Centuries ago, the city of Shinjō had been the center of a vast agricultural region that grew rice and other food to feed people all across Japan. Its residents believed in Shinto spirits and gods of nature, and the people paid tribute at shrines as thanks for every successful harvest. But as Japan modernized, Shinjō changed. Farms were replaced with factories, the region's focus shifted toward manufacturing and electronics, and soon the city's farming roots were all but forgotten.
On this summer afternoon, volunteers were busy all along main street, cleaning up after the annual Shinjō Matsuri festival that had ended the night before. Legend said that the festival had been founded over 250 years prior during a terrible famine, as a way to boost morale and to pray for a good harvest. Miraculously, the next harvest had been abundantly fruitful and Shinjō was saved from disaster.
However, just as Shinjō's residents had forgotten their town's origins, they had also lost sight of the festival's original purpose. While the parade of fantastical floats certainly made people happy and brought in tourism business, it no longer served as a prayer to Shinto spirits or the goddess of harvests.
"It's so sad," grumbled a young woman as she brushed a lock of amethyst-colored hair over her ear. The rest of her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and tied with a vivid red ribbon. It wasn't her normal aesthetic, but today she wore a neon pink t-shirt, black jogging shorts, and brown hiking boots. Her name was Akari Mamori, and she was 19 years old. She was also a Shinto enthusiast, to put it lightly.
As Akari dodged her way through pedestrians and cleaning crew, she mourned the loss of tradition and Shintoism. No one cares about the old ways anymore, she thought. No one worships the Shinto gods of the land or gives tribute in thanks for their blessings. It's shameful.
She was exaggerating the gravity of the situation, at least a little. There were still some in the city who practiced Shinto ways, herself included, but they were certainly in the minority; the small shrine where she volunteered was lucky to see two dozen visitors a week. In any case, the current state of Shintoism was not the reason for Akari's trip along the confetti-littered path of the Shinjō Matsuri parade.
She adjusted her backpack on her shoulders, checked that her hiking boots were properly laced up, and started the final stretch out of town. "Today's the day that I solve the mystery of those statues," she muttered to herself.
The statues in question were actually small wooden figurines about 3 inches tall, hand-carved into the shape of foxes. Over the last few days, she'd found four of those figures, each wearing a slightly different expression and holding a different object in its mouth. It didn't take a Shinto expert to know that these statues depicted kitsune messengers, foxes that carried symbolic items related to the goddess of harvests, like a sheaf of rice or a storehouse key. What Akari couldn't figure out, however, was why the figures had been placed near her apartment and why they seemed to be leading her into the woods.
Since childhood Akari had always loved mysteries and learning new things. She saw these fox figurines as a puzzle to be solved, and a Shinto-related one at that. It was as if the mystery had been tailor-made for her, and she couldn't possibly turn it down.
Now that she was outfitted properly with her hiking gear and a supply of food and water, Akari followed the path of the parade to where it ended: a clearing just outside of town. The night before, this was where she had found the fourth fox figurine on a crumbled stone step at the base of an abandoned pathway into the forest. She steeled her nerves and started to climb, hoping to find more fox figurines along the trail.
The stone footpath was long forgotten, weathered and overgrown with moss and other plantlife, including trees that grew right out of the cracked stone steps. In some areas, the path was so eroded that occasional wooden torii gates, cracked and worn and red no longer, were the only indication that any path had ever existed.
Akari's boots crunched through moss and slow-growing lichen, signs that no one had traveled this path in several years, or possibly her entire lifetime. Not that 19 years was very long when compared to Shinto history. Akari had read everything she could find about the history of Shintoism, going as far back as the ancient and primal Ko-Shinto practiced over 3000 years ago. No written records had survived from that time period, so she didn't put too much stock in the stories of kami who had human-like forms and were invisible to all but the spiritually gifted.
The sounds of nature filled the air around Akari, almost drowning out her footsteps. The ree-ree-ree sound of cicada insects was by far the loudest, followed by trickling water from small mountain streams that cut across the path. But once she tuned out those familiar sounds, she was able to pick out subtle indications of the life that infused the forest: the rustle of a squirrel climbing a high branch and the crack of it breaking open a small nut, the snapping of twigs as a sika deer walked through the underbrush in the distance, and the flutter and song of numerous birds overhead.
Akari knew that nighttime and nocturnal wildlife would bring an entirely different set of sounds to the forest, but she didn't plan to be out that late. Even with a flashlight and good hiking shoes, it would be dangerous to cross such uneven ground in the dark. It was still early afternoon but just in case, she picked up the pace and moved faster wherever the path was clear.
Along the way, she found four more fox figurines. Two sat plainly visible on top of large rocks and another two were tucked within old stone lanterns called tōrō. Tōrō had originally been a Buddhist concept, but they had been integrated with Shinto tradition starting in the late 700s. Since that detail only marked the beginning of their use in Shintoism, it didn't do much to narrow down Akari's evaluation of the trail's age.
