Skip to main content

The littlest Inari shrine in Tokyo

I have an irritating tendency to do things ass backwards. Instead of approaching life in a linear, logical fashion, I bollemakiesie into it.

Bollemakiesie means somersault, and it's one of my favourite Afrikaans words. I love the sound of bollemakiesie, huppelkind, hupstoot, kwansuis, bokmakierie, fieterjasie, gogga, katjiepiering, kolwyntjie …

Oh. I do seem to like the diminutive form, -ie, in Afrikaans.

See? I'm doing it again. I want to tell you about the littlest Inari shrine in Tokyo and how do I do it? By bollemakiesie-ing into it gat-oor-kop via Afrikaans words.

 Suzufuri Inari Jinja (鈴降稲荷神)

I first read about this shrine in an old book about Tokyo, which merely said the smallest Inari shrine was in Akasaka. It didn't even mention the shrine's official name, but it did include a map. It was a silly idea and a wild fox chase, and when could I ever resist either? I took off. I knew the shrine was somewhere in Akasaka, near the TBS building, but that in itself was an iffy direction since the map I was following was drawn when General Nogi was still living in that area.

TBS building

You may think of Akasaka as a neighbourhood that's snugly – or should that be smugly? – situated between the government centre in Nagatachō and the (smutly?) nightlife district Roppongi. It's often described as a wealthy area that provides condos to wealthy expats and head offices to companies such as EMI Records, Fuji Xerox and Komatsu.

Yes, it’s all that, but if you duck into the valley behind the TBS skyscraper, you'll see narrow alleys and dilapidated wooden houses. It's a hilly area, and it was hot, and I couldn't find the damn street where the bloody shrine was supposed to be.

Well, would YOU have found it? If it hadn't been for the typical red banners,
I would've walked past.

Fortunately I'm stubborn. I caught it. Eventually.

Then I forgot about it. Mission accomplished. Move on.

Fast forward two years, and Ru is looking at Google Maps, trying to figure out how far it is between two stations in Akasaka. She spots Akasaka Station, Exit 3a, the TBS building, and behind it "Suzufuri Inari Shrine".

"Heh," she thinks. "That's where I was blundering about. Shrine. Interesting. Wonder which one … whoa … hang on … that's it! That's the littlest Inari shrine! Its name was right here on Google Maps the whole time?!"

Yes, it was, and Ru had once again bollemakiesied her way ass backwards into a story.

Why didn't I use Google Maps two years ago? I'mfromAfrica. I track things with animal footprints in dust and elephant dung that leads to rivers. Maps? Maps are dull. It's more fun to flounder about completely lost while muttering petulantly and alarming the natives.

Also, Africa time. It takes two years to write a story. Problem?

I went Googling. Nothing in English, and very little in Japanese. I was informed that Suzufuri Inari Jinja (鈴降稲荷神used to be in Yotsuya, but then moved to Akasaka, and Tokugawa Ieyasu had something to do with it, and bells. Bells? Something something bells. Tokugawa? "If it's Tokugawa," I thought, "it's got to interest Tokugawa expert Somedays Sarah. Perhaps if I promise her a penguin, two penguins?, she'll help me with the translation? Yes, time to recall the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to active duty, definitely."

Sarah is Canadian. She speaks not only fluent Japanese, but has mastered classical Japanese. She's more obsessed with Tokugawa Ieyasu than I am with Sky Tree, and she loves penguins, and I'm from penguin capital Cape Town.

It's a match made in heaven.

I dispatched an email, and here – finally! – is the shrine's story with the help of Sarah and her husband U.


The shrine was originally located at Yotsuya Tonomachi, was moved to Akasaka Hitotsugi, collapsed in the Great Kantō earthquake in 1923 and two years later was combined with the Inari shrine within the grounds of Hikawa Jinja.

There are two possible explanations for the shrine's unusual name, "suzufuri" (鈴降) or "bell that descends". Legend has it that the god Inari possessed the body of a 7-year-old girl and told her, "This bell has descended from heaven. If you pray to it just once, your family will be blessed with prosperity."

