A Night at Fushimi Inari Taisha

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(The adventure begins…)

There are few places more iconic of Japan than the vermilion* gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha.

*This is the fancy name the Japanese use for the particular shade of red meant to scare evil spirits away. Naturally, they have painted a lot of shrines with the color.

After a scrumptious okonomiyaki dinner, my couchsurfing host was game to travel all the way across town to look at the gates at night. I hardly hear of anyone visiting the shrine at night, I thought it would be quite the experience! As we took one train after another, I thought I would visit it the next day as well, just to see the difference.

What I wasn’t counting on was the sheer sprawl of the shrine. I thought the gates would be a short lane, but instead, it was a veritable maze built into the side of the mountain. My host estimated that it took 40 minutes to get to the top; the entire experience took us about two hours.

So what can you find at Fushimi Inari Taisha? Stairs and stairs framed by vermilion gates (torii), each boasting a name of the business that donated it. According to wikipedia, the shrine is for the kami (or god) of rice and business, hence the donations. Foxes serve as the kami’s messengers and so there are many fox statues as well. No real foxes, however. The stairs branch off into little alcoves full of smaller shrines, dedicated to this or that spirit. They were overladen with offerings, from coins dropped in boxes to tiny bottles of sake (an alcoholic beverage made from rice). There were also shrines that seemed dedicated to the gates themselves, like some crazed fan’s special kind of fanart.

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(Foxes)

My couchsurfing host let me know the size of the place perhaps a quarter of the way in. Having done that distance already, I resolved to reach the top. I asked him if you got something when you climbed the whole thing, like a prize or a wish granted. He said there wasn’t, but I made one anyway. I told him that in my tour of temples and shrines that week, looking at all the various charms everyone offered, the only thing I really wanted, more than being happy, wealth or a love life fulfilled, was peace.

And I feel like, wandering the insanity of Fushimi Inari Taisha, I got that. I got love too. Near the top, the shrine opens up to an unbelievable, breathtaking view of Kyoto. In the darkness of the night, with few people to witness, it felt like the silence before a kiss. It was rather romantic, though it felt wrong to kiss at a shrine.

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(Getting drunk on sake, however, would surely be approved of by this shrine’s kami. The only catch is that if you were drunk, you would probably fall down some stairs and die. While foxes laughed at you.)

I felt so utterly in love with Kyoto in that moment. Just that wild, blissful feeling of being completely at the mercy of something bigger than oneself.

I didn’t make it to the shrine in the daylight again. The first visit seemed exactly right.

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[This post was originally published on March 10, 2015. It has been backdated for the sake of tidier, chronological organization.]

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