gaze of the guardian foxes.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip