Fushimi Inari is hands down my favourite place in Kyoto, and my favourite place in Japan that isn’t a ski resort! When I first lived in Kyoto, my apartment was between Fushimi Inari and Tofukuji Temple, near one of the back routes up Mt Inari – and what a back garden Fushimi Inari makes.
I’ve been there scores of times, exploring along the many side trails with their sub-shrines and animal statues, and yet it always manages to turn up something new whenever you go – tucked away off the main hiking trail you’ll find hidden waterfalls, sub-shrines with families of frog statues and other animals, bamboo groves, and beautiful viewpoints to reward your wanderings.
It’s at its most striking under a blanket of snow, with the brilliant red gates standing out from the white surroundings; it doesn’t often snow in Kyoto, and in the winter I was living in Fushimi I missed the first snowfall while I was away in Hokkaido on this misadventure… I waited all winter for it to snow again, and it only happened once, when heavy snow fell for a few hours in the middle of the night.
So out I went for a midnight stroll around Mt Inari, the red gates picked out against the snow, and with the sounds of the city muffled to nothingness, the night deathly quiet and utterly still save for the flakes tumbling silently down, I was in my own little magical winter wonderland. There were no footprints other than those I made as I went, and though I knew where I was going it truly had a dream-like quality; I was half-expecting to turn along an unfamiliar footpath and find myself in Narnia, or perhaps a Murakami novel… and then, lo and behold, I saw a footpath I couldn’t recall having seen before, leading back into shadow. The only thing morning had in store for me was work, so I figured I wouldn’t mind vanishing off into some spirit world and so down that mysterious path I went. The main trail is well-lit at night, but not this little corner I was now treading softly into; the only sound was the snow crunching underfoot. My eyes adjusted to the small amount of ambient light, aided by the reflective snow, and then I saw it, a strange dark figure looming before me, a statue, but looking somehow almost demonic; for some reason I was reminded of the opening scene of The Exorcist. I swear, I could actually feel it looking at me, fancied I momentarily saw a flicker of light reflected in a pair of eyes regarding me coldly from that darkened visage…
I don’t believe in ghosts, in angels and demons, but I have to admit it, I was spooked; what was this creepy statue standing silently here in the snow, seemingly almost alive, watching me, somehow calling me forward? I edged towards it, aware of my heart beating a little too fast… and then, with a piercing shriek, the statue suddenly sprang to life, lunging straight at my head! I raised my arms in defence and let out a shriek of my own…
A crow! A fucking crow had been perched there on top of a Buddha statue, and had indeed been watching me approach; it took flight and flapped straight past my head, and I absolutely shat my pants and screamed like a little girl. It was just a crow! Haha… I let rip with a torrent of expletives I’m glad no-one was around to hear (though the statues may have blushed), and with my peaceful walk through the enchanted forest thus thoroughly shattered I made my way home. I’d neglected to take my camera with me on that midnight walk, so I set an early alarm to get back up there for some photos before work. Alas, the snow was already in a sorry and slushy state by morning, so the beauty of Fushimi Inari in the snow remains mostly but a memory. I did find a few shaded pockets that still had a bit of snow:
But snow or not, it really is an awesome place whenever you happen to visit Kyoto; the main shrine sits at the foot of Mt Inari, a 233m hill in southeast Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward. An impressive set of brightly coloured buildings approached along paths lined by lanterns, teahouses and snack shops (many of them selling grilled sparrow and quail) and heralded by large red torii gates, the main shrine alone would be impressive enough:
But what makes Fushimi Inari such a mysterious and interesting place is the series of trails behind the main shrine leading through the forest and up the mountain; the main trail is lined with thousands of torii gates forming a red tunnel, and it takes you up the hill via a plethora of sub-shrines to a summit loop trail, with many more side trails branching off to more sub-shrines, waterfalls, and so on.
As noted above, you can visit Fushimi Inari dozens of times without exhausting the possibilities. There’s something pretty magical about wandering off down a random path which appears to lead down the mountain, but which ends up taking you through a secluded patch of forest to a tiny shrine built around a waterfall, with a snake statue built onto the rock as a water channel and no-one else around to see it. Many of the sub-shrines feature particular animals prominently; as well as the snake waterfall, there’s a sub-shrine with entire families of frog statues, another with a pair of horses, one with a row of stone dragons, and one with a statue of each of the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac (rat, dragon, snake, etc). I’m particularly fond of the frogs, for some reason.
