Translated byHilary Keyes
Writer, translator, designer, weirdo.
The mysterious and sly foxes; why are there so many shrines that prominently feature these cunning creatures?
From time immemorial the growth and cultivation of rice has been a central element of life in Japan, one that often required special prayers to the gods. The deity protecting food (especially rice), known as Uka-no-mitama-no-kami is primarily enshrined at Inari Jinja (稲荷神社) or Inari shrines. Of the numerous shrines in Japan, Inari shrines make up a large percent of the total; there are roughly 32,000 spread all across Japan. As they are so widespread and well-loved, they are often referred to as "O-Inari-san" or "O-kitsune-san" (kitsune meaning "fox").
Image from: Visited By Kabuki Actors: Ginza's Toyoiwa Inari Shrine (Japanese)
Inari shrines are also called "O-kitsune-san" because, in the mountain hamlets of ancient Japan, foxes were often seen nearby and they came to be thought of as Uka-no-mitama-no-kami's divine messengers. It is also said that they were given this honor in order to express the villagers' gratitude to the foxes for eating grain-devouring mice. Though foxes are not considered gods themselves, they are often found inside or near main temple buildings. As a result, they are still believed to be close associates or divine servants and messengers of the gods.
Image from: Good Cook Recipe: “Hiyashi Kitsune Udon”
It has also been long-believed that the favorite food of foxes is abura-age (thinly sliced deep-fried tōfu). Many people make offerings of this dish at Inari shrines for these divine foxes. In relation to that, sushi rice and other ingredients that have been wrapped in abura-age are known as Inari-zushi, and udon noodles with abura-age in them are called kitsune udon.
Image from: The Old Shop Hogyōku: Fox Senbei Near Fushimi Inari Shrine (Japanese)
Fushimi Inari Taisha, found in the Fushimi area of Kyōto, is the head shrine among of all the Inari shrines in Japan. The Senbon torii (千本鳥居) or Thousand Shrine Gates, are a path of gorgeous vermillion shrine gates (torii) that span 4 kilometers from the foot of Inariyama and are perhaps the most popular sightseeing spot in all of Kyōto for visitors to Japan.
Fushimi Inari Taisha holds the largest traditional festival in Japan, known as the Inari Matsuri every year from the closest Sunday to April 20th until May 5th. The five of the largest and heaviest mikoshi in all of Japan are eagerly carried about by crowds of men in this incredible festival.