I have a day off! While rooting around the internet for things to do on our next trip (April/May next year), I also discovered a new blog about Japanese culture which has inspired me to use today to update my blog.
On our next trip, we’re not going back to our beloved Kansai region. Even though there is still so much that we haven’t done in and around Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. Next time, we are spending a week getting to know Tokyo, followed by five nights in Aomori City at the northern tip of Honshu, and then a final night in Narita. Japan is huge and it will take a lifetime to visit all the places we want to see, so we decided this time was the time we would head north.
I bought a book of walks through the Shitamachi area of Tokyo, that picks out the history of Edo, glimpses of which can still be found in the modern city. I wish I had bought the book sooner, because I think I would have appreciated Tokyo more than I have done so far. I’m really looking forward to exploring the city and absorbing some of its history this time. The book is called Old Tokyo: Walks in the City of the Shogun, by Sumiko Enbutsu. I bought the 1993 edition second hand.
But this post is called Fushimi Inari Shrine, so I’d better tell you about our visit there in Autumn 2010. It might be helpful for travellers who want to avoid the misakes we made on our trip!
Fushimi Inari Taisha is considered the most important of all Shinto shrines dedicated to the god Inari. Inari is the god of rice and he protects the yearly crop from damage. Because rice was such an important part of Japanese life, it was used in the past as currency. The local landowners would take rice from their peasants as payment of taxes and also use it to pay the wages of their servants. A good rice harvest every year therefore ensured a landowner’s wealth. As Japan industrialised, wealth became associated with being good in business. As a result, Inari was worshipped by merchants and businessmen as well as rice farmers.
We set off from Kyoto on the JR Nara line from platform 10. It took us a while to find platform 10. We got as far as platform 9 and the trail went cold. Just as my husband was about to bound off to find assistance, I spotted a set of stairs leading up from the platform, so I went up them. Platform 10 was there, off at a tangent from the other platforms, sneaky and unsignposted. We boarded the train along with what seemed like an entire high school sports team. This was a Sunday morning. The boys seemed really happy to be sitting on a train, off to play some sport.
Fushimi Inari is just two stops along from Kyoto station. We got off the train to discover that the station was undergoing some kind of repair work. We navigated our way across a temporary bridge and exited the station. A pair of policemen funnelled us across the road and up to the shrine entrance. The shrine seemed busy. I don’t know whether this was normal for a Sunday, or whether there was something specific going on, but people were queuing up to enter the shrine.
Inside the grounds we found shops and stalls selling fox-related wares. Foxes (kitsune) are thought to be messengers of the god Inari. I had heard that along the mountain trail there were stalls that sold inarizushi (稲荷寿司), which is a favourite food of the foxes. It’s also my favourite kind of sushi. Every shrine dedicated to Inari is guarded by a pair of foxes. One holds a cylindrical key that represents the rice granaries where this precious crop was traditionally stored, the other holds a sacred jewel that symbolises the spirit of the gods. There is a legend that the fox messengers helped Inari, in female form, to forge the legendary sword kogitsune-maru, which perhaps explains why Inari has also been the patron god of swordsmiths in Japan.
While we were milling around, we heard a lot of bell clanking which caused us to turn to look at the shrine. What a treat! We witnessed a parade of shinto priests emerge from the shrine and walk down the slope.
We concluded that the morning ceremony must have finished, and we headed closer to the shrine. At the top of the steps, we saw a beautiful woman wearing a stunning kimono and obi. All the tourists wanted to take her picture. I liked her obi, so took one from behind.
There were plenty of women at the shrine who were wearing simple kimono, or maybe yukata, but this one was the most stunning, with its long sleeves and beautiful pattern. And the obi knot was bewildering!
As we walked up to the tunnels of torii that lead visitors up the mountain, I spied a a small stand carrying torii-shaped ema, or votive plaques, with pens for visitors to write their wishes on. These torii are an offering to the guardians of the rice granary.
I thought they were very cute, but we didn’t pause to buy one to write a message to Inari on. Instead we headed for the torii tunnels.
Anyone who has seen the film version of Arthur Golden’s book Memoirs of a Geisha will recognise the scene in the first photograph above. In the film, the young Chiyo runs through the tunnels of torii (Senbon Torii) that lead visitors up the mountain away from the main shrine. The writing up the posts of the torii in the second image are the names of the businesses and people who have sponsored the torii. Inari is still worshipped as the patron of merchants who brings prosperity. As we walked up through the right hand tunnel, we noticed that some of the torii were very new while others were weathered by age.
We entered the tunnel of torii without a thought of trying to find a map of the route up the mountain, because we were using Judith Clancy’s Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital as a guide. There is a map in the section about Fushimi Inari, and we decided to trust it. This was our big mistake.
We exited the tunnel and arrived at one of the sub shrines where, for 500円, we bought kitsune-shaped ema to decorate and write a wish on.
I decorated mine (that’s it on the left above) and added it to the throngs festooning the sub shrine, then threw some 5円 coins into the coffer, rang the bell, bowed and clapped, said a prayer, then bowed and clapped again.
Then we set off up the mountain, merrily following a mum and her three children and thinking we were following the route in Judith Clancy’s book. Perhaps we should have taken the hint when the family turned back partway through the bamboo forest, but we carried on past more sub-shrines crammed with torii, kitsune and other sacred markers.
At some of the sub shrines, services were being held and we paused to listen to the ritual chanting and singing. It was very atmospheric.
We climbed higher and higher, spurred on by people coming down from the mountain, taking this as a sign that we were headed the right way. We didn’t pass either of the junctions mentioned in Judith Clancy’s book, though, and the climb grew steeper and steeper. Because the map in the book no longer made any sense, my husband took a photograph of a map on a board by the side of the path, but that didn’t really help either. We passed some interesting sights, though – hidden shrines, bamboo groves and graveyards.
Eventually the path started to descend and we passed other people climbing up the way we had just come. This made me think we were on our way back down to Fushimi Inari shrine. How wrong I was. We ended up going deeper into the forest, along paths that were barely trodden and in places quite dangerous to the casually shod. It was a little scary because we were unable to get our bearings and didn’t have Japanese phones or even know how to get help if we came to a sticky end.
We emerged from the forest in small residential area behind a school. There was a map on a board that suggested we were in Tofukuji. Tofukuji is a town between Fushimi Inari and Kyoto. It turned out that our inadvertent trek across the mountain really had taken us across the mountain.
We absorbed as much as we could from the map on the board and walked down through the residential area, emerging onto a broad road that took us past a temple. I think it was Tofukuji temple. We were tired and a little shell shocked from our adventure, so we didn’t go in to ask. As we walked past the entrance, a stream of business suited men came out and we got mixed up in their procession down the road. As if things couldn’t get any more surreal, one of them was casually carrying a very shiny chrome kettle.
We made it to the train station and hopped on a train back to Kyoto where, tired and hungry, we ate in a noodle restaurant in Porta, beneath the station. It felt like we had been away all day, but it was still only early afternoon. Which meant there was time for us to visit Kinkakuji!
I feel as though we didn’t really have the proper Fushimi Inari experience because of our accidental adventure. I’d like to follow the proper trail up the mountain and take in the view from the summit, or at least from the junction halfway up! We haven’t made it back the couple of times we’ve visited Kyoto again since our 2010 trip, but maybe we will try again on another trip.