It was already quite dark by the time we stepped foot into the shrine. The lights of Fushimi Inari Taisha floated like ghosts ahead of us. The Romon Gate, which had appeared so welcoming and cheery that morning, took on a decidedly more ominous look in the darkness. Behind the Romon Gate, Mt. Inari rose up like a hulking shadow, a black line that sharply cut off the sprinkling of stars mid-sky. Despite its ominous appearance, we dashed out of Inari Station and up into the shrine, hoping to catch the Bonfire Festival (Hitaki Sai) that I’d seen advertised on the Fushimi Inari website. It seemed that these bonfire festivals occurred throughout the month at the various subshrines and I was excited to see the only one that was going to happen during our time in Kyoto. (Little did I know that I’d somehow misread the site and there was, in fact, no Bonfire Festival that day. But more on that* later.)
We were of course running rather late (it seemed to be the going theme of the trip), and on top of it all, we’d been in such a huge rush that Jason and I completely left Shannon and Jeremy on the train platform back in Kyoto Station! It was an adventure to be sure, and one I wouldn’t like to repeat. Now that we were at the shrine, doubly late, we had no choice but to dash up the mountain at full tilt. We slowed momentarily as we noticed people passing us (always headed out), then broke into runs again when we felt they were far enough behind us that our dignity was once more free for sacrifice.
As we sprinted up the mountain, it was impossible not to notice how strikingly beautiful the shrine is at night. The whole world around us was black except the torii, a spooky Halloween orange in the lamplight. From time to time a patch of darkness would fall across the path where no lamps stood for fifty feet or more, but always we could detect another lamp ahead, ready to light the way for us provided that we didn’t kill ourselves on the uneven path.
The subshrines and graveyards flew behind us, and in a crushing fifteen minutes, we were up to Yotsu-no-Tsuji. Success!!!
We stopped abruptly when we arrived, not sure what to make of what we saw: several people sitting in groups of two or three on the various benches and stone walls in perfect silence, staring into space. It felt as though we burst in on them like a stampede of elephants but they didn’t seem to take notice of us. We fell silent, trying to assess the situation. The various lanterns provided a half-light in which their faces seemed to float above their dark clothes, and here and there a fox statue peeked its pointed snout out into the light as well. After a little time we detected tiny pockets of conversation here and there, a quiet remark or two between friends. This helped diffuse the sense of foreboding we felt, and we relaxed and began to look around for signs of the ceremony.
Our eyes fell back to the path we’d just come up and the beautiful view of Kyoto sprung out, the lights of the city a thick carpet of shimmer and shine on the valley floor below. As beautiful as it had been that morning, it was vastly more so that night. We were as arrested by this sight as that of the silent crowd waiting in the darkness, and we stood helpless before its beauty for a few moments before I remembered why we were halfway up a cold, freezing mountain in the middle of the night. I glanced around for signs of the Bonfire Festival, but there was no sign of it, no sound of it. Perhaps it was quieter than I’d expected? We found the appropriate subshrine and walked as fast as we dared up its stairs, hoping that we hadn’t missed too much.
Alas, even after arriving at the very top, there was still nothing. We glanced around, hoping that the better vantage point would lead us to some other shrine with signs of a bonfire, but nothing. We wandered the subshrine, exploring the stone-dark graveyard behind it by the light of our cell phones, but no festival presented itself. We went back down the stairs.
This scene repeated and repeated, sometimes with a different subshrine, sometimes with the first, as though we believed we’d somehow missed a huge bonfire in the middle of the dark forest, but we never did find the ceremony. Despondent, I spoke with one of silent people at Yotsu-no-Tsuji. He seemed surprised that I’d want to go to the Bonfire Festival, and claimed that it had happened several days before! I’d been so sure about the date on the website, and so I reiterated that it was supposed to be for the subshrine on the east side of Yotsu-no-Tsuji! I pointed up to it, not knowing the character reading for it’s name. But no, it seemed that we were out of luck. He’d never heard of that festival, and at any rate, it didn’t seem to be happening. I was tempted to ask why, if there was no Bonfire Festival, he and so many others were sitting here in the darkness, turned away from the view of the city… But I reconsidered. Did I even want to know the answer?
