Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan since the 8th century, teaches us about spirits, or kami, who inhabit inanimate objects and the landscape in general.
One way that we can communicate with these spirits is through inscribed wooden wishing plaques, or ema, that adherents leave at shrines. There were hundreds of miniature wooden gates (below) that mimicked the thousands of life-sized vermillion portals at Fushimi Inari (top), a huge shrine which reaches all the way up the side of a mountain southeast of Kyoto.
Since the white fox is the messenger animal of the spirit Inari, he has his own special wooden wishing plaques, too.
Making wishes sounds like fun, doesn’t it? But Shinto has a maudlin side, too. For example, jizo rocks represent the god who helps deceased children into the next world. Jizo gods can be found everywhere, each donated by a family who had lost a son or daughter. (And, yes, the bibs keep the god warm!) This particular collection was found in the middle of a strip mall in the Sanjo Dori area near our hotel.
If I remember correctly, there was a Starbucks across the walkway from this shrine—and by the end of our week there, that kind of contrast no longer surprised me at all. Stay tuned for more on Kyoto’s mix of tradition and modernity.