Going to Kyoto and hiking up the famous Fushimi Inari mountain is popular for a reason. Once you've tired of the thousands of temples in Kyoto go up Fushimi Inari for a sunset view of Kyoto. It isn't too far from the city and the train drops you close. The hike is not challenging but the endless red gates that whizz by is a unique experience. Best part as always, it's free! Pack a snack and before the sun sets, get on that NARA LINE train or take your rental bike to the start.
AT THE FUSHIMI INARI GATES
Walking down the road after JR station you'll pass by little Japanese houses until a big Red Tori gate greets you. This leads to a bigger entrance. Standing tall with red and gold paint, the entrance is flanked on opposite ends by two imposing foxes guards. In Shinto Buddhism, the Inari is thought to use foxes as messengers. You'll be seeing many more foxes along the way.
A fairly large crowd had gathered around the base without looking too bothered to ascend. The endless rows of red gates can easily be seen to bring you to the start of the hike. The gates are clearly old and worn. Unlike any other hike, going through endless gates feel strange. One by one, gate after gate, building an unexpected anticipation at the top.
GOING UP MT INARI
The steps are easy to manage. The corridors are wide for people to pass easily in both directions. More messengers sit on columns, this time smaller versions. Along with the miniature foxes, miniature Tori gate carvings sit in between. A large rope is suspended behind the display. I resisted the temptation to pull it and continued up and through more red gates.
I pick up the pace. There are not many people around and take a few steps at a time at full sprint. The columns of red rush by and blur in my peripheral. The ambiance changes and posses an eerie quality. The Japanese characters seem to float in the air. The gates get tighter. The green of the trees get blocked out and black on red dominates the route. A strange feeling of peace and isolation comes over me.
Only a few minutes in, I felt like I'm in a different world. I trekked up further at a varying pace, indulging not only in the visual delight, but even the strange auditory experience of the quiet mountain against the rushing of almost a thousand columns. Some are faded almost white. They are rough to the touch. I imagine it's a daunting task to keep the paint fresh. Luckily the hike is not too steep if it is someone's job.
SUNSET ON FUSHIMI INARI
After 20 minutes in I reach a rest area where people are sat around looking out into the horizon. The sun is quite low in the sky and a deep red outlines the sky. The red maples below trying its best to match its intensity. There was still time to make it to the top before sunset. There's still gates that remain uncrossed.
I was not actually too far from the peak. I left the sunset behind to go further up. Only a few minutes later I was at the top. There is no view here just silence. The shrine to the god of rice is surrounded by more minature tori gates and miniature foxes. The peak is deserted and creepy with the fading light. I decided to return for the sunset.
On the way down, the path actually splits into two. Both are lined with Tori Gates. Not wanting to go down the same way I choose the other path but I notice a man coming up from some steps in the middle. In hindsight he was probably a monk but at the time all I knew was there was a third path. No gates, just down some nondescript stairs. Why not?
The steps were steep. This must be a much faster way down compared to the gently slope of the gated path. This was good because I needed to pee pretty soon. The steps became less and less defined. I was determined to make out quickly as even though it was deserted, I wasn't too keen to urinate in what could have possibly been a sacred temple grounds.
The descent didn't seem to end or perhaps it was just my eagerness. To my horror it finally ended. Where had this man appeared from? I brought myself to the edge and hopped down into what looked like a garden. This was bad. There was no way I was going all the way back up. It was getting dark anyways.
I found myself alone in the dark, somewhere in the Kyoto mountains of Inari without a clear way out. Suddenly there was movement. A white haired man walked out of the seemingly deserted home and greeted me. I told him my plight and smiled saying he faced the same.
Don't worry we'll get out of this together"
he assured me.
Google maps showed us in the middle of the mountain without a road out. We just continued along the street winding down bamboo forests. After things were getting dark a familiar light glowed in the distance. The entrance gate glowed it's bright yellow bouncing off that orange-red. We made it.
Thanks for the company on the unconventional way down Fushimi Inari-taisha