Fushimi Inari in Kyoto is one of the shrines I have most wanted to visit since I arrived in Japan.
You may know it from its appearance in the film “Memoirs of a Geisha,” where it played the part of a shrine with thousands of torii gates snaking up and down a mountainside. Also it had a cameo role in Seven Samurai as a villager and I think it might be showing up in the re-make of Duel.
Seriously though; it is a breathtakingly beautiful place.
Fushimi Inari is famous for two things. Torii gates and foxes. In fact this is where the name “inari” comes from. Inari is a kind of fried tofu which apparently is beloved of Japanese foxes. I’m not sure why as foxes are carnivores but I’m chalking that one up to the “don’t attempt to understand the Japanese” pile.
The Fushimi part of the name is in dedication to a Japanese goddess of grain. Consequently not only is the shrine complex dotted with thousands upon thousands of torii gates but also thousands of foxes, mostly in pairs with one holding some grain in his mouth and the other holding the key to the granary.
Japanese foxes, or kitsune, are said to have a number of magical powers. As they get older their tail splits into two, three, and eventually nine separate tails. A 9 tailed fox is a powerful demon indeed (as any fan of Naruto knows) but even a regular fox is fond of disguising herself as a human woman, marrying a human man, carrying his child to term and then buggering off again to go be a fox and leave him holding the baby.
Yet they are simultaneously venerated as guardian spirits. Another one for the “I don’t really understand Japan” pile.
My parents and I arrived in Fushimi early of the morning of my birthday! Straight away I got a little birthday treat as the shrine was in the midst of performing a ceremony.
There was much drumming chanting and playing of instruments and a complicated dance involving ribbons and sticks. It was all very professionally done with smooth confident movements but, well, it wasn’t really my cup of tea. It is always nice to see a shrine actually do something though. Far too often they are simply interesting buildings with very tacky shops attached. I like my ancient religions to have a bit of ceremony to them you know; particularly if they feature ridiculous costumes and very ridiculous hats.
Our morning dancing completed we set off up the mountain to begin our hike.
And what a hike!
Seriously, Fushimi is a simply amazing place to go for a walk. The forest alone is a perfect setting for a stroll. Tall, imposing, old trees grow very close to each other so very quickly you seem cut off from the world and wander into somewhere that feels more natural, more ancient, more dangerous and even a little bit magical.
The thousands of torii doubtless help in creating this impression too. The contrast between these shiny bright orange gates and the greens and browns of the forest could not be more striking. Yet, they seem to fit perfectly into the setting. Maybe it is a feature of the architecture but rather than sticking out like a sore thumb the gates seem like they are naturally suited to the forest. They enhance the feeling of wandering backwards in time, of venturing into historical Japan.
They also seem to evoke an otherworldly, mystical feeling. Glimpsing patches of bright orange in the trees up ahead can cause your breath to catch. Perhaps it is because they are gates that they suggest this dreamlike quality, for gates suggest entering somewhere different and if you wander under a thousand gates you must be wandering through a thousand different tiny worlds.
On a more practical level they also make it really easy to plot a path through the mountain trails, and although the sun was beating down very hard for an April day they also provided a lot of shade for the weary traveller.
I have no idea what impulse caused the priests of Fushimi to erect so many torii gates but I thank them for it because it has helped to construct one of the most pleasant walks I have ever done.
The gates are all donations from people. On the right hand side of the gate the date it was installed is written in Kanji. On the left hand side is the name of the donor and sometimes a small dedication. Most of these names are in Kanji so I couldn’t tell you what kinds of people donate the torii gates but a few were in Katakana (mostly foreign names) and even some Romaji.
Some of the smaller temples in the complex also had cool things to donate. A common feature of Japanese shrines are wooden panels that you can buy, write a wish or an inscription on and then tie to a gate to make your wish come true. At Fushimi they had small replica torii gates for the same purpose.
They also had wooden panels shaped like foxes and people seemed to have taken the opportunity to draw a picture rather than make a wish. Amongst some of the offerings were:
a creepy eye fox
a hairy monster fox
a too cool for school fox
and my favourite, a Gundam fox.
Fushimi is more of a shrine complex than one dedicated shrine with many smaller ones dotted all around the mountain. One of the more diverting ones offered a chance to lift one of the holy stones. Apparently they weigh as much as your sins. I can report that may rock was not too heavy to lift but heavy enough that I wouldn’t want to carry it back from the supermarket.
Although I’ve done much worse hikes in Japan it was pretty hard going for my Dad as he had recently injured his knee. Stairs were a particular problem for him and Fushimi had an endless supply of them. Worse, they didn’t just go up and up but tried to trick us by going up until to plunge down for a bit and suddenly go up again. Consequently it took us the whole morning to reach the top where we stopped for a lunch in one of only about two options for food on the entire mountain.
This was unheard of! It is nigh on impossible to go more than 30 yards in Japan without being offered food, what was a touristy place like Fushimi playing at.
Regardless we were grateful for our pretty terrible soba noodles but more grateful for the restaurants wonderful view which took in pretty much the whole of Kyoto.
Once you reach the top there is a circular walk around the top of the mountain before you have to trek back down again. This was more of the same but since same in this instance meant a really enjoyable beautiful trek we weren’t complaining.
We made it down the mountain much quicker than our ascent and went home to get all ready for my birthday party.
Which, sadly, dear reader is a secret from you. Suffice it to say it was very nice to see my family again after nearly two years apart and wonderful to spend my birthday with them.
Next time we’re going to take a break from all this touristy stuff to talk about the real meat and potatoes of this blog. Kit-Kat reviews.