I’d foolishly neglected Fushimi Inari on my previous visit to Kyoto, and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember why. Maybe it was logistical. Or perhaps I was shrine-fatigued – an easy affliction to catch in traditional Kyoto. Could it have been that I’d seen many picture postcard images of its arcade of vermillion torii gates, and naively felt I didn’t need to witness them in person? Perhaps shyness, as I was traveling alone, and it wasn’t close to where I’d based myself. Whatever it was, I was going to correct my mistake and made it the tip top of my list upon my return.
We arrived just before midday, as had half of Kyoto, it seemed. After cleansing ourselves using the wooden ladles and water at the Chozuya – left hand, right hand, mouth, ladle handle – we joined the masses and passed into the main courtyard, under the watchful gaze of the fox statues on either side of the orange Romon gate.
An aged, heavy-set American man sat on some steps, leaning on his walking stick. A security guard, wearing a dark navy uniform and cap, politely speaks to him in Japanese, and motions for him to get up. The American, perturbed, mumbles under his breath and struggles to his feet. There is no sitting on the steps of shrines: it’s disrespectful. Still, I couldn’t help feel sorry for the man. Whether he had just arrived, or had already walked the the mountain trail, it’s not the most accessible place for those with mobility issues, and he wouldn’t be the first person I witnessed on our visit eager to take a break.
The chatter of tourists and the crackle of gravel underfoot was met with the clanging of bells, as visitors offered prayers at the shrine. Each of the buildings is painted a vibrant orange, making it hands down the brightest shrine in the city. It is also unique in that it’s main shrine is not the major attraction. It’s what’s behind the main shrine grounds which makes this site so famous: the torii trail.
Snaking upwards through the forests of Inari-san (Mount Inari) is the trail of Senbon Torii (‘Thousands of torii gates’) – tunnels of vermillion torii that guide visitors and pilgrims up the hillside, connecting a number of smaller shrines. If you have even a fleeting interest in Japan, you’ve most likely seen many images of this trail. It is a world heritage site, symbol of Kyoto, revered around Japan, and has to be experienced in person, both the good and… not-so-good.
And by ‘not-so-good’, I mean the sheer amount of visitors. We joined the busy river of tourists and sauntered slowly up the steps to the trail’s entrance, passing stalls peddling palm readings, sweets, and traditional clothes. At the top of the steps: a bottleneck. The flow of traffic came to a standstill as people funnelled into the tunnel. The gates at the base of the trail are large, wide enough for five people, but with thousands of tourists passing through, there was heavy traffic. This meant a lot of shuffling forward or waiting to progress, being mindful of those coming the other way, and being especially wary when a group or two of social media addicts (or ‘influencers’) decide to stop unannounced in the centre of the trail to take a selfie, causing those behind to run into the back of each other and mumble curses under their breath.
Thankfully, the higher we climbed, the thinner crowds became. The seemingly endless arcade of torii guides visitors between a number of shrines and sub-shrines, which can provide a welcome reprieve, not only as a place to rest, but also to escape the crowds, as some are off the beaten path and often missed by those with tunnel-vision for only the torii gates. I spotted an elderly Japanese man with a cane and a forlorn expression sat on a stone bench, making the most of the break, whilst younger members of his family placed miniature replica orange torii at the shrine.
Roughly half way up the mountain is the Mitsu-tsuji (三ツ辻) junction, where those not wishing to climb to the peak could turn back. It seemed many people took this option. As the density of torii started to thin, so did the crowds. I wasn’t complaining, as, while still rather busy, it gave us a little breathing room.
About an hour into our climb, we reached Yotsu-tsuji (四ツ辻) intersection, and at Jen’s insistence, stopped in at a small restaurant at the side of the trail. A elderly lady shuffled across the tatami floor, her back hunched as if broken by the weight of thousands of bowls of udon. She took and delivered orders, occasionally motioning to a younger man, who, based on his similar eyes, lips and beak-like nose, I assumed to be her grandson. She took our orders without writing them down, and from her wisened face, I trusted that she wouldn’t get them wrong.
A lucky few customers were able to sit at the open windows which overlooked the mountain and provided a lovely view of the torii trail winding through the wooded slopes, so they could eat and admire what they’d just conquered. As I stared past them, out to the trees gently swaying in the breeze, I couldn’t but imagine the life of the old proprietress, and wonder how long she had been working. Japanese businesses, particularly in traditional quarters, tend to have long histories, with the belief that the eldest child should take over once their parents are no longer able to work. I imagine that this women had been here, half way up the mountain, and spent her life shuffling across the tatami floor, cooking and delivering food to pilgrims and tourists, as the years gradually wore away at her, her hair fading to grey, her back bowing to time. I wondered if she’d enjoyed these years, and as I glanced over to the grandson, who sat leaning over the counter, I wondered whether he would be taking over the tea house, and whether he was content with such a fate.
When we restarted our climb, it was clear that crowds were no longer a problem, and we could enjoy our journey to the top with space to stretch our rather weary legs. The density of the torii also thinned, and the terrain became more forested, with steeper inclines. Here and there, workmen in white helmets and khaki jumpsuits laboured away, reinforcing the bases of weakened torii. With each gate made of wood, and with thousands of gates along the mountain trail, I imagined these guys rarely got a day of rest tending to these centuries old wooden structures prone to rot and collapse.
The only objects on Inari-San as abundant as the torii (and tourists) are the fox icons. As you climb up the wooded trails, statues and sculptures of foxes stare down at you with a stony gaze. They are the messengers of the kami Inari, and sometimes referred to as Inari. Some statues hold a key in their mouths. This is the key to the grain cellar, as Inari is the kami of rice and food, though as the role of agriculture diminished, the deities were worshipped to ensure prosperity in business. Which leads us back to the torii: each one was dedicated to the shrine by a business, hoping for prosperity, and the names of those who donated it, when it was donated, and the year, can be seen on the front and back of each gate (in Japanese kanji, of course).
After two hours of climbing, we had reached the 223 metre peak of Inari-San, and the final shrine: Kami-no-Yashiro (上之社). We hadn’t properly offered prayers at the shrines along the hike, but atop this mountain, staring down across the beautiful city of Kyoto, it wouldn’t feel right if we left without paying our respects.
Hanging from one of the wooden shrine buildings were cards, written in English, detailing the proper procedure for praying at shinto shrines: offer money, bow twice, clap twice, pray, and finish with a one deep bow. After two visits to Kyoto, the motions came back to me quickly, though I kept an eye on the Japanese in front of me to make sure I had it right. As I watched those ahead of me, I felt somewhat glad I had skipped Fushimi Inari on my previous trip to Kyoto.
When I reached the top of the stone steps, I threw in a 5 yen coin and wished for a safe trip for Jen and myself (my go-to wish whenever I am traveling, and that I may visit here again). I guess my wish worked, as I am here writing this account of my journey, safe at home some two years later*. May the Kami continue to bless me with safe travels and aid my return (when we are once again allowed to travel).
As we descended from the summit, our feet felt lighter, and we practically skipped down the stone steps. We had completed our hike to Inari-san. And I had come to the realisation that I was glad I’d skipped visiting the last time I was in Kyoto. It meant that I’d had something new to look forward to on this trip; somewhere special, that I could share with someone special instead of going alone. Fushimi Inari is definitely somewhere that has to be experienced in person, and I’m very glad I was finally able to.
*Visited in November 2018.
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