I gritted my teeth and tried to lift the stone. "Make them stop," I prayed to the god. "Make them shut up!" The stone didn't budge. I thought of my Dutch ancestors who had circumnavigated the globe and survived bush wars as well as British concentration camps, metaphorically spat on my palms and tried again. One corner lifted slightly, and then it fell back … on my fingers.
"Eina, jou bliksem!" I yelped, and glanced over my shoulder to see if somebody had witnessed my humiliation. No, only the foxes, and either they didn't understand Afrikaans or they couldn't hear me. I suspect it was the latter: the noise from the nursery school next to the shrine was loud enough to make stone ears bleed.
That non-stop screaming of seven thousand ADHD toddlers is the main reason why I felt so disgruntled at Ōji Inari Jinja, but I was also disappointed because I'd expected so much more from what is allegedly the most important Inari shrine in the Kantō region. Inari is the Shinto rice god and, by implication, the god of fertility. He's so powerful that you can't approach him directly; you have to send your wishes via his messengers, foxes or kitsune. (You can read more about fox mythology in this post.)
I thought that Ōji Inari would be mildly magnificent, but instead I ended up in pandemonium. Ah, well, you can't win 'em all, and the shrine does have many quirky points as well as enough foxes to satisfy this myth hunter.
It's believed that Ōji Inari dates back to the Heian era, and that general Minamoto no Yoriyoshi worshipped here. It used to be called Kishi-Inari, but it was given its present name in 1322. Legend has it that foxes from all over the Kantō region gathered around a big enoki (nettle tree), dressed themselves in formal women's kimono, and then had a party at the shrine. Just imagine: a quiet night, a graceful tree and white foxes glowing with kitsune-bi or foxfire. The latter is generated by the hoshi no tama (star ball) that a kitsune holds in his mouth. It is believed that the hoshi no tama contains the kitsune's soul; without it, the kitsune would die. Hiroshige depicted their get-together, called the kitsune no gyōretsu or fox procession, in this famous woodblock print:
That tree really existed, and although it's long gone, it's still remembered: near its original location was built a tiny shrine called the Shōzoku Inari Jinja, and a young nettle tree was planted in front of it. (Shōzoku refers to the foxes' kimono.) I enjoyed that small shrine a lot more than the main one on the other side of the railroad. Blessed silence.
An annual event is still held at the two shrines each New Year's Eve to honour this old legend. Local residents, dressed in traditional costumes and wearing fox masks, gather at Shōzoku Inari and then walk to Ōji Inari, where they have a jolly shindig around bonfires.
Let's return to the main shrine for a moment. I couldn't enter through the main gate, which was closed, probably to provide a safer playground for the nursery school in front of the shrine. Neither could I use the main stairs or take photos of the centuries-old fox statues guarding the stairs. Not that I would've wanted to linger. The noise! Ye gods, the noise. How do nursery school teachers cope? Do they become deaf after exposure to so many decibels for such a long time? I know Inari is the god of fertility, so I shouldn't complain about hordes of young kids, but I prefer to meet the gods in a slightly quieter environment.
The most interesting part of the shrine is towards the back, in a shadowy garden on a steep slope. It has several smaller shrines as well as a "wishing stone". It is said that if you can lift the stone while making a wish, your wish will come true. I couldn't lift it completely. No wonder the bedlam wouldn't stop. (You're wondering about my exclamation when I dropped the stone on my fingers? "Eina, jou bliksem" means something like "ouch, bloody hell". Not entirely appropriate for a solemn occasion.)
My final verdict? It wasn't a completely wasted morning. I always enjoy my rambles, I could see beautiful hydrangea at nearby Asakuyama, and I enjoyed the story about the foxes under the nettle tree. Ōji Inari is interesting from a historical point of view, but if you prefer a tranquil, mysterious and venerable atmosphere, there are far better options.
The most important Inari shrine, and coincidentally my all-time favourite sacred spot in Japan, is Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto; but in Tokyo itself there's Toyokawa Inari in Akasaka or Higashi Fushimi Inari in Nishi-Tokyo; or you can make a short trip to Sasuke Inari in Kamakura's hills. I've visited all of them several times. I just haven't written about them yet. I'm on Africa time.
2) You can read more about kitsune at Wikipedia or onmarkproductions.com.
3) I've included two Google maps at the end of this post: the first one is the route to Ōji Inari, the second one is Shōzoku Inari.
|Ōji Inari Jinja. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.|
|I had to enter through a side entrance because ...|
|... the main entrance, which leads to a school playground, was closed off.|
|Smaller shrine in the back garden|
|Back garden, looking towards the main shrine|
|Old water pump|
|Another small shrine, high on a slope|
|Ema depicting Hiroshige's print|
|Smaller ema at the "wishing stone" shrine|
|Smaller ema at the "wishing stone" shrine|
|Shōzoku Inari Jinja. That tree towards the right is a young nettle tree.|
|Sign explaining the link with the main shrine|
|Kitsune love eating fried tofu, but somebody had left a home-made onigiri for this one.|
|Kitsune are the fox messengers of Inari, the rice god. This one is holding a key to a granary in his mouth.|
|Small fox mask at Shōzoku Inari Jinja|
|Ōji Inari Jinja by Hiroshige|
|Hydrangea at Asakuyama Park. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.|
|Asakuyama Park is next to several railway tracks.|