方違神社 Hochigai shrine

This weekend, almost exactly a year after our return from Japan to Ireland, we’ll finally be moving into our new house. Our search for a permanent home in Dublin has not been an easy one, but that’s a story for another time.

Once again, our home is piled high with boxes as we pack up all our possessions ready for the move. The same boxes we used a year ago for the move from Japan to Ireland (in some cases, battered veterans of the earlier journey from Ireland to Japan) now find themselves reconstituted, taken out of flat-stored retirement and pressed into service one more time for the much shorter and easier move from Cabinteely to Leopardstown.

Houchigai jinja in Sakai city is a shrine that specialises in house moves. At the end of our recent visit to Japan we went there on our bikes to seek good luck and success in our forthcoming move.

WP_20140423_010

The shrine was built 2000 years ago at the boundary of three ancient provinces: Settsu, Kawachi and Izumi. To this day, the area is known as 三国ヶ丘 Mikunigaoka, meaning 3-country hill. The tradition arose that as the shrine itself, being at the boundary and therefore not being part of any of the 3 countries, is not oriented in any direction, so a traveller by visiting the shrine could avoid unfortunate or wrong directions. The name 方違 houchigai reflects this tradition.

WP_20140423_006

The water basin and well have old-fashioned characters written from right to left. The character for “country” in 三國山 is the same as I saw used in Taiwan; in modern Japanese writing it is simplified to 国.

Although the shrine is along the main road, it is a very tranquil place. Around the car park are camphor trees and a stand of wisteria, the trunk of which looks ancient and gnarled.

WP_20140423_018

 

The shrine backs onto a wide moat surrounding a steep wooded island, which is a keyhole-shaped tomb or kofun, off-limits to human visitors.

WP_20140423_009

 

We brought with us a charm that we had bought on a previous visit to this shrine; a charm that had since then clocked up many air-miles and suffered much abuse in cargo holds and baggage carousels, as it travelled back and forth across the world attached to suitcase handles.

WP_20140423_007

The tradition is that when a charm has done its job of keeping you safe, you bring it back to the shrine where it will later be destroyed in a special fire. For the moment it just gets dropped unceremoniously into this used-charm receptacle:

WP_20140423_008

 

We bought an identical replacement charm for 500 yen, and then Yuko did o-mikuji.

WP_20140423_017

Her fortune was good.

鳥居 torii—shrine gate

There is a very special and important shrine called Fushimi Inari Taisha in the mountains near Kyoto.

DSC_1375

What makes it special is its thousands and thousands of torii shrine gates.

DSC_1388

The shrine includes the whole mountain, and the paths and steps leading all the way to the summit are lined with these gates.

DSC_1431

There are so many torii mounted so close together along the path that in many places it feels like walking through a tunnel.

WP_20140419_006

DSC_1393

At one point we came across a couple having wedding photos taken.

(My smartphone camera seems to have coped poorly with the unusual colour of the setting, compensating for the predominantly red surroundings by giving the daylight a bluish tinge. The photos taken by Yuko using her DSLR came out better, so we can hope the couple’s wedding photos turned out well also.)

WP_20140419_014

Why are there so many gates? The reason is that this is an Inari shrine, a shrine dedicated to the god of fertility and industry. People show their gratitude for success in business by donating a gate to this god. The name of the person and the date are inscribed on the uprights of the gate.

DSC_1472

The gates are painted or lacquered in a colour called 朱色 shu-iro—vermilion. There is variation between the shiny finish of the newest gates and those that have faded over 5 or 10 years to a pale whitish pink. We didn’t see any gates older than about 20 years.

As well as torii gates, Inari shrines are very strongly associated with foxes. Every Inari shrine, however small (for example the one on the roof of my office building in Osaka), has a pair of stone fox guardians, usually holding symbolic objects like a scroll or a sheaf of rice.

As the foremost of all the Inari shrines in Japan, Fushimi Inari shrine has lots of fox statues.

DSC_1376 DSC_1377 DSC_1380 DSC_1381

There was also a statue of a horse god housed in a small wooden building. The floor was covered with business cards.

WP_20140419_001

The fox theme is interactive—visitors are invited to draw faces and write wishes on wooden fox masks, which are hung up and displayed outside the shrine building. WP_20140419_009 WP_20140419_010

The railway station also picks up the theme.

DSC_1368

Visitors typically walk up the hill behind the main shrine building, which meets a circular path that brings you to the summit. The walk is about 2 or 3 kilometres, and it can be a bit tiring walking up steep steps. I recommend you wear comfortable walking shoes. However it is worth the effort as there is so much of interest to see along the way, in terms of both religious significance and the beauty of the natural environment.

WP_20140419_012
DSC_1427

DSC_1470 DSC_1416

DSC_1420

DSC_1422

Photo credit: As usual Yuko took the beautiful photos using her Nikon DSLR. Some of the photos were also taken by me using my smartphone.