Walking up through the many gates of Fushimi Inari, it is hard to imagine when the shrine was first brought to Inari mountain back in 816 A.D., let alone when it was first built in 711 A.D. Tourists and locals alike flock to the site in their multitudes, snapping photos of the picturesque scenery. Particularly during the early section of the way, it is necessary to weave a path through the many selfie-takers as one follows the trail up the mountain. As with any such endeavors, one has to have a knack for timing else risk featuring in many a family photo. But who is there to look at faces when the bold red paint stands out so strikingly against the surrounding forest?
The shrine started out simple. The story goes that an aristocratic man was out shooting mochi as target practice. (Mochi is rice cake, a food in Japan traditionally made by pounding rice into a smooth, sticky mass.) As the man prepared to take shot, the rice cake transformed into a crane and flew up to the top of the mountain. Upon landing, the crane transformed again, this time into rice plants. Taken as a message from Inari, the god of rice, a shrine was built in honor and in gratitude.
From such mystical origins, the shrine has grown and expanded into the winding trail we can find today. The main shrine building at the base of the mountain was built in 1499 and the large, towering torii gate which greets visitors as they enter was built in 1589 from the donations samurai warlord and ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Businesses and individuals began donating money to build their own smaller gates, a custom which became popular during the Edo period (1603 – 1868), and has resulted in the 10,000 gates long trail. For every gate, the donor either makes a wish or says thanks for their previous good fortune. At the entrance of the shrine are two statues of foxes, the messengers of Inari, there to relay the wishes of the hopeful.
To understand this custom better, one has to know more about Shinto lore. While very few Japanese recognise themselves as Shintoists, the majority of the population participate in Shinto rituals and festivals. Shintoism can be considered a religion but also a mythology, a collection of related stories and customs, shared through the ages. Almost all of the stories relate to kami. I refereed to Inari before as a god but that isn’t entirely correct; Inari is a kami, a spirit, a force of nature, a being, a phenomenon… no translation quite does justice.
Inari is one of the most popular kami and worship is widespread, partly due to its multiplicity. Over the years, Inari has taken many forms, both male and female, and has become associated with many powers: god of rice, tea, sake, agriculture, fertility and prosperity; patron of blacksmiths, sword smiths, merchants and warriors. The stories, told and retold, have merged and expanded. Tales of other gods have become entangled with Inari’s own, to the point where it is unclear where Inari begins and the other god ends. Even in Buddhism, there are versions of Inari, taking on the role of temple protector.
Fushimi Inari is the largest of the Inari shrines. As I walked up and down the mountain, I did not know much about Inari, instead I imagined myself as taking a pilgrimage through the gates and past the trees. Legend tells us of that every year, Inari walks down the mountain to help with plant the seeds and back up again once harvest is over.