Ootoyo Jinja’s Guardian Mice

I’ve blogged before about Ootoyo Jinja (sometimes romanized “Otoyo Jinja”), one of my favorite Shinto shrines on Kyoto’s famous Philosopher’s Path.

Today, we’re heading back to Ootoyo Jinja, to take a look at the history behind its famous guardian mice.

16E29 Ootoyo Jinja main approach

Like many Shinto shrines, Ootoyo Jinja plays host to multiple deities, including the ubiquitous Inari Okami (god of fertility, foxes, rice, tea, and, sake, among other things) and Okuninushi-no-mikoto (god of marriage).

The deities have separate shrines. As usual, Inari’s is painted a brilliant “red” (the Japanese name for the color is a variant on red – even though to most Western eyes, it looks more orange.)

16E29 Ootoyo Jinja subshrine (Inari)

The shrine that belongs to Okuninushi features not only a stone torii but a pair of guardian mice watching over the holy space.

16E29 Ootoyo mouse shrine

The mouse on the right side carries a scroll:

16E29 Mouse with scroll

The one on the left has a sake bowl–a symbol of health and fertility. (Pregnant women worship here in hopes of ensuring a healthy baby.)

16E29 Guardian Mouse 2

The mice are symbols of Okuninushi, and hearken back to the god’s life story, as told in the Kojiki (Japan’s most ancient record):

Long ago, Okuninushi fell in love with Suseri-hime, daughter of the storm god Susanoo (he’s also the god of the sea, and one of the most powerful deities in the Japanese pantheon–not a guy you mess with)

Susanoo opposed the match, and demanded that Okuninushi prove himself by spending the night in a room full of snakes. Secretly, Princess Suseri gave Okuninushi a sacred scarf which protected him through the night.

Aghast that his daughter’s suitor had survived, Susanoo demanded that Okuninushi spend the next night in a room full of centipedes (most likely, the foot-long nightmare spawn known as “mukade“) and scorpions – but once again, with the princess’s help, Okuninushi emerged unscathed.

Finally, Susanoo “agreed” to the match–provided Okuninushi could retrieve a single arrow Susanoo shot into a vast meadow. After Okuninushi set off in search of the arrow, Susanoo set the plain on fire; the flames surrounded Okuninushi, who found himself trapped with no escape.

Suddenly, a field mouse appeared and offered Okuninushi refuge in its hole. The fire raged overhead, but Okuninushi hid in the hole beneath the ground and escaped the inferno. While he waited in the hole for the fire to pass, the mouse returned, bearing Susanoo’s arrow, which it delivered to Okuninushi, allowing him to win the hand of the princess.

Thus, the field mouse symbolizes Okuninushi–the benevolent, kindhearted god of love and marriage, and one of the patrons of Kyoto’s Ootoyo Jinja.

16E29 Ootoyo Jinja main shrine

Had you ever heard the story of Okuninushi and the field mouse? I first read it as a child, in a book of Japanese stories, and after visiting Ootoyo Jinja, I love it even more.