Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of the most iconic destinations in all of Kyoto. Because it is not on the list of World Heritage sites, it has been slower to gain international renown then some of the more mainstream sites. However, though many may not know it by name, one view of the many thousands of torii spiraling up a mountain refreshes the memory.
This was my experience upon arriving at the foot of Inari Mountain. The high volume of foot traffic, and the many vendors with their all-too-familiar goodies leading up to the entrance, suggested that I was somewhere special, but it would be another 10 minutes before recognition would set in.
Climbing a wide flight of stone stairs filled with people – Japanese and foreigners alike – and passing an old woman reading palms, two huge yet elegantly carved fox monuments guarded the pathway. Behind them, rows of orange and black torii, or Japanese gates, extended into the greenery of the mountain as far as the eye could see. This is when it dawned on me: I had seen this place in a plethora of travel pictures before; one may also recognize it from the movie, Memoirs of a Geisha.
Though it is called a shrine, it is more of a complex as it extends over two miles up and around the mountain with many branching and looping trails. Hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller shrines and places of worship dot the trail system. Some had recently lit candles or fuming incense, while others accumulated fallen leaves and appeared to be nearly forgotten.
Originally founded over 1,300 years ago, historical texts recorded that the Inari kami, or deity, was enshrined on the first Day of the Horse of the second month of 711 CE, during the Nara Period. Since then, Fushimi Inari has become a very significant shrine in both Kyoto and the whole of Japan. It is now the head shrine, or progenitor of over 30,000 smaller Inari shrines throughout Japan.
Inari is a shortening of an old phase meaning reaping of rice, and as such the Inari kami was historically associated with plentiful harvests and wellbeing in the home. In modern times it has come to be associated with merchants and successful business transactions as well.
In fact, at the Fushimi Inari Shrine alone there is estimated to be over 10,000 torii – each donated by a business in hopes of securing good fortunes or showing gratitude for having a wish come true.
As I walked up the mossy paths, stopping to investigate the many small shrines along the way, I saw a number of business cards left at some of the more popular spots. These cards were not soliciting new clients, but rather showing the kami their support and asking for a blessing of their own.
The majority of people I saw there walked the paths with a sort of casual reverence. Most were not there as religious pilgrims, but rather to enjoy the history, culture, and sheer beauty of the place.
Climbing through thousands of torii, you feel secluded and shaded from the outside world until you reach the vista. Only in one spot does the mountain truly open, allowing a view out over Kyoto. Here people catch their breath after the steep climb before continuing onward.
By the end of my hike, I had spent three hours in awe of the bright orange torii, the mossy monuments and shrines, and the mixture of ancient and modern examples of both. Through it all, the wind rustled the trees above and water flowed along the paths. Whether you believe in blessings from kami or not, this place emanated a respect of nature and of human need in a way that is uniquely Japanese.
By Anthony Vitale