I’ve been looking over some photos of when I lived in Japan 4 years ago, and I came across this one, which was taken at Fushimi Inari Taisha – the main shrine of Inari Okami.
Large Shinto shrines like Fushimi often consist of far more than a single shrine – they may sprawl over a very large area. Fushimi is no exception. In addition to the main shrines, there are numerous hokora mini-shrines scattered over the surrounding mountains and forests, accompanied with literally thousands of torii gates (both large and tiny) and, as one would expect from the main shrine to Inari – thousands of kitsune (fox) statues.
To see these sacred items in such huge numbers is impressive and quite awe-inspiring; you really sense the spirituality of the area as you progress. But out of all the fox statues, large and small, there was one that really stood out for me.
When we reached a more forested area at the base of the mountain, the number of torii and tsuka dropped. But within the hollow of one of the large trees lining the path, I discovered this tiny white, ceramic fox statue. It was so small and tucked away, it would have been very easy to miss. But to me, this was perhaps the most important thing I saw at Fushimi Inari Taisha in terms of teaching me about Shinto spirituality, and forming my own beliefs.
This statue had not been placed here by a priest, but by an unknown member of the public – perhaps as a way of praying to Inari for something they needed, or for thanking Inari for granting a wish, or simply to honour the deity. In fact, the mountains around Fushimi Inari Taisha aren’t even owned by the shrine itself, I believe, but they are still continued to be sacred.
Finding this little fox demonstrated to me how personal, spontaneous and intimate Shinto spirituality can be, and at once I felt a deep longing to honour the spirits of nature in a similar way. I felt rather sad that you generally don’t find this sort of thing in Britain’s woodlands – we have forgotten how the forests could be places just as spiritual as a mighty cathedral, and most British would not consider placing an offering there.
The little fox statue is still very much in my memory, and inspires my own spiritual beliefs and practices. I only hope one day that honouring our natural, wild places does become a little more commonplace – this is how I would like to see Paganism go.