Kyoto: Epic Stairventure at Fushimi Inari Taisha

Kyoto is so full of religious attractions, the place is essentially what would happen if Japan created a Buddhism/Shinto Disneyland. Want to see Japan’s most important rock garden? I guess we could (yawn!) but wouldn’t you rather see a torii so big four busses stacked on top of one another could drive under it? How about a temple literally not figuratively covered in gold? Because of the huge competition for tourist money, it’s hard to find places that are beautiful without feeling gimmicky. Although Fushimi Inari Taisha certainly has its own gimmick, it’s hard to criticize one of the few important religious sites in the city that doesn’t charge admission. Besides, there’s something compelling about it’s gimmick, the corridors of bright orange torii curving into the distance, and the literally breathtaking hike it takes to walk beneath them all.

We walked the wide stone boulevard to the main shrine, the lowest on the mountain. Banners for ice cream and Inari-zushi fluttered in the wind as hundreds of stone foxes—images of the god’s messenger—snarled at us from posts, lintels, nooks, and crannies all about. There was much to see at the main shrine, including the 425-year-old Romon Gate donated by famous military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi, but Mt. Inari rose before us, its woods lovely, dark and deep. We cleansed ourselves and paid our respects to Inari at the main shrine, then made our way to the corridor of torii gates.

There are over 5000 torii gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha, but they’re special for more than just their numbers. Other shrines with a more modest number of torii may construct these gates themselves, usually no more than three per entrance, but Inari shrines are a little different. Inari is the god of rice, an important symbol of prosperity in ancient Japan that has come to be linked symbolically with financial success. As a result, those praying for business success can purchase a torii at an Inari shrine as an offering to the god. Fushimi Inari Taisha, being the founding Inari shrine, has the greatest number of torii.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

We stepped into the torii path, the stone beneath our feet worn by centuries of previous visitors. Although seemingly homogenous from a distance, and the torii took on individual character up close. Here a shining vermillion gate, there a weather-worn gate with paint faded to peach; here an old post crumbling with age, there a lintel dusted with flecks of moss. A placard here, a stone torii there. And of course, on the back of each gate, the name of the patron emblazoned in deepest black.

After several hundred feet, the path split: the Senbon Torii, the most famous and photogenic part of the shrine, known and loved for it’s smaller torii packed together with less than a handsbreadth between them. We marvelled at the numerous names etched into the backs of the gates as we strode through these physical manifestations of the hopes and dreams of thousands of Japanese, the sun shining cheerily between them.

At the end of the long, twisting corridor of Senbon Torii, we arrived at Okusha Hohaisho, the second lowest shrine in the complex. Vendors sold a little candy here as well, but more common were shrine stands selling fox-faced ema boards and fox-themed charms. Near the continuation of the torii path, a crowd quietly milled around two stone lanterns advertised as the “Omokaruishi.” A glance at the sign nearby revealed them as wishing stones: throw your money into the coffer between them and make a wish, then estimate the weight of the stone before you and lift it. If the stone is lighter than you expect, your wish will come true easily. However, if the stone is heavier than you expect, your wish will take significant work to materialize.

"Untitled" by Erin Grace, CC BY

“Untitled” by Erin Grace, CC BY

I tossed in a 100 yen coin and wished that I’d be able to make it to the top of the mountain on this visit. I sized up the stone. It was just bigger than a cantaloupe, so big I’d need both hands to even get a grip on it. I was sure I’d be able to lift it, but only just. I wrapped my hands around the stone and lifted.

I couldn’t even budge it.

Terrified, I snuck another try. I could move it this time, but despite all my work, I couldn’t get a visible gap between the stone and the lantern. The god had spoken: this wasn’t going to be easy.

After buying a few charms and taking turns at the Omokaruishi, we followed the path up the mountain. The path was deceptively flat at the beginning, with only a few small hills here and there as the torii tunnel curved and twisted its way over the landscape. The easy path didn’t last long, though: soon a set of steep stairs appeared, taking on the mountain in earnest. The torii here were less densely packed, the forest clearly visible between them. In a few places only the stone footer for a torii remained, the gate itself having long rotted and fallen, the dreams it embodied so old that no one remembered them. In these spaces it was easy to look back along the outside of the corridor of orange gates, the ribs of a vermillion serpent slithering through the trees.

As we ascended the mountain, small cemeteries and minor shrines appeared every several hundred feet, their grey stone vibrant and intriguing to eyes exhausted of green and orange. Altars, lanterns, and torii huddled around clean-swept paths that slipped away into reaches of the mountain most travellers never visit. Stone foxes stood guard at every corner; everywhere names were inscribed in stone.

"Untitled" by Erin Grace, CC BY

“Untitled” by Erin Grace, CC BY

The steps grew steeper and narrower, as though to discourage those faint of heart. Even so, I didn’t feel too bad so far. My legs ached from days of walking in Tokyo and from climbing stairs in Owakudani, but it was far from impossible. Maybe Inari hadn’t known what I was up for? I wasn’t in great shape, but this didn’t seem too difficult.

In under an hour, the trees fell away and we arrived at a huge complex with restaurants, vending machines, bathrooms, benches, and more sub-shrines and graveyards than you could shake a fox charm at: Yotsu-no-Tsuji. The area was nearly flat, and as we stopped to catch our breath and laugh about how much our legs hurt, we found ourselves face-to-face with one of the greatest views of Kyoto I’d ever seen. The city seemed both close and far, tiny in scale but with so much detail that it seemed only a miniature of itself rather than an impersonal view from on high. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was also a perfect illustration of just how steep our climb had been, that we were so high above the city but could still pick out fine details in the cityscape. If there had been someone waving from a window near the mountain, I could have seen them.

