Quite possibly one of Japan’s most famous shrines, Fushimi Inari lies at the base of Inari Mountain, Kyoto. You may well know of it without even knowing the name; it’s famous for it’s “Senbon Torii”, or “thousand gate” walk, which takes you to the summit of the mountain with which it shares its name. Read on to discover more about this fascinating tabernacle, and discover the history behind the beauty.
As you can well imagine, it has a long, illustrious history. The earliest structures were built in 711, on the Inariyama hill in Southwestern Kyoto. In 816, at the behest of the monk Kukai, the structure was relocated. In 1499, the main shrine structure was constructed. At the base of the mountain sits the main gate (roman; tower gate), and main shrine (go-honden). The inner shrine is contained within the mountain behind, reached by a path lined with the aforementioned colourful torii (more on this later). Lining the path to the summit are over 10,000 tsuka also, mounds for private worship. In the 8th century, it was dedicated to the kami (God) of rice and sake (rice wine) by the Hata Clan. As agricultural roles diminished, further Deities were enrolled to ensure business prosperity. Attracting Imperial patronage in the Heian Period, in 965 Emperor Murakami decreed that messengers must carry written accounts of important events and present them to the guardian kami (God) of Japan. Initially, these “heihaku” were presented to 16 shrines across the nation, Fushimi-Inari being one of them. From 1871 through 1946, it was officially designated a “kanpei-taisha”, meaning that it stood in first rank of government supported shrines. It is the head shrine of Inari (God of sake, rice, fertility, agriculture, industry, and tea), and since its early days has been seen as a patron of merchants, manufacturers, and businesses. It is said that this shrine has over 32,000 sub-shrines scattered throughout Japan. Incredible.
The most famous feature of this particular shrine is it’s reportedly over 5,000 torii, a gateway unique to Japan and Shintoism. Each torii is gifted by a business, and inscribed with details about it. They are also bright orange in colour, and a lot of them are erected close together at points along the Senbon Torii trail forming a tunnel of sorts. Maintenance of these structures is perpetual, and you will often see cracked, broken, faded, and even missing torii, as well as the replenishment by artisans. The Senbon Torii lead you from the base right to the summit, a walk that snakes through the mountain, and takes roughly 2-3 hours to complete. Along the way, many smaller shrines can be observed and prayed at, and the view at times is utterly spectacular, affording glimpses of modern Kyoto.
Entering Senbon Torii
Views of Kyoto
At the top
Another prominent feature are the many foxes (kitsune) you can observe within the grounds of Fushimi Inari. Erected as messengers to Inari, they carry keys within their mouths that open granaries. Aside from the odd leaping fox, most are depicted as seated, usually in pairs, and around places of worship, though they can be observed at intervals in the aforementioned Senbon Torii. You may notice some foxes wearing red bibs. Why is this? Well, red is considered a ward for demons and diseases, so you’ll often see statues in both Shintoism and Buddhism (two of Japans main religions), either decked out in red clothing, or painted red. Originally, the colour was associated with the Gods of diseases, most notably small pox, however, over the centuries it has become a colour for warding, rather than of association, hence why it is seen on statues such as the kitsune, who are associated with rice and fertility.
If you are in Kyoto, set aside a day (or at the very least a half day) for visiting. It’s a must see. Easily accessible from both the JR Nara Line Inari station and the Keihan Electric Railway Main Line Fushimi-Inari station, you won’t be hard pressed to find it (here’s a map below to help you out). Just follow the crowds of people! Prior to reaching the shrine, you can enjoy cafes and gift shops, a good place to refuel before your journey through one of the worlds most magical places. Enter the grounds of Fushimi Inari through one of the many spectacular torii, and start to enjoy the bright pops of colour. You can stroll round the shrines main buildings, perhaps purchase an ema board (Japanese wishing plaque) or an omamori (lucky charm), before steeling yourself for the hike to the summit. As mentioned previously, it’s about a 2-3 hour trek, and is of medium difficulty, so if you are in good health you should have no issue. I advise packing plenty of water, though if you forget there are shops and vending machines along the way, just take plenty of yen, as they aren’t cheap! The start of the Senbon Torii lies behind the main shrine buildings, and immediately it’s breathtaking. Pass through a large concrete torii into one of the trails of shorter, orange torii, tightly packed together, blocking out the rest of the world. It’s bewitching. At the end of these, the torii grow larger, and at times more spaced out, but no less spectacular. A leisurely pace can be enjoyed, and there are maps at intervals to let you know how far you have to reach the top. Of course, if you tire, you can return to the bottom at any time. Once you reach the top, some 233 metres above sea level, you will be treated to a cluster of shrines, kitsune, and mini-torii. It’s serene and peaceful, a nice respite after a long hike. Make your peace with Inari, before beginning your descent. It doesn't feel as long on the way back down, I promise. The shrine is open 24/7, so you are welcome to peruse its grounds at any time of the day. Of course, if you plan to make the trip in the evening, come prepared with flashlights, there is not lighting on the Senbon Torii at night. During the day is a great time to visit, because you get to see the shrine and its grounds in all its glory, however, evening time it is much quieter and has a mystical feel.
Points to Remember
Whilst this is a hugely popular tourist spot, it’s also an important place of worship to believers in the Shinto religion, and as such, should be treated with respect. Don’t take photos of places with “no photos” signs, give worshippers space and privacy, keep a reign on unruly children, and don’t step in places you aren’t meant to go. Otherwise, enjoy! It’s an alluring place with a welcoming atmosphere worthy of any bucket list.