CHAPTER 20: On Mount Inari

July 16, 2018*

This photo supplement tracks the events in CLIMB: Leaving Safe and Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. The captions offer “extra features” that didn’t make it into the book.

Fushimi Inari Taisha (Fushimi Inari Shrine) is the head shrine for worship of the Shintō deity Inari Ōkami, the god of swordsmiths, fertility, and rice (also often worshipped as a patron of those engaged in other kinds of creative endeavors). An enormous number of Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan have Inari subshrines on their precincts; the Inari shrine is usually easily identifiable by the tunnel of brilliant vermilion torii at the entrance, and/or the statues of Inari’s guardian foxes, which take the place of the customary komainu (lion-dogs).

Fushimi Inari Taisha winds up the slopes of Mt. Inari like a coiled dragon made of vermilion gates; while many visitors go no farther than the first station, Mom, Laurie, Kaitlyn, and I made the hour-long trek to the summit, as a “training climb” that would let me assess our potential pace for the upcoming (and far longer) climb of Fuji.

Strings of Cranes and votive prayer plaques (Ema) at the base of Mt. Inari

An ancient Japanese legend says that a person who folds 1,000 origami cranes will have his or her wish granted by the kami. An alternate version of the legend says that folding 1,000 cranes will earn a person long life, good health, and/or recovery from illness. Regardless of the reward, folding cranes is a tradition in Japan, and the cranes themselves are customarily donated to a shrine upon completion. The colorful strands above are sets of 1,000 cranes hanging near the entrance to Fushimi Inari Shrine. (Traditionally, the cranes are burned at New Year, in a ceremony that involves a cleansing fire, so all of these–and many more, not pictured, were donated during 2018.)

Inari Enshrined

The building above is the official place where the deity Inari is enshrined at Fushimi Inari Taisha. Although the entire shrine is dedicated to the deity, this spot is the one where the deity “resides” when present at the shrine.

My mom in the Tunnel of Torii

The slopes of Mt. Inari are lined with thousands of sacred Shintō gates, each of which was donated by a private person or entity. The shrine is said to have “ten thousand gates” — but in reality, the number is in excess of 32,000. In Japanese, the number “10,000” is often used metaphorically, to express “a huge number” rather than as a number expressing a literal count.

The most famous “tunnel of torii” at Fushimi Inari sits near the base of the mountain, just above the main shrine buildings. It’s actually a pair of tunnels–one used for ascending, and the other for descending–that follow a very gentle (almost unnoticeable in places) slope to the first of the rest stations and subshrines that sit at intervals on the trail up the mountain.

Kyoto, as seen from the slopes of Mt. Inari

Halfway up Mt. Inari, with the temperature and humidity already oppressive, we decided to stop for lunch at a small, traditional restaurant perched on the mountainside. The view (see above) and the breeze through the open windows made it a lovely place to stop, and the food (pictured farther down) is some of my favorite in Japan.

One of the many Inari fountains on the mountain

In Shintō belief, foxes (more specifically, kitsune, which are magical foxes) are the messengers of Inari. Since it’s not always possible to tell the magical foxes from the normal kind, Shintō adherents treat them all with respect.

A tunnel of torii

Although the most famous tunnel of torii sits at the base of the mountain, sacred gates line the entire trail to the summit. While the front sides of the gates are unmarked, the back side bears the name of the donor (either an individual or a company) that donated the gate to the shrine. Each of these large ones represents a donation of over 1,000,000 Japanese Yen (approximately $10,000 US).

Inarizushi on Mt. Inari

According to legend, inari zushi (Inari sushi)–sushi rice with sesame seeds wrapped in thin, fried tofu skin–is the favorite treat of Inari’s guardian foxes. I don’t know what the foxes actually think, but it’s definitely among my favorite Japanese treats. This is the inarizushi we ate that afternoon in the restaurant on Mt. Inari–and if you visit Fushimi Inari Taisha, I strongly recommend making the hike to the summit and stopping at this restaurant for lunch along the way (it’s easy to find: it’s the only restaurant located halfway up the mountain that has a view overlooking Kyoto).

More inarizushi

In addition to tasting great, lunch was a great way to break up the hot, sweaty climb up the mountain (Kyoto is beautiful all year round, but can be exceptionally hot and humid in July).

The trail up Mt. Inari

Unlike most of the mountains I climbed during the 100 Summits project, the entire trail up Mt. Inari is paved. The ascent involves climbing flight after flight of short, broad stairs until you reach the summit, and although it’s not an insignificant climb, even small children can manage it fairly easily.

Sub-shrine on Mt. Inari

Most of Mt. Inari is forested, so the hike is almost entirely in the shade (but still quite hot in summer). The various “stations” offer a place to sit and get a cold drink or a bite to eat (a few of them do require you to make a purchase in order to use the seating area), and sub-shrines like the one above line the trail all the way to the top of the mountain. People who climb Mt. Inari for religious purposes often stop at each of these sub-shrines to chant or pray, and it’s not unusual to see or hear groups of pilgrims worshiping at various places along the trail.

On the summit of Mt. Inari

This was the first mountain my mom and I climbed together. We both hoped it would not be the last. (This was also a landmark summit, because I finally had enough hair to truly be comfortable in public without a hat.)

“Team Fuji on Mt. Inari”

Left to right: Kaitlyn, my mom (Paula), me, Laurie. Team Fuji 2018, celebrating the successful pre-Fuji climb of Mt. Inari.

Inari sub-shrines

Like many sacred mountains, Mt. Inari is also home to numerous graves and memorial sites. These little cemetery plots appear beside the trail periodically all the way to the summit.

After completing our climb up Mt. Inari, we returned to Kyoto, picked up my stepdad, Spencer (who was recovering from spinal surgery and opted to skip the mountaineering portions of the trip) and headed north for an overnight in Hakone before heading to Fujinomiya, the town near the foot of Mt. Fuji that would serve as the staging point for my attempt to climb the tallest, and most famous, mountain in Japan.

The story continues in Chapter 21: Mount Fuji

* This page is part of the photo companion to CLIMB: Leaving Safe & Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. You can find the story behind these pictures (in hardback and ebook formats, and either in person or online) at your favorite local bookstore or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble (both in the U.S. and internationally).