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Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha

The first time I visited Fushimi Inari Taisha was way back in January of 2016. Since then I have been to the heritage site a couple of times but I never came around to writing about it.

Fushimi Inari-taisha (伏見稲荷大社) is the head shrine of the Kami Inari, located in Fushimi-ku area of Kyoto. The shrine sits at the base of a fill also named Inari which is about 230 metres above sea level. The trail up the mountain would be about 4 km and includes many smaller shrines along the way.

The most intriguing part of the hike are the thousand vermilion colored gates called Torii. Owing to the popularity of Inari’s division and re-enshrinement, this shrine is said to have as many as 32,000 sub-shrines (分社 bunsha) throughout Japan.

The Great Torii of Fushimi Inari Taisha

Exploring a Japanese temple or shrine means passing through some kind of gate. If you have visited Japan, or have seen pictures of famous shrines, then you are sure to have seen the brilliant vermilion torii gate that stand outside Shinto shrines. As you get off the train at the JR Inari Station you cannot miss the huge Torii gate that leads to the main shrine grounds.

Torii, the ubiquitous gates that form an integral part of every Shinto shrine, vary impressively in terms of both size and effect. Made from stone or wood they are typically constructed from two crossbeams spanning two cylindrical columns. The wooden ones are always colored in bright vermilion. Though commonly built at a scale that comfortably fits a small group of people, they range from miniature torii placed on shrines by worshipers to mighty structures such as this gate leading to Fushimi Inari Taisha.

Beyond the Torii, you will find the entrance gate to the shrine guarded with statues of foxes. These foxes are the guardian spirits of the Inari shrines and messengers for the gods.

A brief history of Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Shrine, dedicated to Inari, the Shinto deity of rice cultivation and business success. This deity grants a wide variety of prayers, from gokoku hojo (better crop output than last year) to shobai hanjo (business prosperity), and in some regions of Japan, anzan (safe childbirth), manbyo heiyu (being completely cured of any illness), and gokaku kigan (prayers for academic success).

The earliest structures were built in 711 CE on the Inariyama hill, but the shrine was re-located in 816 on the request of the monk Kūkai. The main shrine structure was built in 1499.

The shrine became the object of imperial patronage during the early Heian period (794 – 1185). In 965, Emperor Murakami decreed that messengers carry written accounts of important events to the guardian Kami of Japan. These heihaku were initially presented to 16 shrines, including the Inari Shrine.

From 1871 through 1946, Fushimi Inari-taisha was officially designated one of the Kanpei-taisha (官幣大社), meaning that it stood in the first rank of government supported shrines.

The mythical Fox of Inari

Foxes (kitsune), regarded as the messengers, are often found in Inari shrines. Each fox statue holds a ball-like object representing the spirit of the Gods, a scroll for messages from the Gods, a key for rice storehouses, or a rice ear in its mouth.

One legend suggests that an agricultural cycle is similar to that of a fox’s behaviors and habits, and the routes of the shrine gates are considered to be foxes’ routes. Foxes have the habit of entering villages from the mountains in spring, and returning in autumn. In addition, the shape and color of a fox’s tail resemble rice ears. Ancient Japanese people seemed to believe that foxes had mystical powers. So, this shrine’s foxes are believed to be messengers of the Gods.

In the Edo Period (1603–1867), local people established the practice of erecting gates along the path of the foxes on the mountain behind the shrine to protect and fulfill their wishes. Presently, there are more than five thousand bright colored Toriis spread across the island nation.

Unlike most Shinto shrines, Fushimi Inari-taisha, in keeping with typical Inari shrines, has an open view of the main object of worship (a mirror). The most striking feature of Inari worship (Inari shinko) is the diversification where the devotees do not simply worship the “Inari” but a separate form of Inari with its own name. Fox is the main symbol of Inari. Kansai people generally use names like Saijo Inari.

Inari was first worshipped in the form of three deities and later from the time of the Kamakura period as five deities. The practice of enshrining three Kami (Inari Sanza) or five dieties (Inari goza) is found in many shrines besides Fushimi.

