The Japanese approach to religion sounds odd and unfamiliar to those, like yours truly, grown up in the shadow of the clear-cut divisions operated by monotheistic cults. Folks, over here in the archipelago, can be Shinto, and Buddhist, at the same time. There’s nothing wrong, then, in parading through your neighbourhood to honour a particular kami, and then go lighting incense to the Buddha. The first time I heard this I found it too easy, too non-committal. Then, having thought about it, I found it a lot better than building up walls and stoning each other because our man-loving, resurrection-promising, miracles-performing gods are called differently according to which book you pick up and believe into.
Inari is one of the main kami of the Japanese Shinto pantheon. The spirit of fertility, industry, rice and sake, patron of merchants and all things productive, this entity is venerate throughout the country but it’s in Kyoto, at Fushimi Inari Taisha, that the veneration reaches its epicentre.
I visited Fushimi Inari some six years ago, fresh with the memory of an extracurricular course in cultural anthropology, held by a young assistant professor who professed a fondness for shrooms, a view frowned upon by the senior academics but enthusiastically endorsed by her department head (who studied the Huichols and never shied away from sharing peyote with them). Whatever their attitude to psychotropic substances, I got out of the course with stories of Inari, of its shape-shifting nature (sometimes man, sometimes woman, sometimes androgynous, sometimes an ensemble of five entities) of its messengers (the mischievous foxes) and of the elaborate monastic order that flourished in the temples and woods of sanctuary, with their complex meditative rituals.
Fushimi Inari is famous to Instagrammers for its long theory of orange torii, the gates erected by worshippers as an ex-voto to ask for the spirit’s intercession, but is a lot more than that. We returned, some six years after, following large groups of locals – some dressed in fancy kimonos, others in North Face apparel, all with cameras, some with selfie sticks – along the path that leads around the mountain consecrated to the kami of fertility.
Many, along the path, seemed to be there to enjoy a walk through the woods, or were scouting for a good location for their next Facebook profile page, but for everyone of them there also were others who made a point to stop at every shrine along the path, lighting candles, clapping hands to call Inari’s attention and bowing before it. Offers were left on the altars – six years ago I saw them squeaking under the weight of bottles of sake, flowers, fruits and other delicacies – and, seemingly, every mound will also have his own worshipper, head down in prayer.
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Outside the sanctuary, it’s your usual suburban Kyoto: small, neat houses, shiny little cars, pensioners going about their business with their shopping trolleys, the setting of so many Japanese cartoons, from Doraemon to Holly & Benji. But today is a different day. A side road leading to Fukakusa Kaidocho has been closed to the traffic, and a street food market is in full swing. Festivals and temples, religion and food: an indissoluble bond, no matter the cult or latitude.
Game for every event where grilled food is involved, we descended on the streets like barbarians thirsty for boot. First was a stall selling dango, sweet dumplings made of rice, followed by a yakitori vendor, garnishing his wares with a customary stroke of thick, viscous sauce.
Hot on their wheels was the whirlwind of activity that was the takoyaki sellers’ stall, where two youngsters skilfully prepared balls of wheat batter and chopped octopus, rolling them non-stop on the pan, before serving them with sauce and dried bonito shavings.
The street winds down the hill, towards the tracks of the JR train and Inari station. The stalls become more established, offshoots of the many restaurants and bars that crowd the area. Still, there is still space for the man selling his own version of okonomiyaki, the lady grilling Kobe beef and, finally, my favourite stall of the day.
The grilled eel seller, so grumpy and ceremonious whilst preparing the delicacies as nice and welcoming when it comes to delivering it, flavourful and piping hot from the char-grill, to the customer. We make our last purchase, a steamy skewer of grilled fish, and head back towards the JR station into town. To our right, through the thinning tree canopy, the orange torii dedicated to Inari gleam in the afternoon sun.