Thousands of orange gates led us up the mountain. Most showed their age, some glistened with new paint, fewer still had wet cement in their foundations. Our jetlagged wakeup aided our early arrival to Mount Inari, and although several others were with us at the beginning of the walk, our isolation increased with the altitude. An hour after we began, we found ourselves in a verdant forest. The cicadas had faded in the distance and all we heard was the babble of a stream, birds’ morning songs, and the breeze through the treetops. Clusters of the bright torii gates, typical of Shinto shrines, burst through the greenery. It reminded us of so many of our favorite places, where it is easy to become lost in a lush forest. As we’d gaze into the scene, seemingly as out of place as the brightly painted structures, we felt connected to the landscape, welcomed to this peaceful alcove in the city.
Mount Inari is a peak in southern Kyoto. It is home to Fushimi Inari Taisha, the main Shinto shrine of Inari, the Japanese kami (spirit/phenomena) of industry, fertility, foxes, and more. The draw to non-Shinto people is the 10,000 torii gates that adorn the mountain. Torii gates mark the entrance to Shinto shrines, and the thousands on the mountain were mostly donated by businesses for good luck, or as thanks for success.
The entrance to the shrine is directly across the street from a train stop, and we arrived in the early morning as commuters were heading to work. Again, the cicadas were especially loud there, but they couldn’t distract us from our goal as we passed through the first and largest torii. Fox sculptures greeted us as well, and were abundant all along the mountain; they are regarded as the messengers of Inari.
A pool of water sat with bamboo ladles to do the customary cleansing of hands and mouth. We each followed the pictorial instructions before climbing to the enshrined path. A woman swept the stone steps with a traditional broom, her strokes almost magnified by the constant drone of the cicadas. I imagined this could have been any morning since the first structures were built in the eighth century.
When we turned the corner to peer up the path it was a bit anti-climactic. Although there were indeed orange shrine gates every six inches or so, people clogged the path while taking pictures, and a striped rail with a string of lights interrupted the view. I immediately thought we would be hard-pressed to take any photos with no other people in them, but underestimated the size of the mountain. We walked along in awe of the shrines’ size, frequency, and color, still happy to experience the place.
Occasional sunbeams would make it through the forest above and flash in our vision between the gates. The forest was such a stark contrast and provided a rich backdrop to the orange path. At certain points, we could see another gated path ten or twenty meters away. This external view offered an impressive vantage point of the shrines’ beauty and construction.
On one shrine, we noticed a slow-moving visitor. A large snail, perhaps three inches long, was slowly climbing. Its shell was intricate, its antennae long and ever-searching, another spectator at home in its man-made environment.
At the first crossroads, we took what appeared to be the less-traveled path. All other sounds died away as the forest volume increased. We found ourselves along a narrow, stone-paved path, through a bamboo forest! This was similar to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, but this time we were alone. We enjoyed the solitude and wandered along as the forest changed to evergreens. The red trunks were branchless for the lower twenty meters, so we could see deep into their growth. What a lovely, peaceful stroll through the woods.
We were sure this trail could lead us on hours of beautiful scenes, but we had no idea where it would take us, either. When we returned to the main path we continued up the mountain, along streams, past shrines and ponds, with the “crowd” – meeting a few people every five or ten minutes.
After some time of climbing we arrived at a main intersection. One trail veered left and up, so we took it. We passed through what appeared to be a cemetery and came to a large opening that overlooked the city. A short stroll along an access road made us turn around and return to the intersection, sure there was more but not knowing where to go.
Finally, we made sense of the map and continued on our way. Past the shops that offered cool drinks, ice cream, and beer, were more shrines. These guided us to another side of the mountain, through a lush forest nearly free of anyone else. During the final two or three kilometers of the walk we saw no more than ten people. Clearly, most visitors remain near the entrance.
This portion of the mountain was my favorite. Although it, too, had hundreds, or even thousands, of gates, these were very much in the midst of the forest. No unnatural sounds broke the solitude of the place. Several times we were summoned by rushing water or greenish golden light to a small side trail with a wonderfully peaceful nook.
When we returned to the main entrance area it was full of people. What was previously a peaceful start to the morning was now a bustling attraction. It is hard to imagine the gated pathways so full of people, but it is easy to conclude we were happy our jetlag got us there early.
Check out our video to join us on this hike and all our Kyoto fun!
© Cheers Life Partners 2017