June 1, 2011

The Most Impressive Inari Shrine You Haven't Been To

Takuzosu Inari Shrine in Koishikawa, Tokyo. Inari shrines are Shinto Shrines that were erected to worship the Inari god. You can see thousands of them, in all sizes, all around Japan. The Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto is considered to be the most magnificent of Inari shrines, but I found the Takuzosu Shrine astonishing in that it seems to be hiding in plain sight.

The shrine is quite close to Denzuin, a Jōdo Buddhist temple that is currently being rebuilt, one building at a time. At first glance, Takuzosu Shrine looks fairly nondescript, but as more and more of its idiosyncrasies catch your eye, the space is transformed right in front of your eyes. 

One of the first things that delighted me was the temizuya, where visitors are expected to purify their hands and mouth. Depending on the size and scale of the shrine, there may be nothing more than a faucet. But here, a deity stands above the faucet, with dragons to her left, and even a tiny white fox. The photo can't do justice to its ornateness.

A closeup of the temizuya. An Inari god is said to take the shape of a dragon at times. Foxes figure heavily in Inari shrines, as they are said to act as the god's messengers.

What struck me about this shrine is how unscrubbed and careworn it is. Although it looks like it does not lack for visitors, it doesn't have the polished sheen of a tourist-frequented shrine or temple. Fox statues and small shrines are clustered in every available space, and there is a charming sense of disarray.

Many of the foxes were damaged in some way, and had been re-formed with cement.

Another big surprise was that this shrine had a lower level that was not immediately noticeable from the main level. Looking below, you could see a series of torii gates decorating the pathway.

Fushimi Inari Shrine is said to have around 10,000 torii gates in a row like this, but I found this shrine's 20 gates impressive enough, especially their haphazard placing.

One torii gate for every year a festival was held. The gates were usually sponsored by a local company. The last gate was built over 10 years ago.

At one end of the path was an altar that was absolutely  riddled with foxes and miniature gates. A look closer:

The effect was nothing short of surreal, and this surrealism in turn made the space feel genuinely spiritual.

To the right of the altar, there were again clusters of small shrines and small foxes. One was devoted to remembering the mizuko -- babies that were aborted, miscarried, or stillborn. Several people had placed sonogram photos, and they served as a reminder that despite all the modern developments and technological advances, spirituality still has its place in everyday Japanese life.

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