By her best estimate, the trail had been built in the 1500s and improved upon for several hundred years. The now-decomposing torii gates had likely been added in the mid-1700s, possibly coinciding with the first few Shinjō Matsuri festivals. If there was a shrine at the end of this trail, all signs pointed to it being devoted to agriculture and the goddess of harvests, Inari. But given its age and how long it had been abandoned, Akari expected the shrine to be barely more than rotted wood and dirt, with only the hardier stone statues remaining as evidence of its original intent.
She stepped into the light at the top of the trail and almost tripped over a wooden fox because her eyes were fixed on something else. Her expectation about the state of the shrine had been very wrong.
After passing through one more collapsed torii, the trail ended at a flat field of grass and wildflowers. In the middle of the clearing was a perfectly tended shrine building, larger even than the biggest shrine in Shinjō. The red paint that had once covered the exterior had long ago been worn away by the elements, but the building's wooden structure was remarkably intact. It was one story tall with an elevated floor that was supported by thick beams painstaking carved from entire trees. The roof was straight and steeply sloped, likely to prevent buildup of heavy snow during the region's wet winters.
Akari paused just long enough to toss the fox figurine she had nearly tripped over into her backpack with the other eight, then she sprinted to the building. The structure was large for a shrine, easily 50 feet wide and twice as long, but the construction seemed pretty standard. Unlike the tiny one-room shrine where Akari worked, this one could easily accommodate an open hall for worship, a sealed honden for spirits to reside in, and living spaces for live-in priests and priestesses. She also noticed sliding doors on the exterior walls that provided some of the rooms with easy access to the covered wooden deck that circled the entire building.
To the casual observer, the shrine would have appeared long abandoned, untouched by human hands for decades or even centuries. But there were subtle signs that suggested otherwise: the field was free of weeds and saplings, there were no dead leaves rotting under the shrine's wooden eaves, and the wooden boards of the deck and stairs were smooth and unsplintered, as if they had been replaced within the last few years.
"No way! This is amazing!" Akari said aloud as she studied the shrine. Her brow furrowed and she continued, "And very weird. Someone's been maintaining this place in secret for generations! But why? And why not tell the public or the shrine association about it? It's in good enough shape that they could easily take visitors, and it isn't even that far from town."
She didn't feel comfortable just waltzing up the front steps of an unknown shrine, so she circled the building instead, admiring the traditional architecture and marveling at the impeccable condition of the structure. She was halfway around the building when she froze in place. She had finally noticed something important. Or rather, the absence of something.
Everything Akari had seen during her hike, from the bright red torii gates to the scattered wooden foxes, had suggested this shrine would be dedicated to Inari, goddess of harvests, but the shrine itself had no indication of that at all. "Where are the decorations, the inscriptions? Where are the stone foxes?!" she blurted as she jogged around the building with her eyes wide open.
Sure enough, there were no stone fox statues anywhere in the clearing, even though such statues were a mainstay of any shrine to Inari. There were over 3,000 such shrines in Japan, and they all had at least one mated pair of fox messengers on prominent display. The wooden ones in Akari's backpack were the only thing remotely similar at this shrine, and none of them had been within the shrine grounds. The closest one had been under the final gate, just outside.
"This girl's weird," came a voice from inside the the building. "Raving about stone foxes while she runs around like a chicken with its head cut off."
Startled, Akari turned to face the shrine. She tried to look through the nearest window but it was too high above her and the inside was dark. She dismissed the voice as imagined, just her subconscious mocking her own overreaction. Until it spoke again.
"Should I kill her?" The voice was rough yet feminine, and its tone was far too casual for the subject matter.
"No!" said another female voice, echoing Akari's exact thought. Then the voice continued, soft and unsure of itself, "It's not like she can see or hear us. She'll go away soon."
"What?" Akari said aloud. The voices went silent. She ran to the front of the building and approached the main steps, then said, "Hello? Is someone in there?"
There was no response, until she put one foot on the first step. The first voice, who Akari had internally labeled 'Wants-to-kill-me', said, "Uh, we've got a problem. She's coming inside."
"Hey, I can hear you!" Akari called back into the unlit hall. Never one to be afraid of the unknown, she continued to climb.
"A very big problem," the meek-sounding voice said.
"Shhhh. There's no problem at all," said a third voice, dark and whispery and sensual. It reminded Akari of a snake, slithering over dry leaves. "I say we wait and see whether she can see us."
"And then we kill her?" asked Wants-to-kill-me.
"No," the snakelike voice said. "And then we wake the Boss."
Foolishly, Akari kept moving forward. She wasn't particularly afraid of the three voices she'd overheard, since they were all women and Japan was a relatively safe country. Worst case, she figured they were teenage troublemakers, squatting in an abandoned building.
The front door was wide open but it took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness inside. She saw a woman with short platinum blonde hair approach quickly and something hit Akari hard in the stomach, then everything went black again.