Kyoto, Fushimi-Inari Shrine - October 2018
So many “must-see” places in ancient Kyoto ended up being little more than Instagram selfie spots. Fushimi-Inari, though much hyped, is NOT one of those lacklustre sites.
The more we travel around Southeast Asia by following online blogs, guides, and to-do lists, the more difficult it is to have a unique and authentic cultural experience. Fushimi-Inari, a Shinto shrine on the southern outskirts of Kyoto, is on all the “not-to-miss” lists of travel forums, and you’ve probably come across pictures of its famous vermilion gates on Instagram at some point. Without a doubt, this shrine is exquisitely, achingly beautiful. Even in a crowd. Because, even on a weekday in off-season, boy is it crowded.
Despite the hordes of tourists and eager IGers, this place remains high on my list of recommended sites in Kyoto. Yes, it is gorgeous, colorful, orange, and lends itselfie to, well, selfies, but it is also very much an active and working site for Shinto prayers and worship. Wandering around the disconnected buildings, you can hear Shinto priests (“shinsoku”) chanting, and see Japanese followers washing, ringing bells to send prayers to the gods, and requesting blessings through offerings in the shape of plaques, mini-gates and paper slips.
Fushimi has been a site for worship since 823 AD. “Inari” is the patron god of business and agriculture. Devotees come from all over to offer their prayers and wishes for business success and plenty here. The shrine is guarded by “kitsune” or foxes, which Japanese believed to be loyal and cunning. The foxes hold the keys to the granary, which in ancient times secured the rice and was a focus for the local community, or village.
As you head up the hill you enter the famous pathway of vermilion-painted wooden torii gates. Over 10,000 torii snake a bright orange tunnel up the mountain, and this is the huge photo draw for thousands of aspiring photographers. Torii gates in the Shinto philosophy represent moving from the everyday world to the sacred, spiritual world. Passing beneath shows respect and can also bring good fortune. At Fushimi Inari, each gate was donated by a business or family; the larger the gate the more money was offered. The name of the donor is inscribed in black on the side of the gates. Because of the humidity, they are replaced every 10 years.
There are seemingly millions of people moving through constantly, everyone trying to get that shot with no one else it. Despite the crowds, though, it’s still an awe-inspiring place. I’ve heard it’s even more magical (and empty) late evening, (it’s open 24 hours) or in the early morning light. The delicate landscaping, towering torii, winding pathways lined with romantic stone lanterns, Shinto carvings, tombs and buildings, all the green and orange harmoniously co-existing, create a visual effect like no other, leading you through a mythical, mystical, ancient world.
On the way in and out, the streets are lined with vendor stalls selling matcha (green tea) and mochi treats and ice cream, and plenty of souvenirs. Knox made sure to pick up a kitsune mask, (which happily doubled as his Fortnite Halloween costume!) - a beautiful reminder of our true cultural adventure.