Getting Ready For Ibaraki’s Unique Hatsu Uma (初午) Celebrations, At Home And At Inari Shrines
By Avi Landau
If you look at a Japanese calendar, you will notice that every day of the month has been designated as belonging to a different animal of the Japanese zodiac. Today, February 6th on the Gregorian calendar, is the first Day of the Horse of the second month of the year, making it HATSU UMA (初午, the First Horse）, a day which has been celebrated for more than 1000 years by devotees of O-INARI-SAMA. There are tens of thousands of Inari shrines around Japan (more numerous than any other type of shrine), ranging from the grand to the tiny (these are called HOKORA, 祠), which are instantly recognizable by their red or vermilion torii gates (sometimes lined up one behind the other forming a tunnel!) and their many fox statues and figurines which lead to the mistaken notion that the foxes are the Gods of these shrines. Even those who have never been to Japan have probably seen them in books or posters as these exotic features make them a very popular subject for photographers.
The first Day of the Horse of the second month of the 4th year of WADO (711 AD) was the day on which the God UKANOMITAMA NO KAMI was called down to HIS/HER new home, Mt Inari (in modern day Kyoto), upon which later the Fushimi Inari Shrine would be built, as the Titular God (ujigami) of the great Hata Family, which had come to Japan from China. Ukanomitama No Mikoto was originally a god of food and rice. The alternate name INARI is actually a variation of INE NARI, which means to become rice (INE: 稲, rice; NARU: 成, to become, to grow).
The fox, the messenger or servant of this god, has become so strongly associated with Inari shrines that these animals are often confused with the god him/herself.
Over the years, as Inari shrines sprang up throughout the country, they became associated with other things besides agriculture, all in accordance with various stages of Japanese economic development: industry, business, sales, household safety, the arts, etc. Inari is even considered the patron of majong parlors and tobacconists. Truly an all-purpose deity. In fact, the Fushimi Inari Shrine actually enshrined four other Gods besides Ukanomitama No Kami, which have become incorporated into the Inari of that shrine, though not necessarily all of the Inari shrines, especially the small ones, around Japan.
To celebrate the Inari’s original descent to Japan, devotees begin by cleaning the grounds around the Inari Shrines, as well as the shrine structures themselves. Yesterday I chatted with the men who were getting ready for Hatsu Uma ceremonies at the Inari Shrine in Inarimae in Tsukuba, just across from Yu World and Cineplex. They were burning fallen leaves, cleaning the shrine building and preparing new sacred ornaments of straw, rope and paper, all in preparation for the ceremony which will be held at 10am today.
At homes, many families throughout Japan will be eating SEKI HAN (celebratory rice with red beans), and offering rice wine (o-miki), mochi, and seki han to the shrines along with plenty of ABURA AGE (fried tofu) which is supposedly a favorite food of foxes. Doing this is said to bring good harvests in the coming year and prevent disasters and sickness as well. Others believe that in this entrance examination period, PASSING THROUGH THE TORII GATE TUNNELS will help students PASS exams.
An important belief associated with HATSU UMA is that it is a dangerous day on which to make a fire. Because of this superstition a very interesting and extremely localized custom has developed in parts of Ibaraki and Tochigi Prefectures. In order to avoid cooking with fire on this day, a special COLD DISH is made, which utilizes leftover beans from the setsubun bean throwing ceremony, the salted salmon which was eaten during New Year’s and daikon radish which is roughly grated with a bamboo grate called ONI OROSHI. Abura-age is also added in homage to the fox messengers. This special dish is known either as sumitsukari or sumitsukare, depending on the area.
I have met several women who have prepared this dish for today’s celebrations, and if you make it to the shrine in Inarimae this morning you might get a chance to taste this very unique dish (though don’t expect it to be too tasty!).
The most famous Inari Shrines in Japan are the Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, the Kasama Inari in Ibaraki, and the Toyokawa Inari in Aichi. Even more interesting, however, are the small Inari Hokora you can find in Tsukuba’s bamboo groves and forests, or behind shops or restaurants. You can’t miss them with their red wooden gates and little fox figurines.