After that we went to the Inari shrine, the main shrine for the 4000 shrines in Japan that are dedicated to the god Inari -- Shinto god of good harvests and good fortune in business. Often, he (or is it a she?) is shown in the form of a fox. The Inari shrine is known for the tunnels of torii that lead up to the main shrine on top of the mountain. Surely that is something you must have seen -- and we were certainly not dissapointed!
The shrine was busy, in a good way. Shinto being a set of rituals for beginnings, and Inari being the god of good business, it is only natural that you ask for the blessings of Inari when you start up a new venture or for your new fiscal year. And as such, the place was packed with people praying to Inari to give thanks for a good harvest, or to ask for success in a new business. There were ceremonies performed back-to-back. One, that we just caught the tail of, seemed to be about giving thanks for a good harvest, as the supplicants went away carrying sheafs of rice (many of the fox statues also had abundant sheafs of rice in their mouth). Another one was sponsored by a company, and featured ritualised singing and instruments, with two miko ("shrine maidens") dancing with branches and with some sort of instrument with lots of bells. The top brass of the company was seated on tatami off to the side (all in business suits!) while the junior management looked on from the front. At the end of the ceremony, the two miko shook their bell-instruments over the assembled businesspeople to bless them with the favour of Inari.
Off to the side was a small shrine where lots of ema (wooden prayer plaques, where you write your wish on) hung. There were lots of very colorful strings of origami hanging under the racks of ema -- many people had folded origami cranes, strung them together and had offered them to Inari. In the main hall, a priest was reading a sutra (it's probably not called that, since a sutra is Buddhist, but I don't know the name of the Shinto equivalent) to Inari, while a set of supplicants bowed to the shrine in the main hall. And all through this, there was the incessant rinkle of money in the offering blocks, people ringing the bell and clapping their hands to get the attention of Inari to ask for their own wishes.
And this was only the main complex, at the foot of the mountain! Just up a set of stairs was the beginning of the tunnel of torii. On one side (leading to the shrine) stands the name of the deity that is enshrined, but on the other side (facing the shrine, so you only see that side when you're looking down from the shrine) is the name of the person or company who had offered the torii to the shrine, in hopes of success in business. And since everyone wants success in business, there were a lot of torii -- making it a tunnel that you walk through on your way to the main shrine. That is a very special experience -- not in the least because the path leads steadily uphill!
There are many groups of shrines clustered around the mountain, all dedicated to Inari. There is one shrine on top of the mountain (arguably the Inari shrine), but even there people placed their own little shrines to Inari around it. We encountered many such clusters, and every cluster was accompanied by a small shop selling tea and offering-packages containing candles, incense, sake and fruit to offer to Inari. (I guess the owners of the shops offer to Inari all the time, which makes their business booming as well...)
There were two groups of people using the path. One group were the tourists, who wanted to experience the walk up the mountain and who wanted to see the sights. The other group came up the mountain to ask for Inari's blessing. That made for a weird mix.
For instance, we encountered a group of three businessmen, all clad in business suits but with sports shoes on. They all had the same lapel pin, so they were all of the same company, which I suspect must be moderately sized to have its own lapel pin. The man in charge, the eldest, must have been the CEO -- the others senior VPs (or the equivalent). We saw them a few times -- sometimes we stopped (to take some pictures or to catch our breath), sometimes they stopped (to pray or to catch their breath), so we came to the top at roughly the same time. While we were exploring the maze of little shrines (I have a video of it, which I will post to YouTube later), they were setting up their offerings to Inari and praying.
Think about that for a moment. Can you imagine that the upper management of the company where you work would sponsor a religious ceremony to ask for success in business, or to climb up a mountain (I checked the altitude through the GPS -- it's really quite a climb!) to do such a thing? Unheard of and strange in the US or Europe, but apparently quite normal in Japan. Or, if not normal, then at least not too eccentric.
We saw a relatively young guy get to a shrine near the top, catch his breath, take a sip of his chilled green tea, whip out a book of incantations and a necklace of prayer beads and start praying for success in his business. The seriousness the Japanese bring to their rituals, even though they don't 'do' religion in a set and rigid form as we know it. Once that young man would come down from the mountain, he'd just continue along his way.
That's what I love about Japan. It's a civilised country like the Netherlands -- more civilised in some aspects, less in others, but roughly the same. And yet you can see these completely alien (to us) scenes that make total sense in the context of Japan. That makes it easy to get around (you don't have to watch your step too closely), and yet makes for very special experiences like these.
We went back down quite tired, had a delicious lunch (even the simple fare in Japan is delicious) and went back to Kyoto station. From there we took the (crowded) bus to Kiyomizu temple, the temple of clear water where we had been five years ago. The place was absolutely packed, and we decided we didn't need to pay the admission fee to stand in line for another hour (and this being a Buddhist temple, there was an entrance fee -- going up the mountain at the Inari shrine had been completely free....), so we sort of looped back to the bus stop and took a (crowded) bus back to the station. We walked around the department store there (bought more stationery) and then went for dinner -- okonomiyaki! The table next to us was taken by another pair of gaijin -- a French couple. We got to talking, and we gave them some tips regarding the Inari shrine and Nara -- they had planned to do both on the same day, but we advised against it. When we said our goodbyes, they said they would use our advice to their advantage.
And now we're chilling in our ryokan room. Tomorrow we'll leave for Osaka!