As well as animal statues, there are some real animals you’re likely to see at Fushimi Inari. A large number of cats live on the shrine grounds, which I think are semi-strays – fed, though perhaps not housed, by the locals living on the mountain (the owners and operators of the various tea houses and shops you pass on the trails… I once even saw the postman doing the rounds – he was quite literally jogging around the summit loop trail with a bag of mail for the people up there. I reckon that must be one of the coolest mail rounds in the world!)
The cats are pretty tame, and will often hang around and let you take photos of them:
You’re likely to see sparrows too, both fluttering around – and grilled on skewers as noted above!
And then there’s the crows, and what absolute characters they are. They’re known to terrorise Japanese cities, kicking up a racket and waking everyone up at 5am, ripping open garbage bags and spreading trash all over the streets, and even sometimes divebombing passersby (including this author once, knocking my hat off on a footbridge over Tokyo’s Yamanote line). They can be right troublesome little bastards, but they’re actually pretty awesome in my opinion; really smart and full of character, and while certainly not cute they make up for it in attitude. And I definitely like it that one of them once scared the shit out of me in the snow at Fushimi Inari! Sometimes you’ll spot the odd one or two perched here and there; sometimes one will scare the bejeezus out of out as you walk around at night; and sometimes, on windy days, there’ll be a murder of dozens wheeling around in the eddies with an almighty cacophony of caaawing, as though heralding the End of Days itself.
But there’s one animal that features far more prominently than the rest combined, and that’s the fox; pairs of fox guardians are found everywhere at Fushimi Inari, hundreds of them (perhaps even thousands), ranging in size from tiny figurines to man-sized beasts and ranging in appearance from cute to ferocious.
Many hold objects in their mouths, including jewels, scrolls, and especially keys – these are keys to the rice store, as Inari is the god of rice.
And that’s what this shrine is all about – rice, and by extension, wealth and business success. Centuries ago, Inari was a fairly minor god, prayed to in the countryside for a good harvest; but as rice came to be associated with wealth and power in feudal Japan (taxes being levied in rice as tributes from local lords to the shogunate), Inari rose in stature as a god one prayed to for wealth and success. In the modern era, Inari is the god to pray to for a successful business venture – all those thousands of red gates you walk past are each individually sponsored by a company, and the black lettering on the uphill sides of the gates give the company names and dates of sponsorship. The gates are maintained as and when, so you’ll see some sporting bright fresh coats while others are clearly due them (and some need replacing outright following typhoons); I once chanced upon a gruff old chap repainting the lettering on a gate, who grunted his permission to take a photo of him at work:
I have to say, I was actually a bit disappointed to find out this mysterious place is actually just about material wealth; but that doesn’t make it any less photogenic or any less fascinating to explore.
“So why all the foxes?” you may wonder; well, the fox has always been the guardian animal of Inari, though the origin of this seems too far back to be certain why. This association does help explain a culinary question though! If you’ve tried those sushi pieces which are simply blocks of sushi rice wrapped in strips of fried tofu, they’re called inari sushi i.e. rice sushi; and if you’ve tried kitsune udon, you’ll know it’s a bowl of udon noodles with strips of that same fried tofu on top. Well, kitsune is the Japanese word for fox – I’d always wondered what kitsune udon had to do with foxes before having the kitsune / inari connection explained. Unsurprisingly, inari sushi and kitsune udon are two of the main things sold at the restaurants in and around Fushimi Inari.
Anyway, whatever the reason for foxes being associated with Inari, they make great photography subjects; I particularly like these moss-covered examples at one of the waterfall sub-shrines:
Incidentally, Inari shrines (and their foxes) are actually found throughout Japan; Fushimi Inari is the head shrine.
The shrine is open at all times, and the main trail is well-lit at night; it’s actually really nice in the dark, when there are few souls around. By contrast, afternoons can be very crowded, especially on weekends and holidays, and New Year’s is absolutely mental, with Fushimi Inari incredibly receiving in excess of a million visitors over the first three days of every year.
When visiting, the best timing is probably to get there a couple of hours before dark, so you can get the sunset views from the highest lookout and then also experience the shrine by night as you descend. This will also make it a touch less sweaty if you’re there in summer!
