Fushimi Inari Taisha is a large shinto shrine complex in southern Kyoto. Here it is on the map. It began in the 8th century to revere Inari, the god of the rice harvest. Inari has always been an important god. Few (if any) images were ever created of him and he uses foxes as his messengers. The foxes acting on Inari’s behalf are even called Inari.
The shrine has a large complex of buildings at the foot of Mt. Inari. This is where most of the shrine’s activity takes place. Large public ceremonies are held in the halls there and many visitors, especially the elderly, never go beyond to see what’s on the mountain. This complex is well worth your visit but make sure you afford plenty of time for your visit to Fushimi Inari Taisha so that you can explore the mountain paths.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is an important shrine complex. It is the headquarters shrine of all Inari shinto shrines in Japan (some 40,000 of them). Over time, the shrine came to be associated with business in general. Fushimi Inari Taisha receives a large number of donations and requests for blessings by businesses large and small all over Japan.
One of the ways businesses donate to the shrine is purchasing large torii gates. These gates are the large, red spirit gates that are so well known to the rest of the world as a symbol of Japan. These torii gates are so numerous that they form tunnels that march up and down Mt. Inari. They branch at certain points and allow a visitor to choose their way up and down the mountain.
There aren’t many places in the world that I would describe as “magical.” Fushimi Inari Taisha is defintely one of them. There is an atmosphere there that is easy to remember but difficult to describe. The shrine complex at the foot of the mountain is impressive but the real soul of Fushimi Inari Taisha is on the sides of Mt. Inari.
The forest growth is thick and rich. Everywhere nature’s presense is felt. There is a quiet that settles on the whole of the mountain. The torii tunnels don’t simply move you from one place to another. They also move you from your ordinary frame of mind to a mystical one. The tunnels cease every so often and let you out into a clearing in the thick forest. Some clearings hold minor shrines, some hold what look like graveyards, others hold shops or restaurants. Many of them open out to a space set aside to rever the spirit contained within a large tree or ancient stone. Higher up the mountain are sites that hold a collection of carved stones that stand as markers.
Some historical sites in Japan can transport you to the nation’s past. Fushimi Inari Taisha goes beyond that to transport you to the world of Japan’s oldest myths and stories. As odd as it sounds, when I was there I doubt it would have surprised me to meet a spirit or monster from Japanese lore treading the mountain paths.
My traveling companions and I spent the day on the sides of Mt. Inari. We saw most of the shrine’s grounds and got a real workout from all the up and downhill walking. The people traveling with me usually didn’t show any real interest in religious or historical sites but this one was different. They paused with me to gaze in wonder at the many small and ancient sites on the mountain and remark how they felt traveling through bright red tunnels of spirit gates.
If you ever have the chance to see Kyoto I would recommend Fushimi Inari Taisha as the number one site. I am confident it will have a lasting effect on your view of Japan. As amazing and secluded as it is, it isn’t at all difficult to visit. There’s a train station that lets you out by the road leading to the main shrine complex. The train station is even named after Fushimi Inari Taisha. You can’t miss it.