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Home » 6. Belief and Practice » Shrines and Cultic Practices
Inari Shinkō
The cult connected to the kami Inari and Inari's retinue. In addition to its relationship to food or agriculture, Inari faith takes a variety of other forms including "estate kami" (yashikigami) and others. Inari faith is widespread and shrines devoted to Inari number more than 30,000, but if one also includes the many small and private shrines to Inari, then the total number increases greatly, and appears to be one of the most popular objects of devotion in Japan. Inari faith takes three forms: the faith connected to Fushimi Inari Taisha in Fushimi-ku of Kyoto and its "emanation shrines" (bunsha); the shrines throughout Japan that are unrelated to Fushimi Inari Taisha; and the altogether independent strain of faith in which the Buddhist deity Dakiniten is combined with Inari.

       According to the few remaining fragments of the Yamashiro no kuni fudoki, Fushimi Inari Taisha's foundation legend comes from a story about Hatanoirogu using mochi rice for target practice. When he shot an arrow, the mochi transformed into a white bird and flew off to the mountain peak Mitsugamine. When it landed there, it transformed again into rice plants there and grew. From this legend, the cult of Inari Shrine became intimately related to rice and grain cultivation, and later developed connections with the Temple Kyōō Gokokuji (a.k.a. Tōji). A famous image is that of a rice-carrying Inari kami (in the shape of an old man), promising Kūkai to protect the Temple Tōji. This iconography perfectly expresses this grain cult, and it is likely that future research will focus on such iconography. The Yamashiro no kuni fudoki indicates that the Hata clan used the characters "" to refer to "Inari." The Kada clan, on the other hand, used the characters "." We can see from these examples that, at Fushimi Inari Mountain, the cult took on various forms among the different clans worshipping the kami.

       The Jinmyōchō section of the Engishiki has a reference to the shrine Inari Jinja's "three thrones" (sanza) for kami, but the term sanza predates the Engishiki, appearing first in 857 in the kami ranking section of the Montoku jitsuroku. In the medieval document Nijūni shaki, the three kami (seated in each of the three thrones) are listed as Ōmiyame no mikoto, identified as the suijin or "water kami"; Ukanomitama no mikoto, identified as the grain kami (similar to the kami enshrined in the Outer Shrine at Ise); and Sarutahiko no mikami, identified as the "land master kami" (jinushigami). Currently, the "enshrined kami" (saijin) at Inari jinja's lower, middle, and upper shrines are, respectively, Ukanomitama no ōkami, Satahiko no ōkami, and Ōmiyanome no ōkami, and Tanaka ōkami, and Shi no ōkami are also enshrined there.

       The most lively festival held at Inari Jinja is the Hatsuuma Festival in the second month of the year. This has long been explained as celebrating the initial enshrinement of the Inari kami, but may actually be associated with nationwide folk belief in the descent of the "mountain kami" (yama no kami) in spring, when it becomes a "rice paddy kami" (ta no kami) until returning again to the mountains in autumn. This springtime welcoming of the yama no kami probably developed into the Hatsuuma Festival. In some regions, festivals held in autumn are still called Hatsuuma festivals. This type of folk belief thus provided a foundation that would easily accommodate the devotion of Fushimi Inari Taisha's cult, and in some regions there are also cases in which the influence of the Inari cult was so strong that autumn Hatsuuma Festivals became celebrated in the springtime.

       Inari faith also has a deep association with foxes. The places where the mountain kami were welcomed and where festivals were held are called "fox mounds" (kitsunedsuka) and exist throughout Japan. It was believed that, in order for the mountain kami descended to become a rice paddy kami, it rode a horse and was led by a fox to the rice paddies. Such kami as Ukanomitama no ōkami, Ukemochi no kami, and Miketsugami were worshipped at Inari shrines throughout Japan. The sounds "uka," "uke," and "ke," in the names of these three kami all refer to food, and the name miketsukami (濩ſ), in particular, was homophonous with the characters for "three fox kami" (ѿ), thus bringing about associations between Inari faith and foxes, in effect bringing fox kami into existence. It was also believed that foxes sent oracular messengers (takusen) or could haunt houses, occasioning the appearance of many shamanic "fox handlers" (kitsune tsukai) as in the text Hekizan nichiroku, of "female mediums" (miko), and of masters of protective prayers. At Fushimi Inari Taisha there is a shrine called Myōbusha (or Byakkosha) where fox spirits are worshipped, and where miko were active in binding "love spells" (aihō), to engender affection between men and women, and making other spells and prayers to improve a person's position in life, through, for example, becoming an emperor's concubine or mother. The Shintōshū reveals a fox spirit's "original Buddhist deity" (honji butsu) and preaches the efficacy of Myōbu Tatsugitsune. There was also a form of fox faith among blacksmiths and with the origins of the Fuigo Matsuri (the Air Bellows Festival celebrated by metal workers) in the eleventh month of the year, as evidenced by such texts as the Inari Kokkyōki, in which the blacksmith Sanjō Kokaji Munechika, who was ordered by Ichijōin to forge a sword, was assisted by a fox (in the script for Noh play Kokaji, the fox appears as a boy). Kyoto's Inari Mountain was also a site of Shugendō activity. The Shingon monk Jōzō practiced there and Zeami received an amulet from "Inari no Jukkokubō."

       Inari faith spread widely throughout Japan, becoming extremely popular. It spread partly due to its connection with rice-paddy kami belief, and partly due to the activities of low-ranking religious leaders and masters of protective prayers. It spread through the "establishment" (kanjō) of shrines by farmers or townspeople, and through shrines established in daimyō residences that were then opened to commoner worship. It developed from cults of "thunder kami" (raijin shinkō), which transformed into cults of grain kami, and then into aihō and other types of beliefs. Among the many cults designated by the term "Inari shinkō" is the cult of "estate kami" (yashikigami), which spread throughout the country and is especially prominent in eastern Japan. In the early Edo Period Kumano faith was absorbed into Inari faith at the perimieters of the Musashino plateau. Inari continued to penetrate new regions, to the extent that there was a saying, "In town [the most numerous things are] Ise shops, Inari, and dog manure." In commercial regions, Inari was believed to be the kami who ensured commercial prosperity. In fishing villages Inari was the kami of fishing. These examples illustrate how Inari accommodated each region's characteristics. The names of Inari shrines include prefixes of places and people's names, or they refer to the function of the kami. The multiplicity of manifestations of Inari faith accorded with the diverse prayers and requests among its many believers. Another characteristic of the cult of Inari is that it was adopted by individuals and households rather than by large groups or regions.

— Nogami Takahiro
The Kusumoto Inari Jinja, a sub-shrine located on the grounds of Minatogawa Jinja.

Hyōgo prefecture, 2006

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