Kyoto is renowned for its temples and shrine and is like no other city in the world. The temples belong to Buddhism and the shrines, Shintoism, the two major religions in Japan. But bear in mind, religion is complicated in Japan, Buddhism and Shintoism and even bits of Christianity(weddings) and are interwoven in daily life and not actively practiced in the form of weekly services. A common saying goes “Born Shinto, wed Christian, and die Buddhist” reflecting the syncretism of religion in Japan.
While animals are important in both religions, Shintoism is animistic, meaning they believe all things have a spirit or Kami, as a result, nature plays a greater role than in Buddhism. Shinto shrines often have animal statues that act as guardians or messengers, or for their symbolism. Today`s post is about 5 shrines in Kyoto well known for a specific animal.
Fushimi Inari Shrine-Foxes
I will keep this one short as this by far one of the most popular and well-known attractions in Japan. Its red Tori gates are iconic and a must-visit attraction for international travelers to Japan.
Fushimi Inari and Inari shrines in general are devoted to deity, Inari. Inari is associated with rice, prosperity, and foxes. Foxes are the messengers of Inari and statues of them are all over Inari Shrines, most commonly in male and female pairs.
Fushimi Inari is ahead of Inari shrines and fittingly is the grandest. During your visit, you will encounter many different images of foxes from the pair statues to a Fox fountain. You will not however see lives foxes but up until the 1920s, some Inari shrines kept live foxes on the premises.
But keep in mind that Fushimi Inari is one of the most crowded tourist attractions and suffers from over-tourism which may make your visit unpleasant. The rest of the shrines listed below are not nearly as crowded and are off the standard foreign tourist path.
Take the Nara Line from Kyoto Station to Inari Station(15 minutes,￥１５０).
Next up is a shrine for couples, the Okazaki Shrine. The shrine was originally called Higashi-Tenno and was built to protect the emperor and his subjects from any danger or evil originating from the east. In the 1100s, an empress was successfully born which raised the shrine`s standing with the imperial court. The shrine after that point became associated with childbirth.
Rabbits being well known for their fertility as they can have up to 168 babies a year were adopted as a symbol for the shrine. The shrine is a popular place for weddings as couples hope for a successful marriage and a healthy family. Rabbits are found on lanterns, charms, and fortune slips.
There are many rabbit sculptures throughout the shrine grounds. The most famous statue is a black rabbit near the chozuya water purification.
Go to the Karasuma Nanajo bus stop near Kyoto Station and get on the bus(市営５［五条通経由］) heading to Iwakura Soshajo mae, get off at Higashi Tennocho(30 minutes, ￥２３０).
Now, this shrine is for my primary demographic, Jockeys. But those that don’t make their living racing horses, feel free to read too. Fujinomori Shrine is an ancient shrine home to the god of horses and is known for its Kakeuma Shinji an event on May 5th, where traditional tricks on horseback are performed.
The shrine is the originator of the precursor holiday to Children`s Day in Japan which is celebrated on May 5th. Because of the shrine’s association with horses, those who bet on the ponies often make a stop here in hopes the deity will let their horse win and in the process likely save their legs from loan sharks. In addition to horseracing, the shrine frequently hears prayers related to victory and success in studies. This from the god`s also dealing with the military arts, Samurai and members of the imperial court would visit in hopes of victory in the next battle. Inside the treasure hall, horse figurines and other items related to them can be found, a large portion of them donated from the chief priest`s collection. On the temple grounds, there are statues of horses and horse-themed ema(wooded plaques with wishes written on them). And of course, there are horse charms and fortunes for purchase that could help you win the Kentucky Derby or just be a cool souvenir.
From Kyoto take a local train on the Nara line and get off at Fujinomori Station(9 minutes, ￥１９０）.Fujnomori is also quite close to Fushimi Inari, a 20 minute walk or 8 minute train ride.
From one very specific shrine to another even more specific shrine. Goou shrine is most often visited by those with lower back problems. A high-ranking official named Wake no Kiyomaro contributed significantly to the construction of the shrine. But what does this have to do with boars? Well, The story goes Wake no Kiyomaro was attacked and his Achilles Tendons were injured on his way to exile in Kagoshima. 300 wild boars rescued him and took away his pain and acted as his guardians until he made it safely to his designation.
This is why Goou shrine is known as the boar shrine and has statues of boars instead of the more typical komainu(lion dogs in English). At the shrine, you can purify your hand in a wild boar fountain and then walk past several statues of boars.
People also pray for the safety and well being of children because Wake no Kiyomaro`s sister rescued hundreds of children from being killed as casualties of war. Wake no Kiyomaro would later have his position restored after he was wrongfully exiled and was put in charge of the monumentally important task of moving Japan`s capital from Nara to Kyoto.
From Kyoto Station take the Karasuma line to Marutamachi Station(7 minutes,￥260）. Goou Shrine is located on the Kyoto Imperial Palace grounds so there are many other shrines, temples, and historical buildings you can see inside the massive park.
At last, the most niche of all the shrines, that caters to an audience of just one, Messenger Pigeon Enthusiast, Mike Tyson. But you don’t have to have bit off another man`s ear to enjoy this shrine. Miyake Hachiman is a refreshing change of pace after you get temple/shrine fatigue from sites that are all not that different from one another. You will notice Miyake Hachiman`s uniqueness as soon as you walk past its pigeon guardians at its Torri gate in place of komainu.
Pigeons/doves(the same animal) are the messengers for the shrine`s deity, Hachiman, Ironically the god of war. While they are widely known as a symbol of peace but anyone who has been to New York knows pigeons are the perfect instruments of warfare. Capable of ruining a new coat or stealing your lunch without an ounce of empathy for the pain they inflict. All kidding aside, this reminds me of when there was an insane project that attempted to put pigeons in plane-like bombs and have them peck at a screen to accurately hit its target. Luckily, that or the other weird animal WWII plans never came to fruition. The shrine is home to many pigeons that roost on the grounds and there is pigeon safe food available to purchase to feed them.
This shrine unlike other Hachiman shrines is known for warding off childhood diseases and night crying. It is believed Hachiman can exterminate a bug responsible for misbehavior and illness in children so they grow healthy and well behaved.
It is located on the outskirts of the city, so it takes a bit longer to get to. From Kyoto Station, take Karasuma Line to Kokusaikaikan Station(20 minutes, ￥２９０）. Then its a twenty minute walk to the shrine.