The Arches and Foxes of Fushimi-Inari Taisha

One of the most remarkable shrine complexes in Japan is Fushimi-Inari Taisha.

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The shrine takes the middle part of its name from Inari, the god of grains. Founded in the eighth century as a place to worship the gods of rice and sake, Fushimi-Inari Taisha has grown to become the head shrine for over 40,000 Inari shrines scattered across Japan. This sprawling complex is notable for its thousands of torii, or gates, that run up the hillside path …

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… and its hundreds of stone foxes.

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The fox is messenger of Inari, and you can find them at altars and gateways all throughout the complex.

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My guidebook offered the observation that the Japanese see these foxes as capable of possessing humans – and that when a fox enters the human body, its preferred entry point is likely to be under the fingernails. That seems creepy to me, but I guess it’s no creepier than being possessed by a fox.

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My mother, sister, and I loved the ornamentation on the buildings in the lower shrine complex …

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… including this ceiling with a beautiful shimenawa (for more on Japanese temple terminology, see my post on Yuwaku) …

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… and these lamps and tassels:

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There are a number of interesting buildings, both large and small, to explore.

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But the high point of wandering through Fushimi-Inari Taisha is winding your way through the endless lanes of gates …

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… and more gates …

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… and more gates:

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Four kilometers of pathways here that take visitors up and then back down the side of a mountain. It’s steep in places, and very slow going because of the crowds (all of whom, ourselves included, are stopping every few paces to take pictures).

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So if you’re short on time (we only had a couple of hours), you’ll only make it part of the way. But you won’t run out of gates — Inari is also worshipped as the god of business in Japan, and each of the torii has been donated by a Japanese company.

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There are roughly 1,000 gates at this complex, and I, for one, never got tired of wending my way through them.

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But if you want to see something different, there are spots where you can move out from beyond the gates and wander around more freely. A walk of about twenty minutes up a gentle slope will take you to a patch of level ground with hundreds of shrines clustered tightly together.

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In this space we found altars of all shapes …

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… and materials …

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… and sizes.

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One was even candle-lit:

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There were, of course, stone foxes in every nook and cranny.

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By the way, the foxes often have something in their mouths; it may be a jewel, a scroll, a sheaf of rice, or a key to a heavenly rice granary.

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The fox is ubiquitous at Fushimi-Inari Taisha – there’s even a flying fox toward the end!

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But we also found one altar where you could pray to a gourd …

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… and another with a dragon:

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As with most Japanese shrines, Fushimi-Inari Taisha offers places to ring prayer bells …

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… and places to leave personal, handwritten prayers for the deities.

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At more humble shrines, people leave their prayers on small slips of paper. But at Fushimi-Inari Taisha, offering prayers has become a major industry, so you buy a wooden prayer plaque and then write your prayer upon it (or you can buy one with the prayer pre-written). These plaques may take the shape of a torii

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… a have a picture of boar (presumably for the year of the pig, which just started in February) …

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… or be designed to look like a fox!

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We bought a fox so that my mom could do some drawing …

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… and she proudly added it to the hundreds of others on this prayer wall:

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There’s help if you want to learn to write the prayer on the back of the plaque in Japanese. We loved the list of what you might pray for, especially “traffic safety”!

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Some people stack their torii prayer plaques up at rock shrines …

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… while others put them up at even larger altars:

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At one altar, someone had left an offering of hundreds of paper cranes:

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We were lucky to be at Fushimi-Inari Taisha during sakura (cherry blossom) season:

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This made the whole place all that much more crowded, but we were thrilled to encounter the occasional tree in bloom …

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… and even a few spring irises!

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Of course, the fact that Fushimi-Inari Taisha is so majestic and unusual (and entirely free) means that it is also fantastically crowded …

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… and as you move under the narrow archways, you’re cheek by jowl with your fellow visitors.

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But it’s such an incredible experience that it’s worth going anyway!

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As a side bonus, when you leave Fushimi-Inari Taisha, you immediately come to Suehiro shrine …

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… which features Kaeru, the Fortune Frog!

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