Yutoku Inari Shrine: Kyushu’s largest shrine dedicated to the god of basic human needs

Japan has been called “the land of the gods” because of its many gods, mostly associated with the Shinto religion. Perhaps one of the most popular, or best known, among these is Inari, a god believed to be dedicated to meeting such basic human needs as food, clothing, and shelter. As a god of food, Inari is also associated with rice cultivation and rice harvesting. Inari shrines are among the most numerous in Japan.

Inari shrines are often identifiable by their “tunnels” of red Torii shrine gates, lined up one after another, often on sloping paths leading up the hill or mountain on which the shrine is located.

One of the largest and most dramatically situated Inari shrines is Yutoku Inari Shrine, in Saga’s Kashima city.

In recent years the shrine has especially become popular with tourists from Thailand and other southeast Asian countries, since it was featured in a 2014 Thai movie, “Timeline”, and a subsequent Thai TV drama, “Kol Kimono”.

The shrine was established in 1687, making it relatively young for a Shinto shrine. Kazanin Manko-hime, wife of Nabeshima Naotomo, then lord of the Hizen Kashima domain, suggested its construction, noting that the area needed a large shrine dedicated to Inari. At that time, Inari was a god particularly favored by the imperial family. To this day, the Emperor of Japan ritually plants a rice paddy every year, asking the god Inari to ensure that his people do not go hungry.

Yutoku Inari Shrine sits on the left bank of the Hama River, climbing multiple levels up the east flank of Mt. Iwakabe. Even from the red bridge that spans the river to connect the shrine to its museum and adjacent parking lot, visitors get a glimpse of the visual feast that is the shrine grounds.

The lower part of the shrine ground, just above the river, has been compared to Nikko’s famed Toshogu Shrine for its ornate decorations. To be fair, it was built just 50 years after Toshogu and may have been designed to emulate the famous mausoleum of the first Tokugawa shogun.

The Sakura-mon that is the gateway to the lower central courtyard contains two porcelain guardians, a nod to porcelain production, which began in Saga Prefecture at the end of the sixteenth century. Saga remains Japan’s major producer of porcelain.

Inside the gate, there are cloisters on the left that are easily overlooked at first, since it is the hillside on the right that quickly draws the eye. Three sets of red balustraded stairways lead up the hillside to the Honden (main shrine) that sits partway up the hill, held in place by an intricate mess of red scaffolding.

The lower courtyard is dominated by a massive camphor tree standing in front of the Kagura-den a worship hall dedicated to dances dedicated to the gods. On my visit, I was lucky to get to observe a dance service being performed for a single worshipper inside the Kagura-den. These days Inari, particularly at Yutoku Inari Shrine, is often petitioned for business success, traffic safety, successful fishing expeditions, and a happy home life. One wonders which this particular individual was asking for.

The opulent Honden sits on a deck atop the first set of stairs, with views of the valley that leave visitors feeling on top of the world (even though there’s a lot more mountain to climb!).

There is a walkway continuing up the mountain behind the Honden. It passes by a small shrine embedded in a boulder honoring Kazanin Manko-hime, the noblewoman who first suggested building the shrine. Above that is another small shrine honoring a legendary fox said to have put out a palace fire in Kyoto. From there, the walkway becomes a serious stairway which, after a passage carved through solid stone, becomes treacherous-looking stone stairs steeply working their way up the mountainside, dotted with small Inari shrines all the way.

After quite a climb, and beginning to wonder if there is actually anything at the top, finally one emerges into a clearing containing a disappointingly small “inner” shrine and a dramatic overview that is the true reward for making the climb. There are even glimpses of the Ariake Sea, a little over a mile distant.

While many visitors seemed to be returning down the mountain via the same rocky staircase, there is a far more interesting alternative route proceeding straight down from the “inner” shrine through yet another tunnel of red Torii shrine gates. Installed just last year, these Torii are painted an unusual muted shade of red, rather than the traditional vermillion.

Red is the dominant color of Inari shrines, usually because of the tunnels of red Torii shrine gates. At Yutoku Inari Shrine, nearly everything is painted in some shade of red. Red is a lucky color in Japan, also a color believed to ward off evil.

In relation to Inari shrines, red is likely also related to foxes, images of which are part and parcel of Inari shrines. While some people mistakenly think the Inari god is a fox, rather, foxes are the messengers of the god. Their image is used at Inari shrine entrances and other strategic places in Inari shrine grounds. As a god of food, Inari is also considered the god of the harvest. Foxes tend to emerge from their mountain dens in the spring around planting season and go back into mountain dens around harvest time, so it is easy to see how they can be thought to be messengers of the god of the harvest.

Yutoku Inari Shrine is considered one of the three great Inari shrines of Japan, together with Fushimi Inari Shrine near Kyoto and Toyokawa Inari Shrine near Nagoya. Time spent at this fascinating mountainside shrine complex makes it easy to see why.

© 2023 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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