As the god of rice, merchants, swordsmiths, fertility, foxes, and many other things, Inari Okami’s presence is ubiquitous in Shinto worship. Over ten thousand Japanese shrines have altars dedicated to Inari, but Fushimi Inari Taisha, south of Kyoto, is Japan’s largest and most important Inari shrine.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been blogging an extended “visit” to Fushimi Inari, starting at the shrine’s main entrance, proceeding past the main altar, and finally (today) starting the climb up Mount Inari itself.
Fushimi Inari is famous for its thousands of bright red torii – gates that traditionally mark the entrance to a Shinto sacred space.
Most Shinto shrines feature torii at the entrance to the shrine precinct, as well as the entrances to sub-shrines and particularly sacred spaces. At Fushimi Inari, the entire mountainside is lined with torii, most of which were donated to the shrine by individuals and corporate donors. The size of the torii reflects the size of the donor’s contribution (in many cases, donors fund more than a single gate), and the names of the donors are inscribed on the back side of the torii:
The entrance to the gate-lined path lies past the shrine’s main entrance, primary altar, and several sub-shrines. Near the base of the mountain, two paths diverge – the one on the right is intended for people heading up the mountain, while the one on the left is used by those descending:
Starting up the right-hand path, the gates are so close together that they look more like a tunnel than a line of gates:
(And yes, the light inside the path does seem more orange than normal – it’s an optical illusion based on the way light hits the torii.)
The same gates, from outside the path:
The “torii tunnel” takes about five minutes to walk through, at normal speed, and ends at the first of many altar-lined sub-stations on the path up Mount Inari.
Many (if not most) visitors climb only as high as this first station, because beyond this point the sloping path through the torii becomes a climb. Instead of smooth paths underfoot, the route from this point becomes a staircase (sometimes steeper than others) that continues all the way to the top of the mountain.
Also, beyond the first station, the torii are farther apart, allowing views of the beautiful pine and bamboo forested mountain beyond the path.
Although the stairs are not narrow, or overly steep, the path to the summit takes 90-120 minutes to walk under normal circumstances — longer if it rains or if you stop for tea or lunch at one of the many way-stations that line the mountain. (I did, and I’ll see that stop in next Monday’s blog.)
Assuming you can physically handle the stairs, I recommend planning an entire day to visit Fushimi Inari and making the climb all the way to the top of the mountain. If you don’t have the time (or don’t feel like climbing several miles’ worth of stairs), at least make the trek as far as this first station — the tunnel of torii is something you shouldn’t miss.
Have you visited Fushimi Inari? Would you like to, if you found yourself in Japan?