Night Photo-walk at Fushimi Inari Taisha

Daytime at Fushimi is fine. Because of its closeness to Kyoto, it is always full of the daily wide-eyed tourists. So this year I decided to visit the shrine once again but at night, when it becomes magical. The number of tourists also decreases significantly at this time. As we got out of the train you could see a Fox idol near the entrance gate.

Structures at Fushimi Inari Taisha

The first structure you see as you walk through the huge gate is the Gehaiden. This brightly lit structure is used for various dance performances during festivals.

Gehaiden, Fushimi Inari Taisha

Azumamaro Shrine, Fushimi Inari Taisha

If you are facing the Naihaiden, you will find a small narrow path that leads to the Azumamaro shrine. One one side you will find hundreds of omikujo and wooden ema plates hanging on the side wall.

Naihaiden, Fushimi Inari Taisha

Just behind the Gehaiden, lies the main shrine called Naihaiden.

Honden, Fushimi Inari Taisha

As you walk towards the back, you will find the Honden. This is where you can buy the souvenirs and ema plates.

Gonden, Fushimi Inari Taisha

Kami-Massha, Fushimi Inari Taisha

Okumiya Shrine, Fushimi Inari Taisha

Behind them, in the middle of the mountain, the inner shrine (奥宮, okumiya) is reachable by a path lined with thousands of torii. To the top of the mountain are tens of thousands of mounds (塚, tsuka) for private worship.

The thousand torii gates start from this place.

Senbon Torii, Fushimi Inari Taisha

The highlight of the shrine is the rows of torii gates, known as Senbon Torii. The custom to donate a torii started to spread since the Edo period (1603 – 1868) to get a wish to become true or to thank for a wish that became true. Along the main path there are around 1,000 torii gates.

Those who know the  Fushimi Inari Shrine immediately think of the Senbon Torii, or the Thousands of red torii gates. It is said that there are about 10,000 torii lining this road up the mountain to the main shrine building. The sight of the torii all lined up is magnificent, and perhaps one of the most iconic views of Japan.

At times tightly packed and at times irregularly spaced and several yards apart, the torii lead visitors on a 4km hike up, along, and down a steep hillside past an assortment of smaller sanctuaries.

As I walked along the path, the flow of gates overhead created a nearly constant feeling of progress, not unlike driving through farmland and watching rows of crops sweep by outside. In the beginning, where the torii were packed closely together into a tunnel, I found myself covering a great deal of ground without much thought. The torii continually divided the long space, drawing my attention to the sequence of columns and beams and the patterns of light and dark.

The spacing of the gates get spaced out more as we head towards the summit. As the torii spread out, the outside world returned. My feeling of progress continued, but my attention focused on the forest that I had entered almost without noticing.These gates are also not illuminated from the inside so you only have the lights from the street lamp posts to move around in the dark.

Inari was originally and remains primarily the kami of rice and agriculture, but merchants and manufacturers also worship Inari as the patron of business. Most of Fushimi Inari-taisha’s roughly thousand torii were donated by a Japanese business.

Tamahimesha, Fushimi Inari Taisha

This is the Tamahimesha area where you can find many shrines dedicated to Inari.

Lit candles at a Kumatakasha shrine at the top.

This was as far as we went. We didn’t go beyond this point and started our hike back to the base of the hill. On the way we captured some shots of the torii.

As we reached the base, the Gehaiden was looking absolutely stunning in the night.

I caught the a final glimpse of the Great Torii of Fushimi Inari before we headed back to Kyoto.

Annual events at Fushimi Inari Taisha

The Rice Planting Festival in Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Rice has been very important for Japanese people for centuries, and farmers have always worked hard together to cultivate rice. It could be said that our Japanese group consciousness is based on this ancient rice cultivation culture.

In Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, you can get a brief glimpse of this ancient Japanese culture. The Shinto rituals for prosperity and good harvests include seeding, planting, and harvest festivals that are held respectively on April 12th, June 10th, and October 25th, the most important stages in rice growth.

The shrine is open 24 hours with both the approach to the shrine and the Honden (本殿, main hall) itself illuminated all night. There is no entrance fee.

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