No trip to Kyoto would be complete without a visit to the Fushimi-Inari Shinto shrine. Originally built in 711 A.D. and dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, this shrine is the “mother” shrine of rice harvests, and in modern times, business harvests as well. Back in the day, the peasants were taxed in rice, so rice was the main currency of Japan. As the economy grew, businessmen and traders began making offerings to Inari to ensure a good harvest- or success in their business endeavors.
To get to the shrine, take the JR Nara line from Kyoto Station to Inari station, across the street from the shrine entrance. Alternatively, the Keihan metro line has a Fushimi-Inari stop a few blocks away from the shrine entrance. Everything I read about the shrine talked about the huge crowds. With two kiddos, I did not really want to fight huge crowds, so we elected to stay nearby the shrine in an Airbnb vacation rental. This worked out wonderfully, as we were able to visit the shrine early in the morning- 7:30 am- before the crowds arrived. There were also worship services going on when we arrived, which was a neat and unexpected thing to see. The entrance to the shrine is marked with a giant Torii. A torii is a gate that symbolizes the transition from profane to sacred, and Fushimi-Inari’s claim to fame is the 10,000 torii that wind up the mountain. Shrines dedicated to Inari (there are many located throughout the country) usually have many torii, because successful businessmen donate and dedicate them to Inari, the god of industry and fertility.
Through time, other smaller shrines have been added up the mountain, and worshipers can leave money, sake, and other food at small shrines dedicated to other Shinto gods and pray for help with exams, fertility or even easy childbirth. Foxes are Inari’s messengers, so there were many statues of foxes as we hiked up the mountain. The key in some of the foxes’ mouths symbolizes the key to the granary. My preschooler is getting to the age where we can learn about the places we are going beforehand, and then I give him things to look out for at the tourist attractions. Before walking to the shrine, we read a little in a guidebook about the shrine, and he was on the look out for foxes the whole time!
Before going up to the inner shrine gate (pictured above) we washed our hands to purify ourselves in the wash basin. Landon loved filling up the cup and tipping it onto my hands. It was hard to get him to take a turn being washed.
The color combinations of the buildings of this shrine were so bold and like nothing I’ve ever seen. It was really neat. Inside the sides of the entrance gate were two statues, I think they were statues of the Shinto gods but I’m not exactly sure. We passed them on our way to the main shrine area. There were bells with long pull ropes hung along the front of the shrine. Worshipers, after washing themselves, threw coins into wooden boxes and pulled the rope. From what I read, I think they made a wish or said a prayer to the Shinto gods. Some of them bowed to the shrine after ringing the bell, and some clapped two times very loudly after throwing the money in. Shinto is so much a part of Japanese culture, that many people practice aspects of Shintoism although they may not claim it as their religion.
Everything I read about the shrine talked about how it was handicap/stroller accessible. The MAIN shrine area is stroller accessible. To reach the beginning of the torii gates going up the mountain, there are stairs and a small ramp, but from there on out, there are stairs. We brought our stroller because it is so much easier than carrying our 23-lb. 10-month-old, and we never know when our 4-year-old is going to refuse to take another step. Well, after carrying the stroller up several steep flights of stairs, we decided to ditch it and continue up the mountain without it. So if you’re planning on bringing a stroller, just know that the torii gates are only accessible up to a certain level (not very far from the main shrine). Steep stairs follow. If we had to do it over, I think we would have opted for the baby carrier for this particular excursion.
Landon made sure we found every fox on the mountain. Some of them looked newer than others. We also found a dragon/lion statue off near a small shrine with a surprise underneath it! The mountainside was so lush and green it made for a beautiful hike up the mountain. At first, the torii gates are very close together and almost make a continuous tunnel to the first mountainside shrine area. Because we went so early in the morning, we were lucky enough to take some pictures without any other people. I guess later on in the day, it gets very crowded and almost impossible to not have other tourists in the pictures.
I guess I should add that I felt like I was living in a calendar or world of stock screensavers and computer backgrounds. There were so many picture-worthy scenes on our hike! Each gate was donated by an individual or business- the bigger the gate, the bigger the donation. The date along with the donor were written on the back side. The first two sets of gates were set up in parallel. Landon liked squeezing in between them and going in the other tunnel. It was hard to get him to stand still for pictures!
At the of the first set of gates, the path opens up into another smaller shrine area. Here, a Shinto priest was making offerings to the kami that were housed in this shrine. From here, the gates got bigger and a little further apart. Little areas of stairs mixed in with smooth path as it wound up the mountain. Owen proved to be a better picture companion than Landon. Sometimes as mom/photographer/blogger, I don’t find my way into the pictures, but I wanted photographic evidence that I was there!
The area surrounding the gates and walkway was astoundingly beautiful. A stream cut its way down the mountain through lush vegetation. Smaller shrines gathered moss and held small torii that worshipers buy and dedicate to specific kami, writing their prayers and then placing them on shrine. Once we trekked up a few steep flights of stairs, we ditched our stroller at the next landing, which had a snack shop, a shrine supplies shop, and another washing basin, alongside this lake.
Landon enjoyed exploring the shrine and gates, although after a few staircase climbs he was ready to turn around and head back. We had read that once we reached the fork in the trail, the gates were further apart and the trail became just a beautiful hike instead of having the significance of the torii gates. We started up the counter clockwise route until we came to this incredible view of Kyoto. After that, we turned around and ventured down the other side of the fork for a little while. We came upon a neat souvenir and shrine supplies shop, where Landon found a little clay fox to bring home, and I found a neat wooden board with the shrine painted on it. I think we were supposed to write a prayer on it and leave it at the shrine, but it makes a great souvenir!
We took a different trail down the mountain and checked out a pond, some old stone work, and a special dedicated rice field. I don’t think it was worth skipping some of the gates on the way down to see these things. Fushimi-Inari is a must-see destination if you’re visiting Kyoto. We are so happy with our decision to go as early as possible, as it meant we could fully enjoy the shrine without worrying about our kids getting lost among the crowds. With young kids, take the backpack or baby carrier instead of the stroller if you’re planning on climbing up the mountain.