The iconic red gates mark the entrance to a shrine, defining a sacred space, but to many outside Japan they are most associated with Fushimi Inari Taisha, the famous shrine at Kyoto. While there are many fascinating aspects to explore here, the seemingly-endless red torii are a captivating visual and immediately recognizable all over the world.
Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) was founded in 711, on Inariyama (Mt. Inari) outside Kyoto. The main structure today dates to 1499 (but is regularly reconstructed, per tradition). Inari Ōkami is the Shinto spirit of rice and its related themes of sake and prosperity. For this reason, you will see donated sake near the shrines.
Throughout Shinto’s long history, Inari has been variously depicted as both male and female. While Susan Spann graciously guided me on my first visit to Fushimi Inari Taisha, we were amused by our distinct references in conversation—I kept referring to Inari as she, and Susan kept saying he, but really that makes sense when you remember that we write in different historical periods.
We’ll talk about shrine etiquette in another post, but it’s good to show basic respect just as I would ask when someone visits my church or cultural site. Today there are over 30,000 shrines to Inari throughout Japan, but Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine. There are multiple shrines and sub-shrines on the mountain, and many are worth exploring! but you probably came for the climb up Inariyama and the dazzling torii.
While the gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha are known as the Senbon Torii (千本鳥居, literally Ten Thousand Torii), that is a bit of an exaggeration. The true number is probably somewhere in the lower to mid four digits—which is still plenty! The custom of donating a torii (to request spiritual aid, to show gratitude, to display wealth and social significance, etc.) began in the Edo period and continues to this day. On our ascent I noticed several new torii under construction, to replace aging ones or to fill a rare gap. Today torii are largely donated by businesses, due to Inari’s rice-based association with prosperity and trade.
As you enter the shrine and ascend Inariyama (only ~760 feet/233 m but that’s enough in the spring or summer humidity), you’ll notice the hundreds of fox statues, large and small. Kitsune (the word refers both to the mundane physical fox and the fox spirit or youkai) are the servants or messengers to Inari. At shrines they are nearly always depicted in pairs, one holding a key to the granary and one holding a hoshi no tama, a “star jewel” of magic.
Susan and I stopped at a café along the ascent where we had inarizushi (the rice in fried tofu which is said to be an especial favorite of kitsune), tea, and hiyashiame (ひやしあめ), the most fabulous ginger drink, the perfect combination of sweet and tart to cut through the heat. I live where humidity is often above 90%, and this climb reminded me uncomfortably of home.
There was once a shrine at the top of the mountain, but it was burned in the 15th century. Now the summit is a shinseki (神蹟), or a site where a shrine used to stand but acknowledging that the spirit remains.
I recommend descending by another route. Take time to explore the side avenues, to visit the sub-shrines, to make friends with a shrine cat. I took hundreds of photos!
As you reach the main shrine, do not continue on to exit toward the train station. Instead, turn right and take the narrow pedestrian way out to the northwest, where you will find street vendors offering a wide array of treats. Try the dango glazed with soy sauce.
I did not have nearly enough time in Kyoto, and I cannot wait to return (this fall, pending COVID-19 conditions and American decisions, so….) and explore more along with my planned hike along the ancient Kumano Kodō (熊野古道), a network of pilgrimage trails which have been in use over a thousand years, and the only such besides the Camino de Santiago to be designated a World Heritage Site. I will share that journey here—so please, everyone, wear your masks and wash your hands!