It seemed like a big mistake to visit Fushimi Inari when we did. It was the afternoon of a humid Friday in June. When we got off the JR at the station just across from the entrance, the platform was packed for two reasons: 1) there were many people getting off to see one of the the most famous (and Instagrammable) shrines in Kyoto, and 2) there was a man collapsed to the side of the platform, surrounded by what I supposed were his travel companions and two security guards. I asked Micah if he wanted to stop and help, but he didn't want to get in the way. It looked like a case of heat exhaustion.
We inched our way out of the station and into the blistering sun. I was glad I had worn a skirt, but my shirt was dark and fitted. I cursed myself when realized I had forgotten the fan I purchased at Daiso the previous day.
Before entering the main shrine area, we stopped somewhere shady to eat some breads purchased at Kyoto Station. The heat pressed on us, but we ate our way through the bag of curry buns and assorted pastries. It wasn't long before we wanted something to cool off. A market area caught our attention. Meat and soy sauce dango sticks were sizzling on grills, adding smoke to the heated air, and I kept an eye out for a vending machine. When Micah stopped for a sake soft serve, I got a chilled green tea.
We finished our food and headed over to the main shrine. It was hot and there was no shade to be found. It wasn't packed with people, but more like Disney Main Street on an off-season Friday afternoon. A few visiting couples and groups gathered on the stairs in front of the main gate to get pictures, and more visitors wandered around the different shrines, getting pictures, ringing bells, or writing their wishes on slips of paper or wooden tabs.
When we visited Japan, shrines were everywhere. We saw plenty of big shrines with huge gates, but we also saw many small shrines on residential streets or corners of crosswalks when we walked around. Over 1,000 years old, Fushimi Inari-taisa is the head shrine of the fox god Inari. Inari is the god of rice, patronage, business, and general peace and prosperity. For whatever reason, it seems to be a big part of Japanese culture to come to shrines write these wishes on some sort of paper (even at Disney Sea, they had a station where people wrote their wishes for the Spring Season), to receive a fortune, or even to write down any misfortunes and offer it up to the patrons of a shrine for a reversal of that luck. When we visited shrines, you could see that people from around the world made wishes, but we didn't buy anything to write wishes on or try to receive a fortune. We wanted to save money.
However, what we really came to see was just up the hill. While Fushimi Inari is the main shrine, there is said to be 23,000+ sub-shrines for Inari all across Japan. Fushimi Inari itself still is comprised of smaller shrines that can be reached by a hike through the famous "Senbon torii," or rows of red Shinto gates.
A statue of Inari greeted visitors as they entered the belly of the shrine and then we saw it. The entrance to the red gates. Visitors swarmed among the red-lined arcade, waiting for others to get out of their shots and walking in and out of the gates. It was packed and hard to get that picture for us, but we kept walking until there was less people. I felt like we were pretty far up and wanted to go back but Micah insisted on walking the whole way to the top of the mountain. I was hot, sticky, and my feet were burning from walking. "Grumpy-gills," he said. This always makes me pout more.
The gates led us through the shaded forest area and the voices of tourists gave way to the sounds of birds and rustling leaves. I was amazed at how well-maintained they were (they were so red) the more we climbed. The shrine is quite active still; we saw people praying in a no-photography zone at the main shrine earlier that day and there were some men digging holes for gates along the path. I wondered if older gates had gotten too old and needed to be replaced, but I later learned that current businesses still donate the gates to the shrine in order to receive a wish or receive prosperity. It's crazy how these thousand-year-old practices are still alive today. At home in the U.S., there aren't many places with history like that.
Once we left the bottom of the mountain and the many tourists that came with it, it was a peaceful hike. It's looong, but not too difficult (we even saw ladies wearing heels stepping through the gates and some elderly people) and it's quite shady, so even on a hot day like it was, the trees and the gates kept us cool. We passed many little shrines with rest stops on the way up, but I was getting so tired that when we finally got to the shrine at the top of the mountain, I barely noticed it until Micah pointed it out. I took a picture of the "Top of the Mountain" sign to prove that we did it, even though I complained the whole time.
It was a long hike and I was still hot and grumpy, but I'd still say it's in my top three places that we visited. And we get to say that we climbed a mountain in Japan. Which is pretty cool.