One thing you could never accuse Kyoto of is a shortage of temples and shrines. There are quite literally thousands of them. But even amongst Kyoto’s 400 individual Shinto shrines, Fushimi Inari is one of its most extraordinary and unforgettable.
This is not just because the sight of its 10,000 or so tightly spaced bright vermillion Torri gates may be permanently seared into your retinas. Though that is a distinct possibility. It’s because the Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine is a magical and otherworldly place that will take your breath away.
Quite literally, if you make it all the way up to the top – around 4 kilometres – and have similarly appalling levels of fitness to me. But regardless of my huffing and puffing, this is my kind of shrine.
The Fushimi Inari origin story
Not only is it gobsmackingly beautiful and packed with 1300 plus years of fascinating history, it is a shrine to food and booze! The ancient mother shrine of Inari, the Shinto god of rice and sake, it is said to have first been dedicated to the granary god in the year 711 by the Hata clan… around 83 years before Kyoto’s founding.
Incidentally, Inari is often identified with Benxaiten. No, not Ben Ten. Benxaiten… of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods. Portrayed as an androgynous bodhisattva riding a flying white fox, she/he’s also Raffles best spiritual pal since our arrival in Kyoto as he has become addicted to buying charms from temple lucky dips and gets her/him every time. Given Benxaiten is the goddess of wit, eloquence and music, he figures that means she/he’s like the Dave Grohl of the gods and feels her/his patronage is a very good omen. But I digress…
Foxes at Fushimi Inari
Along with the magical, seemingly unending trail of Torii gates that wind through the hills, the shrine is also home to hundreds of stone foxes, which are said to be the messengers of Inari.
Raffles and Sugarpuff love hunting these little and large foxes, hidden in numerous small sub shrines along the pathway.
The foxes are also known as Inari and mostly appear in pairs, one fox carrying a sacred jewel representing the spirit of the gods in its mouth, the other a key to the rice granary. You see, it’s a little known fact that foxes are excellent locksmiths and often moonlight as jewel thieves.
Turns out they are also considered sacred by the Japanese who believe that foxes are capable of ‘possessing’ a human, entering under the fingernails. Sneaky little buggers…
Fushimi Inari shrine etiquette
Upon entry to any shrine, you’ll find a purification fountain and ladles to wash your hands and mouth before approaching the main hall. We go through the ritual, ensuring our mouths do not touch the ladle, though I go back for seconds as I figure I need a little extra given mine’s predilection for profanity.
We purchase Ema, those funky little wooden plates that people write on to leave their wishes in the hope they will come true.
Raffles also gets an Omikuji. These are kind of like a sacred lottery, with random fortunes written on strips of paper. Should they be of the not-so-auspicious variety you tie them to strings at the shrine and leave them behind to avert bad luck.
Happily, Raffles Omikuji delivers a message of good luck and travel in his future which, given he’s currently on holidays, really can’t be argued with. He’ll take it! But he’ll also ring the bell to greet the in-house deity… just in case.
The path to the summit of Fushimi Inari
While the main shrine building, the Go-Honden, which dates from 1499, and the surrounding structures are pretty impressive, the main attraction is not the shrine itself but that epic army of Torri gates marching up the hill.
The hike to the summit of the mountain and back is said to take around 2-3 hours. This, however, does not account for those visiting Fushimi Inari with kids.
Particularly if said kids are four-year old prima donnas who drop to the ground in protest and demand to be carried after every second gate… and then insists on playing hide and seek in the alternate ones.
If you too happen to be travelling with a small stubborn person, I would suggest allowing 16 or 17 days for the trek to the top because it will take that long… at least it will feel like it.
The good news is that it’s all down hill on the return trip. And you can just push them. So long as no one is watching. I jest. Or do I?
In all seriousness, you don’t have to hike the entire path. You can enjoy as much or little as their little legs and your aching arms can handle before making the return trip.
You’ll also find restaurants along the way to break up the walk. Though this too can prove problematic if you happen to be travelling with a seven-year old glutton, as he’ll want to stop at each and every one to try the food. This will require you to add at least another 4 days to the journey. The good news though is that the local specialities served are quite delicious, especially Kitsune Udon, a soup filled with plump noodles and fried tofu, which is said to be a favourite food of foxes. Because another little known fact about foxes is that they all possess frying pans, can make fire, and are skilled chefs.
All the stores leading from the shrine are packed with trinkets, toy, amulets, and sweets made to resemble those dextrous foxes, except for a completely random cat café, which of course the kids insist we patronise… while wearing fox masks.
But that is a story for another day.
Fushimi Inari is just one of Kyoto’s many must-visit temples and attractions. If you’re after a less retina-searingly colourful introduction to the ancient city, you can find more on Kyoto with kids here.