See, here’s the things about Shinto Shrines. As discussed in my S is for Shrines post, while they are always beautiful, fascinating and unique in their layout and size, because they are ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE it’s very easy to get burned out from them. After a while, shrines become just another part of the street furniture, along with street lamps, the local combini and that strange shop that is so rundown you’re not sure if it’s a shop anymore.
For me, however, there is one towering exception: Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) in Kyoto, the Head Shrine of the Fushimi Inari family of shrines. This shrine is the ultimate embodiment of that shrine family’s hallmarks: burnt-orange torii gates, stacked in a line to make a tunnel up to the main hall, and the fox guardian animals – a sacred animal of Japanese culture.
So as the head of the family, you’d expect Fushimi Inari Taisha to take on those characteristics and take them to the next level right? Oh boy, does it ever!
Your journey to the shrine starts off pretty unassumingly. You alight at the small Fushimi train station that drops you off in a quiet suburban neighborhood of Kyoto. A short walk up the street takes you to the huge torii making the entrance to Fushimi Inari Taisha. And while the main complex at the ground level is vast and impressive, you may still be feeling that this is all par for the course, especially in Kyoto. Big shrine complexes are all over the place in Kyoto, so what makes this one so special?
Well, if you make your way to the back of the complex and up a set of stone steps, you will see the beginnings of a tunnel of torii, stacked tightly one after the other, winding away into the woods beyond. Now, in your average Fushimi Inari shrine, this tunnel would be about eight to ten torii deep. In Fushimi Inari Taisha, the tunnel is 10,000 torii long, weaving a sprawling labyrinth up the mountainside of Inari San right up to the peak.
Every single torii you see has been donated by a company or on a personal basis, as an offering to the shrine to provide them with good fortune for the times ahead. As you head back down the mountainside, you will see that the back side of the torii’s legs have been engraved and inked with the name of whoever donated that torii and the date they donated. Don’t be surprised to see a few famous brand names there!
The atmosphere of the place as you hike slowly up the mountain through the sprawling vermillion maze is incredible, a heady mix of the natural and the spiritual. But if possible, it must be experienced first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening, when the sun is on the horizon and casts long shadows through the canopy. It’s an experience you will never forget.
Not only is Fushimi Inari Taisha a stunningly beautiful place, but it is also a lot of fun as well, and that hike up Inari San is deeply satisfying, one that I would happily revisit again and again. The phrase “must-see” is overused these days, but it is absolutely justified for Fushimi Inari Taisha.