Postcard From: Fushimi Inari-Taisha


Although I made many, many trips to Kyoto during my college overseas study tour and during our two navy tours in Japan, I had not only never visited the Fushimi Inari-Taisha, it had never even appeared on my radar of places to see in Kyoto. It wasn’t until I got active on Pinterest, and pictures of the vermillion tunnels of torii gates kept appearing over and over that I became more curious, and decided that on our 2015 visit to the city I would not miss visiting this shrine.

Torii gate at the entrance to Fushimi Inari-Taisha
Fox statue guarding the entrance to the shrine. Smaller fox statues can be found throughout the shrine.

Fushimi Inari-Taisha is the head shrine of the Shinto kami Inari, god of prosperity, worldly success and industry, and of fertility, rice, sake and tea. Inari is also the patron of merchants and businessmen. The thousands of torii gates (in Japanese, torii literally means ‘bird perch’) located in the shrine were each donated by businesses as offerings to Inari. Statues and images of foxes can also be seen throughout the shrine as fox (kitsune) are considered to be messengers to the gods. They are often seen with a key in their mouth, indicating their mythical role as keeper of the rice granary.

The main shrine. Visitors are lined up to make offerings.
Main shrine roof detail and lanterns.

The girls and I set out for the shrine on our last morning in Kyoto. Located on the south side of the city, on the side of Mt. Inari, it was easy to find, only a short trip by train from Kyoto station.

Torii are engraved with the name of the business that made the donation.
A smaller shrine area located midway through the grounds.
Fox ema left at one of the smaller shrine areas. The ema cost around 300 yen ($3) – the purchaser draws on a face, then writes a prayer request on the back (for examination success, sports win, good job, etc.)

After entering the shrine, we hiked through the vermillion tunnels for well over an hour, weaving our way up and over hills and through the forest. The immense number of torii massed together is almost overwhelming, and yet the tunnels beckon you to walk through and follow their turns and twists to see where they lead. Just when you start to feel like you could get lost, there you are back at a familiar spot. And, throughout the shrine are located smaller shrines and rest areas where you can sit and have a snack, or write your prayer request on the back of a fox ema (small wooden plaques). Unfortunately, because we needed to leave in order to to catch our train back to Tokyo, we missed hiking through the last great tunnel located at the back of the shrine.

WenYu enjoys some hot, freshly made takoyaki.
YaYu enjoys a skewer of grilled pork – she said it was the most delicious thing she ate in Japan!

The shrine is a popular destination for Japanese tourists, and as is typical at many shrines, when you leave you enter a street of souvenir shops and food stalls. We stood in line to enjoy some Japanese street food: a version of takoyaki (round pancakes with octopus and herbs) and some skewers of grilled pork.

In the Shinto religion, torii mark the transition between sacred and profane space. Walking through the tunnels does indeed give a sense of the divine, of being in a very special place.

I can’t believe it took me so long to visit this beautiful shrine, but it was definitely worth the wait. Fushimi Inari-Taisha is a fascinating combination of energy, beauty, and mystery (I would love to walk through the tunnels at dusk!), and has earned a permanent place on my must-visit list whenever I next visit Kyoto.