Skip to main content

Ōji Inari Jinja: where foxfire used to burn

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.

Fox statue at Ōji Inari Jinja

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. 

Ōji Inari Jinja 

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.

Shōzoku Inari Jinja

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.)

The "wishing stone" at Ōji Inari Jinja

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.

Notes:

1) You can read more about the shrine here and see photos of the New Year's festival here. 

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.

The ball in his mouth is called a hoshi no tama (star ball). It is believed that the hoshi no tama contains the kitsune's soul; without it, the kitsune would die. If you get hold of a hoshi no tama, you can extract any promise from the kitsune, who'd be forced to fulfil your wishes.

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.


View Larger Map

View Larger Map

Popular posts from this blog

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.


It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.
C…

Happy birthday, Mum!

Here's an August flower for you.  Not your beloved cherry blossoms, but your favourite colour. I miss you.


The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.


I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

The Tenen Hiking Trail in Kamakura

"I can't do this anymore," my colleague said. The bell for the next lesson had just rung, but he was still sitting in his chair, looking like Marvin the Paranoid Android.
He's an eikaiwa veteran who's had a stint as a school manager, and he's a genuinely good teacher, but he's reached that saturation level that hits any eikaiwa teacher with half a brain and a smidgen of goodwill.
Eikaiwa teaching is a thoroughly unnatural job: you're supposed to make entertaining small talk with strangers you may never see again, and you're supposed to do this for eight hours. If it's an interesting person, great, but sometimes you're stuck with Kenji whose hobby is sleeping or Mariko whose hobby is to go to shopping.
I grimaced in sympathy. Only two things keep me going right now: knowing that university classes will resume shortly, and hiking. As I observed my colleague, I made an instant decision: Kamakura. Friday, my day off, Tenen Hiking Trail.

Kamakura…

Yotsuya Kaidan, Japan's favourite ghost story

Kaidan! Ghost stories! You ready?
August is the month of Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits, who are believed to return to their birthplaces in this week.  Since otherworldly beings are wandering about, it's also the perfect time for ghost stories or kaidan.
Kaidan (怪談) consists of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning"talk"or "recited narrative". It's a slightly old-fashioned word that conjures up tales from the Edo era, and we're going to start our August Kaidan Series with an old Edo tale of murder, betrayal and revenge that remains the most famous ghost story in Japan.
It's called Yotsuya Kadain (四谷怪談), and it proves that "heavenhas norage like love to hatred turned, norhellafury like a woman scorned".¹ It's roughly based on a real event: a woman called Oiwa² married a man called Tamiya Iuzaemon, but after their divorce, various misfortunes be…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?




Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

Hiking along the old Tōkaidō in Hakone

How in heaven's name did Edo travellers walk long this road …


over this pass …

wearing straw sandals?!


Last week I walked along the old Tōkaidō (東海道East Sea Road) in Hakone. I did it in sturdy hiking boots, and although my feet weren't disgruntled, they weren't entirely gruntled either, if I may paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse.




It was the first time I visited Hakone, and I enjoyed it so much that I'll just have to go again. My main goal: following the Tōkaidō, the road that connected Edo and Kyoto. The old road has been replaced by modern highways² and high-speed railways, but you can still walk along the original route between Moto-Hakone (800 meters above sea level) and Hakone-Yumoto (80 meters above sea level), a distance of about 10 km. The sea levels should warn you that it's a steep route.
I didn't do the full course. I started at Hakoneen along the shore of Lake Ashi and then walked through Moto-Hakone to Hatajuku, halfway along the old Tōkaidō, and returned along…