Translated by Matteo Giuberto
Exploring Oji, The Town Of The Sacred Foxes
Written by Shinji Takaramura
Oji is an area in Tokyo's Kita ward, renowned for its shrines and for its connection to foxes, which are considered to be divine messengers of the deity protecting the crops, Inari. Let's enjoy a stroll around this tradition-rich town!
In the northern area of Tokyo, there is a quaint town that has been receiving attention in recent years as the location of a fascinating New Year's parade in which the participants wear fox masks!
The name of the town is Oji, and the yearly Fox Parade that takes place here has made it into a favorite destination for many travelers who wish to explore Tokyo's culture and history.
But how did Oji come to be associated with foxes? A stroll through this charming town might shed some light on this question. So let's go!
How To Get To Oji
Oji is located in Tokyo's Kita ward and can be reached by train on the JR Keihin-Tohoku Line (19 minutes away from Tokyo Station) or by subway on the Tokyo Metro Namboku Line. From stations such as Shibuya or Shinjuku, take the JR Yamanote Line and change to the Keihin-Tohoku Line at Tabata Station.
The bridge in Otonashi Shinsui Park
When you reach Oji, use the North Exit and begin your exploration of the town from Otonashi Shinsui Park and Oji Shrine, which are located right near Oji Station.
If you look carefully at the stone lanterns in the Otonashi Shinsui Park, you'll notice fox silhouettes engraved on them. In fact, you might be able to spot images and details related to foxes on the streets and in the shops in the area. They are all reminders about the special connection of this town with sacred foxes, the divine messengers of Inari, the god of good crops.
Oji Shrine - One of the Oldest Shrines in Tokyo
Oji Shrine is located on a hill right by Otonashi Shinsui Park. With a history going back to Kamakura Period (1185 - 1333), this is one of the oldest shrines in Tokyo. It is famous for giving protection against fires and natural disasters, that is why at New Year's, many people come here for hatsumode, the first visit to a shrine in the new year.
Behind the great torii gate, guarding the entrance to the shrine, there is a 30-meter tall Ginkgo tree which is said to have been planted more than 600 years ago.
On the shrine grounds, you will be able to spot illustrations from old chronicles mentioning Oji Shrine and its festivals, where traditional dances were offered to the gods as prayers for good crops and protection.
You will be able to discover smaller shrines and other fascinating corners on the grounds of this majestic shrine which has been protecting Oji for ages. We warmly recommend a visit here!
Oji Inari Shrine - Meet the Foxes of Oji
Oji Inari Shrine also boasts a rich history going back around a thousand years ago. The deity called Inari, being the protector of rice crops, has always enjoyed great popularity among the people living in this area, which used to be called Musashi before it became a part of Edo (nowadays Tokyo).
The entrance to the grounds of Oji Inari Shrine is guarded by these fox statues. Their vivid expressions remind the visitors that foxes have been regarded as divine messengers.
Behind the main hall, there is a path leading to several other smaller shrines.
In one of them you'll find a strange looking rock resting on cushions. This is "Oishi-sama", a wish-granting rock. If you have a great wish you would like to be granted, offer a small prayer and try to lift the rock. It is said that, if you manage to lift it, your wish will come true.
Luckily, I was able to lift it! Yay! It was a very rewarding challenge.
Nevertheless, Oji Inari Shrine is best known as the location where the New Year's Fox Parade ends. According to the legend, the grounds of the Oji Inari Shrine were the place were divine messengers of the Inari gods from various shrines all over the country used to gather on the night of the New Year.
In order to go back down in the city, you'll pass through a tunnel under the railroad. Don't be surprised to find cute foxes there too! Just like an auspicious omen, images of foxes appear everywhere around Oji.
Shozoku Inari Jinja
Shozoku Inari Jinja is a small shrine located in the residential area south of Oji Station. This shrine has been erected on the spot where there used to be an old enoki (nettle tree). In the Edo Period (1603 - 1868), it was said that blue fires were spotted under this tree on New Year's night. The blue fires were thought to be the breath of the sacred foxes coming from various shrines around the country to gather here.
Although its grounds are small, this shrine has a very dignified atmosphere. The komagitsune (sacred fox statues) guarding the entrance to the shrine are especially impressive.
The fox on the left of the entrance holds a ball in its mouth, the symbol of the sacred power of the Inari deity, while the fox on the right is holding a key, which is believed to be the tool necessary in order to receive the divine blessings. The key is the symbol of the inquiring spirit, of the desire to learn and to deepen one's spiritual knowledge.
A work by ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) depicting the mysterious fox fires helped spread the image of Oji being the gathering place of fox-shaped divine messengers on New Year's Eve. The nettle tree in the print is the one that stands at the origin of Shozoku Inari Jinja. This is the reason why the great Fox Parade on New Year's Eve starts at this shrine!
The New Year Fox Parade in Oji
If you're in Tokyo for New Year's and would like to start your year in a unique fashion, how about taking part in the Oji Fox Parade? Everyone is welcome to take part wearing fox masks or fox make-up, not to mention kimonos and other traditional attire.
In order to take part in the parade, come at Shozoku Inari Jinja Shrine (south of Oji Station) before midnight, around 22:00. The streets are usually full of people wearing kimonos and costumes and the atmosphere is very lively.
The parade starts shortly before midnight from Shozoku Inari Jinja heading toward Oji Inari Shrine up the hill. It is usually lead by members of the shrine administration, so please respect the religious aspects of the parade.
While you wait for the parade to begin, you can stroll around the town. The festival lanterns give Oji a very special atmosphere on New Year's Eve.
Make sure you enjoy the delicious foods and hot drinks available at the food stalls set up on the streets especially for this night. You will most surely have a great time watching the people walking around in unique outfits.
Being able to spot foxes everywhere you look is one of the fun experiences the Oji Fox Parade has in store!
We hope that this stroll through Oji got you interested in this town and that you'll take the next chance to explore it. Of course, visiting for the New Year Fox Parade is a fun and enriching experience, but Oji is really worth exploring during day!
The view in the photo above is from Hokutopia, a cultural facility containing several concert halls, galleries and theaters. On the 17th floor of the Hokutopia there is an observatory which can be accessed for free. From here you can enjoy wonderful views over Tokyo.
During your next exploration of Tokyo, do visit Oji, an area with a hidden charm, just like that of the mysterious fox messengers.