Japan is full of mythological history with records dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries, and likely long before that. Mythology became part of Japan’s two major traditional religions; Shinto and Buddism, which first developed in India before coming to Japan.
Amongst the vast history is the infamous kami, Inari – the God of foxes and rice. Inari became popular in both Shinto and Buddist beliefs.
If you have ever visited Japan, but are unaware of the legend of Inari, then it’s likely you’ve come across dedicated Inari shrines and passed through Inari legends without even knowing.
Inari is a Japanese deity who is the guardian of rice production. The fox, which represents characteristics of both kindness and malice, is frequently associated as Inari’s messenger, fox sculptures of all sizes and materials are seen both inside and outside of Japan’s Shinto shrines are dedicated to the rice deity.
Inari Okami is one of the Japanese kami, (Japanese Gods), Inari, in particular, being the kami of foxes. As well as foxes Inari is also kami of rice, tea, agriculture, fertility, sake, prosperity, and worldly success. In earlier Japanese history, Inari was also known as a patron of merchants and swordsmiths.
Represented without any set gender, Inari can appear as both male or female, plus androgynous. Sometimes, Inari is even seen as a collective of up to five individual kami.
Inari worshipping appears to have started as early on as the 5th century, as believed by some scholars. However, the more well-known date begins in the early 8th century, since the founding of a shrine at Inari Mountain in Kyoto.
A myth has been told that Inari came to Japan at the time of its creation as a goddess, amidst a brutal famine that had occurred upon the land.
legends recount that Inari descended down from heaven riding a pure white fox. In the goddess’s hands, she carried cereal with it, a form of rice that grows in swamps. It is thought that in these ancient times, Japan was mostly covered in water and swampland.
Inari continued to grow in popularity, and by the 16th century had also become the protector of warriors, and the patron of blacksmiths.
Worshipping spread rapidly around Japan, as Inari was seen as more than a protector of the rice harvest, but also bringing prosperity to farmers and fishermen.
Appearance and Description
Inari is most commonly associated with a white fox, however, Inari is a shapeshifting kami or deity, therefore can take on several different forms. As stated above, Inari does not have a set gender, and many stories have been told of which forms the kami likes to disguise themselves as.
When Inari is in human form, the popular representations include an old man carrying rice, a young female goddess of food, or an androgynous Buddist/bodhisattva.
In creature form, Inari often appears as a snake or dragon. In one particular folktale, the form of a monstrous spider has been taken on.
Fables tell of how Inari likes to move into the appearance of a woman and goes around tricking men, seducing them, and misleading them.
When the seduced victim comes to realize the true identity of their so-called love, Inari disappears. Legend says that the kitsune (fox), can hypnotize people, leading them into perilous situations by illuminating a path traveling to these disasters. This trap is known as a ‘foxflare’.
Inari possesses all of the conventional powers of a kami, such as incredible strength, longevity, speed, and durability. But Inari is most notably known for the ability to shapeshift, adopting the fox-person persona.
Foxes in Japan are a legendary creature that has supernatural powers, these can be both good or evil. Typically, the fox will transform into a bewitched woman, able to see and hear all of mankind’s secrets. The fox is the messenger of Inari.
Animals that have the ability to transform are called ‘henge’. In Japan, the fox and the raccoon dog are the masters of shapeshifting. The fox is not limited to transforming into another living creature, it could literally take on the form of any object it desires, such as a tree, a rock, or water.
The shapeshifting of the fox is not a perfected act, however. As with any regular fox, when Irani takes this form it means becoming vulnerable to any natural predators or danger.
The worst rival is a canine, if spotted by a canine when in fox form, the kami will lose its human form forever.
There is a story called ‘The Meanness of Raiko’, in which Inari turns into the shape of an enormous bloodthirsty spider to frighten a rich, yet very evil old man into changing his miserable ways.
Furthermore, foxes have the ability to possess people, as does Irani. Once a human is possed, it’s nearly impossible to cast off the spell and rid themselves of the spirit. The first symptoms of being possessed by a fox are unusual aggressive behavior in public and epileptic-type attacks.
In order to drive the foxes spirit away, a monk would be called to perform a spiritual ritual. Less invasive forms involve leaving out the fox’s favorite foods to see if it will voluntarily leave.
Nonetheless, this was generally unsuccessful. If the process did succeed, the victim would return to their normal selves, with no memory of being possessed or of what happened during possession.
On the other hand, some of the methods used for trying to extract the fox from the human body are entirely inhumane.
The folk practice was to beat the affected person with sticks until the fox left their body, however, the victim would typically die before this ever happened.
Inari has more shrines dedicated to them than any other kami, thus becoming an extremely popular deity throughout the country. In fact, one-third of all Japanese shrines are Inari’s. It is estimated that there are approximately 30,000 Inari shrines inside Japan.
Some Inari Shrines are very large while others can be only a few feet across set in a local neighborhood and easily missed if not aware of its existence.
A pair of foxes guarding the red gates of the shrine is a typical characteristic. These statues are often gifted with red yodarekake (a type of cloth garment) from visitors and worshippers as a sign of respect.
The color red has become greatly related to Inari due to the prevalence in torii and shrines. The fox can fight off the evil Kimon and protects the shrine.
The fox statues each hold a symbolic item either under their front paw or in their mouth – most commonly a key or a jewel. However, this item could also be a scroll, a sheaf of rice, or a fox cub. Every Inari shrine, regardless of how small, will have at least one of these fox statues.
The most famous Inari shrine is situated in Fushimi, Kyoto, where the path leads uphill marked in a beautiful design. The shrine is known worldwide by travelers and is a series of torii gates.
Inari is an incredibly popular deity even in Japan today, and the fox is one of the most popular animals in Japanese art and culture – with Dwarves being related as the European equivalent of a supernatural creature.
Foxes have different meanings throughout the world, but in Japan, they symbolize a mix of cunning, good fortune, and intelligence.
The story of Inari descending to Japan is heroic, arriving at a great time of need. Despite the fox being capable of both good and evil, the Inari kami is greatly worshipped throughout both the Shinto and Buddist religions.
Getting to the Inari Shrine In Kyoto
Inari Shrine is open 365 days a year, no closing times and admission is free.
･Right next to Inari Station on the JR Nara Line (2 stations/5 minutes from Kyoto Station)
･5 minutes’ walk to the east of Fushimi-inari Station on the Keihan Main Line
･7 minutes’ walk to the east of the Inari Taisha-mae bus stop on the Minami 5 line
･Around 20 minutes from the Kyoto Minami Interchange on the Meishin Expressway
･Around 10 minutes from the Hanshin Expressway Kamitoba Exit