Ru being Ru immediately started thinking dirty thoughts. Inari, the god of fertility. His foxes hold a tama () under one paw. Tama has many meanings – sphere, precious, beautiful, jewel or testicles – but in a Buddhist context it's usually translated as jewel. It represents both financial and spiritual wealth. Bell, tama, testicles, possession, blessings, fertility, oh it's all rather deliciously Freudian.


Another explanation for the name:  At the time of the Honnō-ji Incident, when Tokugawa Ieyasu was trying to get through Iga to Hamamatsu, he heard the sound of a bell which lead him to a Kannon temple. A priest at the temple gave Ieyasu three bells and had locals show him the route to Iga. After Ieyasu established the bakufu he called the priest to Edo and offered him land in Yotsuya, where a shrine was established for the bells.

It's not exactly impressive.

I was trespassing in somebody's private garage to take this photo. I'mfromAfrica.

Is it worth it?

It's tiny! I'm not sure whether it's really the tiniest official Inari shrine in Tokyo. I haven't found conclusive evidence via Google yet, but my search has introduced me to a few dozen other tiny Inari shrines (surprisingly many in Chiyoda-ku), from which we could conclude that Ru might have an Inari summer.

I've seen smaller shrines at private homes and companies, but I'm referring to shrines recognized by the Association of Shinto Shrines (神社本庁 Jinja Honchō).

Akasaka is a pleasant area, and Suzufuri Inari Jinja is cute, unusual and sufficiently hidden away to gladden a hunter's heart. If you're a serious shrine lover, go. If not, don't. Simple.


Nothing to do with shrines, but it uses the same kanji, and that's a good enough excuse to share a poem by Issa with you.


yoi yo to ya
mushi ga suzu furi
tobi ga mau

a good world!
crickets ring
a black kite wheels

Bell crickets are called suzumushi because they produce a sound like a ringing bell. "Mushi ga suzu furi" means "the insects that are shaking bells", i.e. crickets.

How to get there

I haven't included a map, because you can simply go to Google Maps, type in "Akasaka Station", find Exit 3a and look a bit up and towards the left. There it is. Embarrassingly easy.

Translations of Afrikaans words

bollemakiesie – somersault
gat-oor-kop – bum over head, i.e. somersault, i.e. backwards, wrong, disorganized, impulsive
huppelkind – literally skipping child
hupstoot – push, shove, help
kwansuis – allegedly
bokmakierie – a bush shrike
fieterjasie – fuss
gogga – insect, bug
katjiepiering – gardenia (literally kitten's saucer)
kolwyntjie – muffin

Thank you!

This post is dedicated to Sarah and U. You're the best!


I haven't responded to all comments at older posts yet, and once again I haven't visited other blogs for, what?, two or three weeks? Academia, summer semester, heavy class load. Reality is having a detrimental effect on my fantasies.

This is the Inari shrine at Hikawa Jinja in Akasaka.

Torii at Inari shrine at Hikawa Jinja


Popular posts from this blog

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…

Happy birthday, Mum!

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

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…

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.

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 princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

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 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…

Bush clover, the flower of autumn

It's a modest plant, easy to overlook, yet it used to be Japan's most beloved flower.

Bush clover (ハギ, hagi) is mentioned in 141* poems in the Manyōshū (万葉集, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Japan's first anthology of poetry, compiled in the 8th century. That far exceeds the 119 poems about the second-most popular flower, plum blossoms. The latter was revered as an exotic import from China; the former was praised for its rustic simplicity.

Bush clover grows about 3 m in height and has long, slender branches that droop across paths. The branches represent feminine elegance, but it's also a symbol of vigour thanks to its ability to produce young shoots from old stock. It flowers in September, when summer's heat lingers, but it's believed that if you can see dew drops on the plant's small green leaves, you know that autumn is near.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart…

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…