Inari-cho Area

Home Shinto shrines are charming miniatures of the traditional cedar buildings

I call this the “funeral goods district,” but there’s nothing depressing about the street where they sell intricately-pieced Shinto shrines and incredibly expensive Buddhist altars.

This street gives a fascinating glimpse into how Japanese think about life, the powers-that-be, and death

First, let me explain why most Japanese describe themselves as both Buddhist and Shinto: the eight million Shinto gods take care of everything they need while alive (safe childbirth, good exam results, happy weddings, good health, etc.) and Buddhism takes care of them in the afterlife.

This shop sells everything from life-sized kannon figures to Buddhist family altars and the tablets on which are inscribed the Buddhist names of dead ancestors.
Buddhist altars are used in every Japanese home to honor and communicate with dear departed ancestors…
…while intricate wooden Shinto shrines are installed at businesses so the gods who live there can look out for the shop’s prosperity

Shops that cater to the Shinto gods and Buddhist observance line the streets of Inari-cho, but how will we know which is which?

First, the stores that sell Buddhist home altars (butsudan

)It’s easy to recognize Buddhist home altars because they’ve all got a pair of doors that open to reveal framed photos of ancestors, a place to light incense, a vase for flowers, a bell sitting on a brocade cushion, and a place where the memorial tablets are stored. Many butsudan also include a figure of Kannon (the saint of mercy and kindness) or the Buddha. (Shinto shrines never have a figure in them.)

Some of them can be spectacular pieces of art (with price tags to match) – the very finest examples are even decorated on the surfaces nobody sees. But with people living in smaller and smaller apartments, most don’t have room for the old family heirloom. Stand-alone altars are giving way to…
…small modern cupboards that don’t even look like an altar to the ancestors with the doors closed
The shops also sell everything needed to furnish a home altar, including holy feather dusters and those elegant tablets, which are inscribed with the after-death names of departed ancestors and are kept inside the butsudan
Or even portable altars, like this one you can carry around in your backpack. With a frame for your favorite snapshot of the dear departed, a tablets inscribed with both their after-death names, and mini-urns for their ashes, mom and dad don’t have to miss out on your excursions, even if they’ve passed on
And urns are becoming so fashionable that grandma’s ashes can take pride of place on the coffee table…
…and grandpa can spend eternity in his favorite sports ball
They even sell little altars to remember beloved pets who have passed on, with space for a photo, a stick of incense, and some flowers

The Shinto gods, on the other hand…

…love their little unvarnished cedar wood buildings, unchanged in design for centuries. Every New Years, the sacred paper representing the resident god must be bought anew at the local shrine, installed in the personal version, and the old paper cremated in the main shrine’s holy bonfire.

These small Shinto shrines are more often found in businesses. If we look, well see them occupying a shelf high up in a corner of many traditional shops, restaurants and inns
And some shrines are designed to live outside, to house the gods who take care of a general area, not just a single business. This kind resides on a plinth of its own, with its own torii gates, and sometimes its own dedicated fox messengers
Offerings of salt (on the little flat dishes), sake (in the sake flask) and fresh sakaki leaves (in the vases) ensure that the gods know who’s deserving of their favors
Once a year, every neighborhood takes the gods who reside at the local shrines out and parade them around the neighborhood, toply them with sticky rice cakes and sake, and remind them who and what they’re supposed to be protecting. This kind of store sells everything needed for the annual festival


This street is right next to Kappabashi Street, so it’s an excellent little detour if you’re going to see the plastic food shops and the kitchenware district.

The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon

 For three hundred years, a missing tea bowl passes from one fortune-seeker to the next, changing the lives of all who possess it…read more

“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly e-magazine Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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