As for the best season to visit, again, it’s always a good time to visit, but Mt Inari is a great spot for autumn colours with plenty of momiji (Japanese maple trees) along the way; the bright red of the torii gates goes nicely with the fierce defiance of the maple leaves in late November / early December:
Nearby Tofukuji is far more famous for its autumn colours and gets stupendously crowded; Fushimi Inari is therefore spared the worst of the autumn leaf-spotting crowds, but it still looks great. See here for a walking route taking in Fushimi Inari and Tofukuji.
As noted above, if you go in winter and get lucky you might get to see it under a blanket of snow; in spring, Fushimi Inari isn’t noted as a cherry blossom spot but there are a number of sakura trees dotted around and it should still be on your list!
In summer the bamboo looks great, especially swaying in the breeze as you look down from the top on a windy day… this is also a nice time to hike through the bamboo forest on the back side of Mt Inari (emerging in Kyoto’s Yamashina ward in the neighbouring valley, from where you can ride the subway back to central Kyoto or perhaps head on to Daigoji temple).
Fushimi Inari Maps and Points of Interest
Senbon Torii (Thousand Torii), main trail
Probably the most famous single spot at Fushimi Inari is the Senbon Torii (千本鳥居, Thousand Torii) where the trail splits in two and runs through these tunnels of smaller and more tightly spaced torii:
This is just a 5-minute walk or so up from the start of the trail.
Shin-Ike Pond, main trail
This little pond (Shinike, 新池) is about halfway up the main trail:
Yotsusuji, 四つ辻 is the intersection at the top of the main trail up the mountain with the summit loop trail. It has nice views, a few teahouses, and a rest area with benches, and a lot of visitors satisfy themselves with turning back from Yotsusuji.
But really it’s well worth exploring further; if nothing else, you should at least do the quick detour up to the viewpoint hidden away slightly higher up. In addition to turning back, there are three paths you can take from Yotsusuji; to reach the highest viewpoint, go up these stairs to the left:
This little shrine is at the top:
Make your way through the back of the shrine:
…and along this path:
…and you’ll soon be here:
There’s also this trail board (#3-1) for the Kyoto Isshu Trail’s Higashiyama Course at Yotsusuji with a diagram on it showing the way to the viewpoint:
If you continue straight ahead down the steps on the other side from the above viewpoint, you come to another little junction:
Going down to the right brings you to the snake waterfall shrine, an awesome little spot:
Continuing further down beyond there you can walk round to Tofukuji Temple (more detail here).
If you don’t turn right to the snake shrine but go straight ahead at the junction, you’re on the Kyoto Isshu Trail as it passes the car park used by the locals who live up there and descends a steep, narrow road back down to suburbia in the vicinity of Tofukuji.
Kyoto Isshu Trail
If you’re following the Kyoto Isshu Trail Higashiyama Course as officially marked, trail board #1 is just outside Keihan Fushimi Inari Station, board #2 is partway up (shortly after the twin tunnels), and #3-1 is at Yotsusuji as noted above. #3-2 is a few metres away at the start of an unsaved side trail tucked away round the corner, and #3-3 is at the intersection with the path to the snake shrine. Read about the Kyoto Isshu Trail here
To do the summit loop, you can take it anti-clockwise by going up to the right from Yotsusuji:
…or take it clockwise by going straight ahead this way:
It doesn’t make much difference! Spots to watch out for on the loop trail are the actual summit (no views due to trees and the little building there), the turn-off for the steep trail down to Fukakusa and the Kyoto Isshu Trail Fukakusa Course, the hidden waterfall shrine, and the horse shrine. The hidden waterfall and horse shrines have turn-offs to reach the moss-covered foxes:
The Moss-Covered Fox Waterfall
This little sub-shrine’s based around a waterfall and is home to the moss-covered fox statues pictured above.
Main Trail Alternative
There’s a side trail which meets the main trail at the Mitsusuji (三つ辻) intersection around the halfway point, slightly further up from the pond. If you’ve gone up the main route, it’s a nice idea to descend by this side trail for a change of scenery; it takes you past some cool sub-shrines, and you end up back near the main shrine buildings and the train stations. On this side trail you’ll find the frog shrine, zodiac shrine, and dragon shrine mentioned above.
Any questions or comments about Fushimi Inari? Give me a shout below!
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