This week we have a wonderful guest post by Hannah over at http://benannainjapan.blogspot.com/!
This post does an excellent job of illustrating just how much influence Inari has in a small area. I love how the shrines range from formal to casual, traditional to untraditional. And of course, the pure feeling of love and nostalgia that comes from these photos. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I did!
Japan is a very interesting and unique place when it comes to religion because it is both very religious, and yet not at all religious. When asked, most people in Japan will say that they don’t believe in any faith, not even Shinto. And yet there are Shinto aspects and traditions throughout Japan that people participate in because for them it’s not religious, it’s just a part of the culture.
I live in Numata City, Gunma Prefecture in Japan. Numata only just qualifies as a city based on population, but it is incredibly large based on its actual geographical size because of how the city has grown and adapted to the mountains in which it was built (because of the mountains it also has a very strong connection to the tengu, and there’s a giant tengu mask at town center that is paraded around the city during the summer festival). That being said, I have not experienced the entire city, not even close, but from what little I have seen, this is what I’ve learned.
Inari Ōkami is by far the most recognized kami in the area I live (whether people admit it or not). I don’t know why this is, but as I have gone around and photographed as many temples and shrines as I can find, I’ve noticed Inari Ōkami has the largest presence among those structures. But they aren’t all large sweeping structures with hundreds of torii gates like the Fushimi-Inari Shrine. Many of them are quite small, almost like personal shrines that are out in public places next to restaurants, behind stores, in parking lots, and of course in larger structures.
It’s truly fascinating to see that Inari Ōkami is so present here, even when so many people say they don’t believe in Shinto as a religion at all. It’s as if Inari Ōkami is simply a recognized aspect of Japan, not part of a religion that people may or may not have faith in. Inari Ōkami just is.
Let’s start big. This is one of the local Inari shrines, located on the left side of the greater structure known as Suga Shrine (another area to the right is dedicated to Sarutahiko Ōkami). Suga Shrine is one of the largest shrines I’ve been to in the area, but it’s not staffed and kids often play on the shrine grounds.
The Inari shrine has two torii gates, and the traditional fox statues flanking either side, mimicking the traditional lion statues found in other shrines. Yet there is no bell to ring, and no offering box.
This Inari shrine is located within a greater temple structure, Shōkaku-ji. This is important to note because this is one example of how Shinto and Buddhism have merged in Japan: a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple on the same grounds. The main temple is devoted to another deity, and the temple itself is quite famous for its association with the popular Sanadamaru drama that recently aired in Japan. But before walking the path to the main Buddhist section of the temple, off a small path to the left is this Inari shrine. Having one torii gate, the building is quite long, and on either side of the doors are shelves lined with fox statues of various size and quality, some of them quite weathered.
This shrine and temple are also quite close to where I live, so I walk by them every morning on the way to work, and when I come home at night.
Near where I work is this Inari shrine. It doesn’t have the traditional fox imagery, but the bright red torii makes it stand out along the road side, and it is a structure unto itself rather than a branch of a larger shrine. I don’t often see people here, but there is an offering box and a bell to ring.
I have been told that the exact process for making a prayer at a shrine varies from region to region. Where I live, you toss in a coin (usually a 5 yen or 50 yen coin, which is standard most everywhere), ring the bell, clap twice, bow twice (at which time you make your prayer), and then clap once more when you’ve finished. This is of course in addition to the traditional bowing as you pass through the torii and as you exit the torii. One of my coworkers also said that it’s important to say your name at the beginning of your prayer, so the kami knows who exactly is praying. I’ve never heard this before, but it doesn’t hurt!
This little shrine is located in a parking lot near some houses and what I believe is an apartment complex. In the middle of the lot, it is a single patch of green with trees growing all around to protect it. It is one of the most complete shrines I’ve seen, housing all the tools you would find in a kamidana, yet this shrine is in a semi-public space. There is a small bell for ringing, a small torii gate that you walk through to reach it (I have to crouch), and a small stone plate on the steps below the shrine to hold offerings, such as the famous inarizushi (which is quite good, I can see why Inari Ōkami and the foxes would like it too!).
This shrine is in a parking lot next to one of the police stations. It is quite literally in the middle of the lot, so cars park all around it. Careful inspection of the shrine proper shows vases holding fresh (or fake, I’m not sure) sakaki on either side, a small kagari-bi or candle holder at the front, an offering cup towards the back, and rows of fox statues, all of the same style going back along either side.
This slightly more modern shrine is located outside one of the local businesses, and it’s not the only one of its kind I’ve seen. Another one quite similar to this is located outside one of the local restaurants. The style of the altar is more detailed than some of the other small ones I see, yet it is still a simple enough design with the two flanking fox statues. The ofuda sits at the center and a mizutama for holding the water offering sits in front.
This is probably one of the more interesting Inari shrines I’ve seen. It’s located behind a toy store down an alley, and it doesn’t face the road. The only reason I found it was due to my ‘Shrine Sense’ as my friends say.
I’ve never seen another shrine designed like this, with the larger structure and gated front. Inside isn’t the traditional shrine setup, but rather what looks like a small house with four compartments. There’s a small electric candle at the front surrounded by fox statues, and then there are a couple fox statues on the upper levels of the ‘house.’ I wanted to get a closer look at the structure itself, but I felt that closer inspection would be a major intrusion. Perhaps it was the gated structure that made it seem so closed off, but regardless I took my single picture and left.
This little shrine was down a side street that I found. The torii has discolored with time and the small stone structure has chipped and cracked, and yet someone has still left a small offering cup of sake. I find these very basic and simple shrines in many places, and usually it’s unknown what kami they are dedicated to. I don’t know if they’re all dedicated to Inari Ōkami, but this one is for sure, because if you look VERY closely at the small hole in the structure, you’ll see a single fox statue.
In closing, I’d like to share this last shrine, one of my favorites.
I see this shrine every day on the street I live, which isn’t a very well-travelled area. It’s in a patch of overgrowth, next to an old apartment building and a wire fence. Yet this small, simple Inari shrine is always clear of leaves, the overgrowth around it is kept in control, and in the winter the snow is always brushed from the stone (I’ll brush off the top in the morning if no one else has when I go to work). I don’t know what it is about this old little shrine with its single, solitary fox statue, but it’s my favorite. It appears forgotten and abandoned, but closer inspection reveals that someone, somewhere still takes care of it.
These are just some of the shrines dedicated to Inari Ōkami I’ve seen in my travels, and there are much larger and grander ones in Tokyo as well as many more temples in shrines in Numata, but these shrines for Inari Ōkami from my hometown are special to me.
From the large extravagant ones to the small simple ones, all of these shrines in all of their shapes and sizes show how Inari Ōkami is everywhere, a presence that has always been and always will be.
If you enjoyed this blog post, please check out Hannah’s Blog in which she documents her travels in Japan!
If you are interested in writing a guest post, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you so much for reading!