I was ready to climb back down the mountain in defeat at that point, but Shannon and Jeremy were energized despite the total lack of bonfire, and insisted that we explore the completely unlighted forest paths behind the subshrines. We pooled the power of our cell phone flashlights, and I kept at least one lantern from the path visible at all times, but found I was still terrified to think that what might lurking in the forest around us. (A sign I’d seen earlier in the day warned visitors against interacting with the monkeys that live on the mountain, and despite my attempts to reassure myself that the monkeys would be asleep, I couldn’t help but fear a mauling.)
I tried to hang back, but after about fifteen minutes of exploring, Shannon all but grabbed me and insisted that I follow him. The lights of the torii path, which I’d managed to keep more or less in sight this whole time, disappeared behind us as we followed what seemed to be nothing more than a deer run through the wood, down a steeply sloping hill. Then…there! Just ahead! Another branch of the torii path, lit in safety orange (or so it seemed). I was so happy to see a sign of the path back to civilization I went for it, but just at that moment Shannon ducked off onto a small spur trail to our left. I stayed at the fork, not wanting to lose sight of the torii path again. But Shannon insisted, claiming that the thing he wanted to show me was just a tiny bit further along. I swore to keep my bearings (Shannon’s trail lead west, by my internal compass, and I fixed that in my mind) then stepped onto the spur trail.
He was right. We only went about 15 feet before the branches receded and we found ourselves on a high, bare bluff. The trees were totally cleared for a space of just under 100 yards, and the mountain perfectly flat. The reason was obvious in moments; it seemed that there was an old, disused billboard up here on the side of the mountain for some reason, and all the trees behind it, to the sides of it, and even for a length down the slope in front of it were cleared so that people looking up at the mountain would be able to see it clearly. Although my brain went in weird places trying to figure out why in the hell someone would try to put a billboard on a holy mountain (and why in the hell the priests would allow it), the practical effect of the clearing was the best view of any city I’ve ever seen. Although the view from Yotsu-no-Tsuji is certainly beautiful, it feels as though you’re only seeing a tiny slice of the city. This view confirmed that feeling, as almost five times as much of the cityscape was visible from this point, the lights cascading off to both sides, crashing up against Arashiyama in the distance, and finally sliding behind the trees again on either side.
Jason and Jeremy joined us moments later, and there were no words; we started at the city shining like a jewel with a million facets.
After an interminable time, we realized how cold we were and made our way back to the small path, clearly visible now that our eyes were well adjusted to the darkness, then to the lighted torii path back down the mountain. We walked out of the shrine slowly, trying to savor the quiet and mystery that we’d missed on the way up.
Get there: Follow the torii path up to Yotsu-no-Tsuji, then turn into the leftmost shrine. Walk all the way to the back of the shrine and you’ll find a gap in the wall that leads to a tiny path through the forest. Follow the path, which should lead downhill a bit, and keep an eye out for the billboard on your left. The viewpoint is at approximately these coordinates: 34°58’11.8″N 135°46’52.7″E.
Price: Free, like the rest of Fushimi Inari Taisha!
- Try to find the path during the day, while you have enough light to not get lost too badly (and tip one-point-five: bring a flashlight, just in case!). No matter what time you go, it’s sure to be lovely, although I must admit I’m partial to the night.
*Addendum about the Bonfire Festival: The Bonfire Festival is held each year to thank Inari for a good harvest and to pray for the well-being of worshipers. People from all over Japan send prayer sticks to be burned in the bonfires at this festival. There is also sacred kagura dancing.
We totally missed this festival because of a misunderstanding during trip planning. If you want to visit, check out the Fushimi Inari Taisha official site for the correct date. Please note that you’ll probably need to arrive at least an hour and a half in advance to get a good view.
The shrine site is only available in Japanese, so if you don’t read Japanese, go to the calendar here (preset for November, when the Bonfire Festival takes place). Look on the right for this kanji.: Click it and the appropriate calendar item will load with the date and time below the picture.
Although photos and video are allowed, please remember that this is a religious rite on sacred ground; please be respectful and follow the lead of the people around you if you’re unsure how to act or what to do.
Based on my diary entries from November 13, 2013.