Hanazono Inari Shrine, in Ueno Park
Inari-sama is believed to have over 30,000 shrines in Japan. This makes him (or her) Japan’s most popular kami, if we judge by box office returns. The odd thing, though, is that no one knows where she (or he) came from. He doesn’t appear in the Classical texts Kōjiki or Nihongi, and no Buddhist origin can be pinpointed either. Her cult appeared quite suddenly in the records, in 711 CE when the famous Fushimi Inari shrine was founded in Kyoto.
Of course, any observer of Japanese history can see the threads that coalesced into Inari-sama’s present cult. Stories of fox spirits were imported from China, and merged with native animistic beliefs. These beliefs, along with the cults of the fox-riding deity Dakiniten and native Japanese deities of foodstuffs, came together to form the Inari cult that we know today.
While the cultus of Inari-sama has been heavily influenced by native beliefs, Chinese fox-lore, and Buddhism, it is also animated by the spirit of something (someone) far greater: Inari-sama. Himself has a gentle and playful presence that stirs the heart and puts one up for any sort of mischief He wishes to devise. Reading about Inari-sama in books or online does not and cannot prepare one for encountering him. This includes what you are reading now.