Legend asserts that while Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, was in exile in the Izu Peninsula, he fell sick one day. An old man with gray hairs appeared in his dream for the third night in a row, and urged him to rise up against the Taira clan, the arch-rival military family who had nearly exterminated the Minamoto clan except for Yoritomo. As he was a young boy, the Tairas had ousted him from the hometown in Kyoto instead of execution.
He asked the old man in the dream who he was. The old man disappeared after saying, "I am the god of Inari dwelling in a hermitage near Kamakura." Yoritomo interpreted it as a divine message and resolved to fight against the Taira with this revelation in the dream. The Minamotos headed by Yoritomo eventually won the battle and unified the country, placing military headquarters in Kamakura. (The legend is similar to that of Zeniarai Benten.)
After the victory over the Taira, Yoritomo ordered his men to look for the old man's hermitage. They found a tiny shrine which looked like the man's hermitage at the site the Shrine stands today. Yoritomo remodeled it to dedicate to the god of Inari and named it Sasuke. The term Sasuke literally means 'helping Yoritomo' in Chinese characters.
Yoritomo died unexpectedly in 1199 and the Shrine's fortune began to wane
having no particular patrons. It was Priest Nen-a-Ryochu (1199-1288), the
founder of Komyoji, who restored the Shrine in the 13th century.
Undergoing ups and downs for some time thereafter, the Shrine was taken over and supervised by Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in 1418. It had since been under the control of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu until 1909 when the Shrine became independent.
Today, the Shrine consist of two separate structures: Haiden, or the oratory, in front and Honden, or the sanctum, in the rear. Unlike the Buddhist temples, there is no statue or the like in both buildings.
What is Inari?
The main object of worship in Inari shrine is a Shinto deity called Uka no Mitama, a mythological god and is believed to be the patron deity of agriculture, grain in particular, including rice, which is the staple food for Japanese. In fact, Inari in Chinese characters stands for "rice cargo," and it is one of the most popular deities in Japan with 32,000 sub-shrines located nationwide, so ubiquitous that the following phrase was cynically quoted during the Edo Period (1603-1868):
"Iseya Inari ni Inu-no-kuso",
It's a play on words and means Iseya (a popular name of retail stores), Inari shrines and dogs' droppings are seen everywhere.
The first and oldest Inari shrine originates in Kyoto, where Fushimi Inari Shrines exists as the headquarters of the entire Inari shrines in Japan. It was built in the early 8th century. One day in February 711, according to legend, a noble and rich man witnessed a god appear on a mountain near the present Fushimi Inari. He reported the strange encounter with the god to the emperor then in power. With emperor's instruction, he built a small shrine and dedicated it to the god he witnessed. Thereafter, the farmers in the Kyoto area enjoyed bumper crops every year and the episode went wide spread. Building a Inari shrine came into fashion among the farmers. The imperial court also patronized them. Even merchants in urban areas began to have faith in Inari for their prosperous businesses making it their patron deity. In fact, Fushimi Inari is one of the most popular shrines even today and it draws 2.5 million visitors during the first three days of New Year, ranking fifth or sixth of the top-ten list.
As the day of February 711 when the noble man experienced the encounter with the god was the first Horse Day of February on lunar calendar, the annual festival has traditionally been taking place on this day based on lunar calendar. (For Horse Day, see Eto of Kamakura Terminology.)
Shiseido Co., Ltd., Japan's largest cosmetics manufacturers with total revenues of 644 billion
yen in the year ended March 2010 holding the lion's share in the market
has its head office in Ginza, Tokyo, Japanese counterpart of Faubourg St.
Nohore in Paris (so say Japanese). On rooftop of this office building,
the company holds a shrine under the name of Seiko (success) Inari. During
the Ginza Festival of mid-October, the company brings it down to the first
floor at street side and prepare a makeshift shrine for those who go on
a pilgrimage to temples and shrines in the Ginza. Perhaps, the founder
of Shiseido may have been an ardent devotee of Inari.
In August 2010, the company announced that it would rebuild the 40-year-old building. Tearing it down will start on May 2011 and the new building will be opened in August 2013. I asked the company's information desk over the phone what they would do with the rooftop shrine. The desk said that it would temporarily be relocated to, and taken care of by Hie (he-eh) Jinja at Chiyoda ward, and that as soon as the new building is constructed, it is to be brought back to the rooftop again.
Believe it or not, there are 12 shrines (most of them are Inari) and temples in the strip of roughly one kilometer wide and two kilometer long Ginza district, probably the best known place in Japan, where the land price is notoriously high, maybe the highest in Japan. (For your reference, the land value in the heart of Ginza was more than 30 million yen per one square meter in 2009.)
Even from my former office on the 9th floor of a building in Ginza, I was able to see one of the mini-shrines perched on the top of a neighboring building. Since the building is privately owned, the devout are unable to get access to the shrine as long as it is on the rooftop. For the worshipers' convenience, the building owner provided a miniature front shrine at a corner of the ground floor. At the same time, the owner laid a pipe connecting the front shrine (Haiden) up to the main one on the rooftop so that the sound of hand-clapping may be reached to the top shrine (Honden).
On the main street of Ginza, there are three famous department stores, all of which have miniature shrines on their rooftop corners. At the time the buildings were constructed, the owners must have wished to remove those shrines to utilize as much spaces as possible. However, they did not remove them for fear that the they might incur the divine wrath, be accursed, be influenced by evil spirits, or be haunted by vengeful ghost. Instead, they relocated the shrines on the roofs.
Inari and fox
Inari shrine is closely associated with fox, which
is believed to be the messenger of Inari deity. A pair of fox statues are always sitting in front of all Inari shrines just like a pair of dogs at other Shinto shrines. Precisely why
fox is employed is not known. One folklorist points out that Inari was once syncretized with Dakini-ten (Dakini in Sanskrit), an attendant for Daikoku-ten (Mahakala in Skt., the god of Five Cereals)
of Buddhism, when fox became Inari deity's messenger since the object of worship
for Dakini was a white fox.
A dancing Dakini at MFA.
Worshipers offer to Inari shrines fried soybean curd, which is believed to be foxes' favorite food. Again, why fox likes to eat fried been curd remains unknown.
Also symbolizing the Inari shrines are their deep red building and long rows of votive torii gates (picture; top). The Shrine here has as many as 40 torii gates and they stretch nearly 100 meters long, making them like a tunnel. Most of them are donated by the Shrine's patrons. In case of Fushimi Inari, more than 10,000 red torii gates line on the path to the oratory.
As Inari has been so closely associated with Japanese that many Inari-related words were created. White noodles in broth topped with soy-simmered fried bean curd is, for example, called fox-noodles. Fried soybean curd pouches stuffed with vinegar rice are also called Inari-sushi. Both are well known to Japanese and are available at lunch counters.
(Updated August 2010)