Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine: History & Gates

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The shrines of Japan are often noted for their gates, but Fushimi Inari Taisha's are distinct, to say the least. In this lesson, we'll explore the history and design of this shrine and see why it's such an important site today.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Rice is important to Japanese culture. That's probably not new information to you. But did you know that this plays into the Japanese religion as well? In the Japanese nature-based religion of Shinto, Inari is the kami of rice. The closest word in English to kami is ''god'', but it's not a perfect translation. Regardless, Inari represents authority over rice and crops, as well as business and commerce.

By some estimations there are up to 30,000 shrines to Inari across Japan. The most important of them, however, is Fushimi Inari Taisha. This is the central shrine in the worship of Inari, and one that has held immense spiritual and cultural significance for centuries. It's also one of the most frequently visited Shinto shrines in Japan today. Of course, this shouldn't be too surprising. Rice is pretty important in Japan.

Fushimi Inari Taisha and the Romon Torii Gate

Description of the Shrine

Fushimi Inari Taisha is located near the city of Kyoto, at the base of the mountain called Inariyama. Again, it's important to remember that Shinto is a nature-based religion, so most important shrines are associated with a natural feature like a mountain or bay or river. In this case, dozens of trails wind through the forests of Inariyama, all of which is sacred ground under the shrine priests' jurisdiction.

The trails depart from the honden of Fushimi Inari Taisha, which is the most sacred building where the kami is enshrined. There are actually five shrines within this structure, representing the virtue of Inari.

As you're visiting the shrine and its trails, you may notice fox statues…everywhere. Foxes are the messengers of Inari, so seeing one at the site is a big deal. Foxes are represented in statues and artwork all around Fushimi Inari Taishi. In fact, almost all Shinto shrines contain a pair of guardian dog or lion statues at the entrance called komainu. At Fushimi Inari Taishi, even the komainu are foxes.

Fox statue guarding the entrance to the main shrine

Torii Gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha

Every Shinto shrine has something that makes it unique. In the case of Fushimi Inari Taisha, that something is the torii gate. Torii gates represent the entrance into sacred space, passing under one means that you are on sacred ground in the Shinto religion. Every Shinto shrine has a tori gate, which is usually painted a bright reddish orange. So, what makes the torii gate at Fushimi Inari Taisha so special?

Really, the question should be what makes the gates so special. Fushimi Inari Taisha does not have just one gate, but thousands, known as the Senbon Torii. Patrons who venerate the very important and very popular kami Inari can donate to the shrine, and have a torii gate with their name on it erected along the pathways through the woods of Inariyama. The most expensive gates cost about a million yen, but for many people it's worth it. Since Inari is a kami of commerce, many corporations in Japan donate regularly to the shrine.

Pathway covered in torii gates

History of Fushimi Inari Taisha

This is one of Japan's most important shrines, so where did it come from? The exact history of Fushimi Inari Taisha is something of a mystery, with a variety of ancient sources claiming different things. Some say the founder of the shrine came from mainland Asia, while others say a rice cake turned into a swan that flew away and landed at this site, indicating that the kami was to be enshrined here.

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