Fushimi Inari Shrine: Wise fox spirits and fiery ‘sun’ gates

Millions have passed through these gates over the centuries. — Pictures by CK Lim
Millions have passed through these gates over the centuries. — Pictures by CK Lim

KYOTO, Feb 4 — Have you ever had a dream that felt endless, where you are travelling in a tunnel that seems to go on forever? It would be a great relief, more often than not, when you finally wake, yet during that journey — that stream of birth and beyond — you feel transported.

This is not real, you would say to yourself. This is not the waking world. How surreal.

Millions have passed under the red torii gates of Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha (Shrine) in the centuries since its founding. We suspect they had felt much the same too, whether they were Shinto devotees, spiritual pilgrims or tourists armed with selfie sticks.

The Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of Japan’s top tourist attractions.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of Japan’s top tourist attractions.

Certainly it feels a bit like a pilgrimage for us, when we finally decide to come here, after numerous visits to Kyoto. Considered one of the top attractions for travellers to Japan (ranked number one in 2013, no less), Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of those places we’d recognise even though we’ve never been before — thanks in part to appearances in films such as Memoirs of a Geisha and Samsara.

As we exit the train station, we realise we don’t really need any guide books or even Google Maps. Everyone — and I mean everyone — is walking in the same direction, in a slow, oozing porridge of human bodies. The choice isn’t to follow the flow or not; there is no choice.

Brave the throngs of visitors as you enter the tunnel of torii gates (left). A kitsune (fox spirit) statue at the entrance of the shrine (right).
Brave the throngs of visitors as you enter the tunnel of torii gates (left). A kitsune (fox spirit) statue at the entrance of the shrine (right).

On either side of the narrow streets are stalls set up to sell the usual snacks and local handicraft, but the most popular offering has to be fox-shaped souvenirs. Be it a furry stuffed toy or a lucky charm, the kitsune (fox spirit) reigns supreme here.

An avatar or form of the sometimes androgynous kami (Shinto deity) Inari, these kitsune statues tend to come in pairs, symbolising both the female and male representations. As Inari is also the kami of agriculture and the all-important rice, offerings of rice and sake (rice wine) are often given at the shrine situated at the base of Mount Inari.

A vermilion-hued passage.
A vermilion-hued passage.
Not sponsor messages but names of donors and the dates of their donations.
Not sponsor messages but names of donors and the dates of their donations.

At the entrance to the shrine (first built in 711 but relocated to its current location in 816), we admire two large stone kitsune statues. One holds a jewel in its jaws; the other a key, possibly to the rice granary. Each wears a scarlet bib (yodarekake) associated with Inari. These aren’t the cutesy foxes of anime; there is deep wisdom behind their proud and elegant visages.

We bow as other worshippers do, both out of respect for this holy place and for the sense of serenity it invokes in us.

Of course, keeping that sense of serenity can be quite a challenge as we enter the shrine proper. Past the main hall (honten), past devotees ringing bells, past the racks of prayers written on tiny torii gates, the throngs of people are funnelled into a narrow stream towards the Senbon torii — a path of about 10,000 gates!

Fox-shaped souvenirs are the most popular item on sale (left). A young devotee ringing the shrine bell (right).
Fox-shaped souvenirs are the most popular item on sale (left). A young devotee ringing the shrine bell (right).

This must be what salmon feels like, during spawning season, all trying to get upriver at the same time...

Still, it’s not difficult to ignore the sea of people around us as the sight of the torii fill us with wonder. Up close, we realise it’s properly a shade of vermilion — a reddish orange — rather than pure red or orange. Called shuiro in Japanese, it’s the colour of the sun.

Prayers written on tiny torii gates.
Prayers written on tiny torii gates.

Before us, more torii. Behind us, more torii. It does feel endless.

The back of each torii is engraved with different Japanese characters. These are the names of the donors — some individuals but many are companies and organisations — and dates of their donation. A common practice but not a cheap one; the cost of a single gate ranges from 400,000 yen (RM14,266) to over a million yen (RM35,664) depending on its size!

It isn’t long before the crowd dissipates as the density of torii decreases the further up the hill we go. Some hiking enthusiasts will keep going for there are some trails further on, closer to the summit of the mountain (which takes about two hours to reach), and some devotees will head towards the worshipping mounds or tsuka, but most visitors will turn back at this point.

A pair of male and female kitsune statues wearing scarlet bibs (yodarekake).
A pair of male and female kitsune statues wearing scarlet bibs (yodarekake).

Even the way down can be an adventure, if you descend outside the tunnel of gates as we do. It’s quite a difference experience viewing the row of torii gates from their exterior, surrounded by trees and enveloped in a blanket of sunlight and shadow.

It doesn’t quite feel real, like a dream that has ended. We’ve been transported, from birth to beyond. It feels like a rebirth almost, and we are ready to face the world again — until our next visit, to pay our respects and be filled with wonder once more.

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