Sunday, January 17, 2016

Following the Eight-Span Crow

--Susan, every other Sunday

Western legends often portray the crow as a harbinger of disaster, lurking about like Poe’s raven to observe the misfortunes of man.

In Japan, the crow is more often seen as evidence of positive divine intervention in human affairs. The Shinto pantheon even includes a crow god, Yatagarasu (“the eight-span crow”), who symbolizes guidance. A crow’s appearance portends rebirth, new growth, and supernatural guidance. According to the Kojiki (Japan’s oldest historical record), the eight-span crow led Jimmu, a human descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, to the site where he assumed the throne and became the first Emperor of Japan.

During my research trip to Japan last summer, I hoped to see a Japanese crow (Corvus macrorhynchos), also known as the Jungle Crow or Large-Billed crow. These intelligent birds are larger (and louder) than the crows we see in the United States, and since they feature in a couple of my upcoming novels (one of my Shinobi Mysteries and another project I'm writing on the side) I hoped to see one and get some notes about its behavior and appearance.

Little did I know that Yatagarasu had something even more special planned for me…

On my second day in Kyoto, I visited Fushimi Inari Taisha, one of Japan’s most important Shinto shrines. 

Torii gates. Many, many torii gates.

The shrine consists of buildings at the base of Mount Inari and a path that winds up the side of the mountain to another shrine at the very top. Numerous sub-shrines dot the mountain, and the walk itself is lined with thousands of torii gates, which represent the movement from worldly places to a sacred space:

Moving from the worldly to the sacred.

The climb takes several hours, so many people don’t do the entire thing, but I wanted the full experience, so up I went…alone.

A little way up the mountain, a path branches off from the main one. Visitors who opt to follow the “road less taken” are rewarded by a sub-shrine with statues memorializing the dragon guardians of Japan:

Dragons: they show up when you least expect them.

Another, even less traveled path, leads out and away from this sub-shrine, through a primeval bamboo grove. I knew I had a long hike ahead, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to follow the bamboo path for a little while.

The road less traveled...Japanese style

Ten minutes later, deep in the heart of an undisturbed primeval forest, I heard a flutter of wings and found myself face to face with a giant black crow. 

Japanese god or curious corvid? I'm not taking chances.

It landed not three feet away, on the side of the path, and looked at me with absolutely no fear. We stared at each other for several minutes—me, memorizing his every detail, and him doubtless expecting something more edible from the encounter. Sadly, I lacked the desired--or required--offering.

The crow flew away when it heard another couple approaching along the path, and I continued up the mountain. I reached the top:

The highest point of Fushimi Inari Taisha

and returned to the base, without another spotting of the crow.

Several days later, I visited Kasuga Taisha, another major Shinto shrine, and a primary setting in one of my upcoming novels. As I approached the entrance, a giant crow swooped down and landed on the entry post. 

Apparently, he heard I was coming.

Like the crow at Fushimi Inari (over a hundred miles away) he watched me approach and waited for me to come and stand beside him.

No fear, but disappointment when I had no food.

Japanese crows, like their brethren around the world, are confident birds with little fear of people. It’s common to see them at Shinto shrines and they often watch the visitors with interest.

Even so, I couldn’t help but feel that the crows at Fushimi Inari and Kasuga—and several other crows that appeared at critical moments throughout my trip—were a positive sign that my travels (and my writing) are taking me in the right direction.

I’m not superstitious by nature, but these eerily timely encounters with Japanese crows made me understand why Japanese people consider the crow both wise in itself and also a sign of heaven’s favor. I look forward to seeing them again, on my next visit to Japan.


  1. I'm sure you will, Susan. I'm feeling quite deprived that I didn't see them on my visit to Mt Inari. Perhaps it was a message that I need to go back. I absolutely loved my (short) time in Japan and Kyoto in particular.

    1. You absolutely need to go back. :)

      Also, Fushimi Inari is one of my favorite places in Japan. I noticed the crows kept away from the beaten path, for the most part. Next time, make sure you take the side trail just past the first major sub-shrine as you start up the mountain (the one most people stop climbing at, unless they're in for the long haul). The forest is spectacular.

  2. Wonderful column, Susan, I feel like I just took a whirlwind trip with you up the mountain, and if Jeff tries to say otherwise, he'll just have to eat crow...

    1. Thank you Everett! I'm delighted that I could take you along on the journey.

  3. Might not be a bad idea if, next time, you bring an offering for Yatagarasu-sama in your pocket or bag. Just sayin' ... (^_-)

    Lovely essay, thank you.

    Mario R.

    1. Thank you! And next time, I definitely will. He won't catch me out empty-handed again.

  4. P.s.:- karasu (or garasu) sounds like it might be onomatopoetic -- sort of like the sound a crow makes.

    My Latin teacher in high school told us that the Romans thought the crow was a bird of omen because its sound was "cras! cras!", which in Latin means "tomorrow! tomorrow!" Irrelevant, this latter bit of trivia, but it's why my mind could easily jump to karasu as the sound.

    1. You're right. I actually have a corvid in one of the books that acquires the name "Kura" because of the sound it makes - it's a play on a couple of Japanese words, plus the crow's own voice.

  5. I'm impressed and concur with the crows, Susan. You are a spiritually divine inspiration. Thank you for sharing the secrets of Mount Inari, while quelling volcanic Mouth Everett.

    1. LOL, Jeff.

      Are you heading to Phoenix next month for LCC? Or are you winging back to Greece before that?

    2. Nope--or yep--I'll definitely be in Phoenix! Hoping you'll be too!