I awoke in my capsule hotel bright and early (ok, maybe not so bright.. no windows in a capsule hotel!), long before the salarymen and adventurers were bustling about the streets of Kyoto. It was important to me to see the famed Fushimi Inari Shrine, or the Shrine of Ten Thousand Gates, before it was totally swamped with other tourists and worshippers. I gathered my camera and walking shoes and hopped on the train right to the Fushimi Inari stop. I arrived around 6 am and took in the scene. The shrine is located upon a mountain, but there are several shrine buildings, souvenir shops, and food stalls at the base of the mountain. After exploring the grounds, you’re led to the start of the trail. The trail of gates is truly stunning – the sheer volume of vermillion torii – varying slightly in sizing and distance and color but still amazingly uniform. The entire mountain is a visual drama that will remain in your mind’s eye for a lifetime.
By arriving before the busier hours of 8 to 9 am I was able to have a relatively serene and solo experience on the mountain. I was interested in taking it all in for myself and hoping to take some photos that weren’t full of strangers posing for their own Instagram-aesthetic photos. The shrine never closes and there is no ticket cost so any arrival or departure time can fit into your schedule. I stopped a lot for pictures and passed maybe 40-50 people on my ascent. Roughly half were other tourists like myself, hoping to get a less crowded look at the beautiful, iconic site, and the other half were local Japanese making the same trek they make with monthly or weekly or daily repetition to pay their respects to the gods or their loved ones along the way. I was about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, pausing more and more often to catch my breath and give my calves a break and several elderly Japanese women kept passing me with the pace of a casual power walk and never breaking their stride. The climb left me questioning how in shape I actually was.
The climb to the peak of the mountain took about 80 minutes by myself. The trail up the mountain is well-marked and becomes one with the greenery and foliage of the mountain. Seeing a quiet green grove dotted with shocks of orange is a beautiful combination of nature and manmade architecture. The placement of the torii on the mountain complements the scenery and Shinto principles in a powerful way. The peak of the mountain is relatively anticlimactic, the shrine that used to exist at the top has since been destroyed by various natural events. The peak may be a little underwhelming, but the climb is full of inlets with little shrines and idols. Aged stone torii and wise fox icons covered in moss and inset along the haunting paths add the bountiful character of the mountain.
Fushimi Inari is a lovely site to tour and visit, but doing a even a basic amount of research to understand all of the meanings and symbolism behind Shinto and torii will help enhance your experience! Lots of information I’ve read either at the sites or online vary because many of these meanings and symbols are hundreds if not thousands of years in the making; they are traditions that have been passed down for ages with multiple reasons and interpretations. The vermillion gates you walk through are an important symbol of the Shinto religion. Individuals or families or businesses donate a certain amount of money to the shrine and a gate is erected to honor their wish or prayer. The front of the gate appears clean and unblemished and the back of the gate has the names of the donators inscribed into the wood. The gates, or torii, are a literal and symbolic threshold. Walking through torii at a shrine represents that you are crossing from a common space into a spiritual space. Even the brilliant color of the gates is used to help guard against bad spirits and energy.
My first visit I climbed all the way to the top, took a brief breather and some selfies, then descended on a different trail. The trail down was less populated and under the cover of more trees. I felt very secluded and peaceful. I did, however, get lost on the way down and ended up on some local street of neighborhood houses, nowhere near the initial entry to the shrine. After accidentally wandering past people’s garages, a kind man pointed me in the direction of the main road and I continued on the my next point of interest. My second visit I was with my mother (I got to bring my mom to one of my favorite places across the world!), so we made it to the lake and then turned around. Many Kyoto sites are much more hilly and mountainous than the VERY flat Tokyo, so between Fushimi Inari, the Monkey Park, and general sightseeing, we decided climbing to the comparatively unexciting peak was unnecessary.
Something about the thousands of torii in the middle of a mountain forest really speaks to me. Orange is my absolute favorite color and being surrounded by it, full of culture and spirit and tradition filled me with joy at seeing something so wonderful on the other side of the world and filled my heart with satisfaction at experiencing something so memorable.
Have you been to Fushimi Inari or have plans to go?
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