We stopped for lunch then took to the trail once more. We headed left at the fork, making for the top and it’s associated shrine—Ichi-no-Mine—directly.

We left in good spirits, but after an hour of climbing the ever-steepening trail, the good spirits had faded to good humor at best.

"Untitled" by Erin Grace, CC-BY

“Untitled” by Erin Grace, CC-BY

As our elevation went up, the torii density went down. Unlike the continuous corridor at Senbon Torii, and unlike the pock-marked tunnel below Yotsu-no-Tsuji, now there seemed to be more stone footers than torii, stretches of five or six empty footers becoming more and more common. This wasn’t a place of dreams, I realized, my lungs burning under the strain of climbing stairs for almost two hours; this was the place where Inari would fulfill his prophecy, giving me the suffering and tribulation I needed to make my own damn wish come true. I found my eyes falling to the stone steps, studying the divot in the center made by 1300 years of travellers. I pondered the microscopic addition I made to each step, and tried to take solace that the divot wouldn’t continue if everyone died before reaching the summit. Smaller shrines and graveyards seemed to fly past me, my attention narrowing and narrowing to focus on placing each foot in front of the other.

Signs everywhere said that we were closing in on Ichi-no-Mine and the summit of the mountain, but the stairs only seemed to continue, the torii leading me deeper into the forest like wooden will-o-wisps, ready to disappear when I was too deep to remember the way back. At one point, an hour above Yotsu-no-Tsuji and still no sign of Ichi-no-Mine despite a plethora of signs telling me that I was within spitting distance of it, I had my crisis of faith. I bent double on the side of the unending stairs, hands on my knees, lungs breathing fire instead of air, calves tight embers of blazing charcoal. Shannon passed me, placing his hand on my back and asking encouraging words, but I shook my head without understanding what he’d said. He moved on, and I lingered behind, unwilling to turn back but unable to move forward.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

Hadn’t the sign a few steps ago (and the sign before that, and the sign before that) told me I was close? At this point, three steps felt as impossible as three light years. My body begged to let gravity pull it back down to the bottom of the mountain, or at least sit down and not stand up for a year or two. But I wouldn’t sit, and I wouldn’t turn back. The promise of the Omokaruishi is that even if the gods won’t help you, you can still make your dreams come true if you’re stubborn enough, and I’m pretty damn stubborn. So I turned back to the path and took strength from the last source remaining to me: schadenfreude. I made it my personal mission not to stop even one more time until I made it to Ichi-no-Mine, and sucked every milliliter of encouragement I could from other travellers who hauled themselves up the mountain at a slower pace than I, travellers stopped on the side or stopping every few steps. I heard one Japanese man mutter in surprise at my speed, which only lent me greater strength for the final push.

And so it was that I arrived at the top, gasping, jelly-legged, sweating, and victorious. I can’t remember if I sat on the steps of Ichi-no-Mine, or if I stumbled about in a hazy fog of exhaustion until I caught my breath minutes (hours? days? years?) later. When I came to, I glanced about for my reward. A beautiful view? A crowd waiting to throw me on their shoulders? A panoply of applauding white foxes in their finest kimono? Better! The god’s most altitudinous shrine!

Surrounded by trees and curiously lacking in mystical foxes, Ichi-no-Mine shrine may not feel like the spiritual reward you deserve after the climb, but the fact that it’s a level spot with benches and water make it feel like a slice of heaven anyway. I conquered the last ten steps to the interior of the shrine and thanked everything there was that I’d had the fortitude to make this painful, beautiful, laborious and transcendent dream come true: the trip back to Japan, back to Kyoto, back to Fushimi Inari Taisha, and finally to the top of the mountain.

The way back down was easy, as all ways down are.

"Untitled" by Erin Grace, CC-BY

“Untitled” by Erin Grace, CC-BY

Address: 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto Prefecture 612-0882

Get there: Arrive in Inari Station (Nara Line) and take the only exit. Fushimi Inari Taisha is directly across the street. Alternatively, you can arrive in Fushimi Inari Station (Keihan Line). Exit to the south and walk to the very end of the station. Turn left. The road will lead you directly into the shrine in about a quarter mile. Although the Romon Gate won’t be there to greet you, there will be hundreds of little shops to duck into and probably a smaller crowd during the busy season.

Price: Free. However, it’s a good idea to have 1000-2000 yen to buy emaomikuji, charms, or other items, plus another 1500-3000 yen for food and drinks.

Tips:

  • I absolutely recommend hiking the whole way up, but be sure to give yourself plenty of time to enjoy it! Although the complete loop up to Ichi-no-Mine takes only about two hours, that doesn’t include time to eat, explore, or rest. For us, the whole loop was closer to four hours. I’d suggest tackling Fushimi Inari Taisha in the morning when it’s cooler, then heading somewhere else in the afternoon (perhaps Tofukuji Temple, a twenty-minute walk north).
  • That said, Fushimi Inari Taisha never closes; you could come at 2 a.m. if you wanted. As I’ll write about next week, Fushimi Inari Taisha after take is a worthwhile trip in its own right.
  • Check out the Google Streetview of the shrine! Although the Googler didn’t make it all the way to Ichi-no-Mine, it’s still fun to scroll through the torii on the computer.

Based on my diary entries from November 13, 2013.

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