The Shrining

Sunday, April 15th, was a travel day. It was raining in the morning and when we tried to arrange for a taxi to the train station we were told that road closures due to the Spring Festival meant no cabs would pick up on our side of town. Fortunately, our landlord, Hiroto, graciously offered to drive us to the station on the backroads.

We took a regional train from Takayama to Nagoya, then raced to catch our connection on the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. In Kyoto, we are staying at the Hotel Kintetsu Kyoto Station for the next couple days for ease of getting around town. Kyoto Station is huge, with three shopping malls, literally dozens of restaurants, a bus terminal and the subway and all the major railroads converging. It’s a city unto itself.

We were up early Monday in an attempt to beat the crowds to the Fushima Inari Taisha, the head Shinto shrine of the largest shrine network in Japan – the Inari shrines – with 32,000 priest-resident shrines around the country. Although we got to the train platform by 7:00 a.m. and were the first in line, within minutes the platform was packed to over-flowing (photo, below, bottom right):

We took the JR train to Inari Station, arriving as the sun rose above Inariyama, Mount Inari, and the romon, the Main Gate to the Inari Shrine. The building is the romon; the arch in front is called a torii, a gate. There is almost always a gate at the entrance to a shrine to physically separate the sacred from the secular.

As hoped, we beat the crowds.

This is probably a good place to describe the layout of a typical Shinto shrine, also known as a Jinja.

The principal building of a Jinja is the honden – the sanctuary – it is closed to the public, only priests are allowed in. The honden houses the shintai, the sacred icon in which the local deity, the kami, resides. The shintai is a physical object, often a wood carving, a jewel, a sword or, as here at Inari, a mirror. The shintai is not worshipped; it is an avatar for the kami. The kami is worshipped as a god.

The other building found at most shrines is the haiden, the hall of worship, where devotees worship and pray. There’s a picture of the Inari haiden near the bottom of this post. Frequently, as here, there is a building between the honden and the haiden called the heiden. Are you confused yet? The heiden is the hall of offering where prayers to call upon the kami are recited and devotees make their offerings, typically food and drink, and where religious rites are performed by the priests.

There are around 100,000 shrines in Japan and nearly all are owned by the Jinja Honcho, the Association of Shinto Shrines (I want to meet the Head Honcho some day). The maintenance of Shinto shrines was state-supported until WWII when it was abolished by the Allies who required Japan to separate government from religion. Today, the shrines are supported by donations from devotees and tourists and from payments for the local services some provide, such as preschool. Funding is problematic and many priests have to work second jobs in order to support themselves.

The building in the foreground, below, is the heiden here at Inari:

Fushima Inari Taisha is one of the main tourist sites in Kyoto because of the senbon torii, the path of gates. There are over 10,000 of these red-painted gate arches lining a path that leads to the top of 764-foot high Mt. Inari. They start big, but become smaller as they ascend. Here’s the beginning of the hike up:

After 10 or 15 minutes, we came to a fork in the road. Which way to go? Of course, we took the road less traveled.

It was like walking through a tunnel.

And when we exited these tightly-packed torii and turned to look back, we discovered to our dismay that we had gone the wrong way! Maybe they put the sign at the wrong end.

As we approached the “summit,” we passed more and more “shrinettes,” guarded by kitsune, the red-bibbed foxes that guard all Inari shrines from evil.

In this and a prior post, I’ve talked about kami, the deities of the Shinto religion. A kami can be anything that is revered or worshiped, animate or inanimate, physical or incorporeal. Shinto is polytheistic and has no scripture or dogma. It is based on tradition, ritual and community spirit. So, a mountain can be a kami, so can a deceased ancestor, or the Emperor, or rice. I wish I could give a better explanation, but it seems a rather nebulous concept, at least to a Westerner like me.

The kami of Fushimi Inari Taisha is Inari, the god of rice. Inari can be depicted as either male and female, the preferred gender depending on regional tradition or personal beliefs. Over the years, the definition of Inari has been expanded to include foxes, tea, sake, agriculture in general, industry, blacksmiths, warriors, sword-smiths, merchants, general prosperity, worldly success, fishermen, prostitutes, actors, fire prevention, and more recently, finance, business and industry.

I suspect the addition of finance, business and industry might have something to do with the relatively recent loss of government funding. All of the arches on the torii path are the result of corporate donations, ranging from ¥175,000 to ¥1,302,000, that’s $1,635 for a small torii to $12,155 for a big one. On the way down from the summit of Mt. Inari, we discovered that on their uphill sides, each torii was inscribed with the name of the company, officers and/or directors that had made the requisite donation. I’ve since read in Wikipedia that many modern Japanese corporations even have shrines dedicated to Inari on the premises of their corporate headquarters.

Near the bottom of the hill, we passed a booth selling little “wish bags” to the proletariat: “Good Health;” “Long Life;” “Work Luck;” “Protect Children” – you get the idea.

I think these are the “offerings” you’re supposed to leave at the heiden, which was teeming with tourists when we reached the bottom about two hours after we started:

As we continued past the heiden to the haiden, pictured below, devotees were worshipping, ringing the bells after praying.

Off to the side, a smaller shrine caught our attention where a priest was chanting. Numerous colorful offerings and origami lit the place up under the watchful eye of the nearby kitsune. As we exited through the Main Gate, we were glad we had arrived early.

There are aspects of Japanese culture that I find to be quite peculiar. I suppose that if I could understand Shinto, I would understand Japan. But I don’t, so I probably never will.

Does Shinto make sense to me? Shitno.

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