Last week, my co-worker (the same one who had the amazing wedding with a bit of a Japanese flavour) was in Japan on work, taking a group of headteachers from selected primary schools teaching, or interested in teaching, Japanese language, in order to give them a better understanding of Japanese culture and the education system in Japan.
I knew that she was planning on taking the headteachers to Fushimi Inari Shrine while she was in Kyoto. Although the shrine was not included in her official itinerary, she knew that the headteachers would love it so she planned to get up extra early one day in order to take willing teachers there.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is the biggest centre of Inari worship in Japan, and I felt that I should take this opportunity to pay tribute to the shrine and to Inari-sama, even in a long-distance way. So I gave my colleague a 5,000 yen note that I’d saved from when I lived in Japan, and asked her to spend it on anything she wanted at the shrine and donate any remaining change.
Being the incredibly nice and thoughtful person that she is, she used some of the money to buy me some trinkets from the shrine! She got me a charm of torii gates (Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for its thousands of torii), a charm of a white fox, and an “ichi-i-mamori” – a charm that’s intended to get you to the top! I have already put them on my indoor altar (if I put them on my actual outdoor altar to Inari, they wouldn’t survive the elements for very long). She even dedicated a torii to Inari in my name, asking Inari to bless me with happiness! I was really, really touched.
As my colleague predicted, the headteachers who accompanied her to Fushimi Inari Shrine said that it was their favourite part of their Kyoto stay, even though it was unscheduled. We’re not surprised by this; although it may not be as famous as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizu Temple or the geisha district, it’s been recently ranked the top attraction for foreign tourists in Kyoto.
Why does Fushimi Inari Shrine evoke such a powerful attraction with foreign tourists? I suspect that this is because the shrine, in its hauntingly beautiful mountain setting with its many striking torii gates and mysterious labyrinths of rock altars and fox statues, awakens a deep yearning for connecting with nature within us. I think this may be especially true of British visitors – although the British love nature, most no longer consider it something to literally worship. But in Inari Fushimi Shrine, the spirituality is imminent and palpable – one cannot help but feel a mixture of both awe and serenity there. I’ve tried to convey some of the atmosphere of Fushimi Inari Shrine in my “Encountering Inari” guided meditation. The shrine unearths that long-buried Pagan within all of us. It definitely awakened the Pagan within me!