From the beginning of time we humans have worshipped mountains. They are the highest and most impressive elements of any landscape so it’s not surprising they invoke a sense of the divine. Soaring summits, unusual clouds and weather patterns that form around their peaks, the life-giving waters that flow from them, all these give mountains an aura of power and the sacred. Temples, shrines, altars, and monasteries cluster at their feet and on their slopes. From Mt Sinai in Egypt to Mt Fuji in Japan, from Emei Shan in China to Montmartre in France, from Mt Olympus in Greece to Mt Ararat in Turkey and Mt Agung in Indonesia, there are mountains the world over and in every religion that are regarded as sacred and imbued with a mystical power. One of the most significant and perhaps the least well known is Mt Kailash in Tibet. Compared to Kailash, Mt Inari in the southeastern corner of Kyoto, is merely a bump, only 233 metres (764 ft) high, but that does not make it any less revered by the people of Japan.
When I was in Japan in 2018 I walked part way up Mt Inari, famous as the location of one of the most visited places in the country, the Fushimi Inari Shrine complex. The complex consists of five shrines scattered across this wooded mountainside and I had hoped to come back another day to finish that hike but ran out of time, so when I returned to Kyoto a year later with Don I was determined to do it.
19 March 2019. We pass through the imposing romon, a two-story tower gate signifying the transition from the mundane to the sacred,
we pass the warlords that guard the entrance, in niches on either side of the romon,
we pass the worship hall that is immediately before us, and the shrine office, and this very serious fortune teller.
Finally we arrive at the main shrine, it’s shining red and gold beauty a beacon for the faithful.
We’ve recently arrived from India where their design ethos is that more is never enough. Detail upon detail is lavished on temples, Hindu rituals and festivals, weddings, and all forms of creativity. As a result, dumbfounded by the contrast in the two cultures, I find myself bowing to the minimalism that is revered in Japan.
But it is what we come to next that is the biggest draw at Fushimi Inari. It is the side-by-side lanes of enormous brilliant red torii gates. One thousand of them. Each gate is packed so closely to the next that they form a long red tunnel.
We walk on beyond the twin tunnels following the curving path through more torii gates though they are not as densely packed. There seems to be no end to the torii gates. Each gate is a prayer or a thanksgiving, and it is estimated that there are 10,000 of them of various sizes on the mountain.
Eventually we come to the crossroads. It’s the red dot on the map.
It is here that we turn right and head up the hill. Actually I should say we head further up the hill as we’ve been gently climbing the whole time.
Eventually we find ourselves on a beautifully wooded trail.
For all that we’ve been walking for quite a while this feels like the beginning. Now we have left the crowds behind. Soon we come to a bamboo forest and stop to explore.
I’d been to the famous (and crowded) bamboo forest at Arashiyama and was disappointed that it was fenced off. Here I have the chance to actually get inside a bamboo forest, to hear the singing of the leaves high overhead, to see the trunks gently swaying. A natural bamboo forest is a remarkable and beautiful thing.
Passing one of the fiercely guarded lower shrines
we continue on a narrow path now laid with stone steps, leading past greenery, to more bamboo side by side with a shattered pine forest. The previous September there had been a typhoon, the worst in 25 years, and the trees have fallen like matchsticks. We see this devastation all over the upper reaches of Mt Inari.
Walking on we arrive at one of the many subshrines, or places of worship, that are scattered all over the mountain. We dive into it. It is a complex rabbit warren, a mini village of worship stacked haphazardly on the side of the hill, every last tiny space utilised. There are diminutive altars, stone lanterns, and stone gods; all dominated by the bright vermillion of dozens of torii gates.
Everywhere we go there are foxes. Inari, the kami, or Shinto god of rice is believed to communicate with humans using foxes. They are Inari’s messengers from the spirit world. As for Inari, this is a fable born of a universal worship of nature. Every ancient culture created myths in an attempt to understand and appease the natural world. This is the story of how ine, meaning rice seedling, became the god Inari, which means becoming rice.
Some 1400 years ago Hata no Irogu had amassed rice and possessed overflowing wealth. He had so much that he made archery targets from pounded rice. One day when an arrow pierced the target it transformed itself into a white bird. Irogu followed the bird, which flew up and alighted atop what is now Mt Inari. There it transformed again, this time into living rice seedlings. Irogu was so moved by this wonder that he erected a shrine and worshipped the transformed rice plants. Thus was the beginning of the worship of Inari as a god, and thus was Inari given as the name of the shrine dedicated to this god. The Inari Shrine is the very beginning of the worship of the deities of crops.
Continuing on we’re again surrounded by bamboo forest. Looking up I see in each luxurious green frond the perfect feather for a Cavalier’s hat.
Beyond the bamboo we pass under a large grey stone torii and find ourselves once again surrounded by pine forest shattered by the typhoon.
Now we’re climbing on the roughhewn steps of a narrow path surrounded by ferns and lush greenery.
Passing under two large torii, their brilliance faded by time,
we arrive at last at the summit, and Kami-no-Yashiro Shrine.
We are descending now.
Five times during this hike we pass through a tunnel of torii gates packed closely side by side.
Soon we arrive at another area of worship where altars are crammed in together and piled one atop the other, the red of the torii gates, banners and “clothing” a stark contrast against the grey stone. It is another rabbit warren of worship.
And here there are views! Southern Kyoto is spread out before us.
We continue on the meandering path down the mountain, through forest,
past another shrine,
past another village of altars, the fourth on the mountain, and a Japanese couple dressed for their pilgrimage to Fushimi Inari.
We come to an incongruous Taoist shrine, and the equally incongruous Quan Yin, an ancient East Asian goddess that was incorporated into Buddhism. I have read a scathing indictment of Shinto as this: Shinto priests do not know anything about religion, they know just business. Perhaps a Taoist shrine and Quan Yin are good for business, not that the source of the quote is necessarily an expert in the field.
And now we are on the pathway back down to the main shrine, passing a store selling religious paraphernalia.
I do not know if this magnificent creature is for sale or if it’s a guardian of the store.
I go through so many feelings on this day. Because, when I first visited in 2018, the beginning of the hike was such a surprise, and so rural, I was expecting more of that, and am disappointed when most of the hike turns out to be more or less on-going places of worship interspersed with short interludes of a more natural setting. But then the places of worship are so astounding that I’m completely gobsmacked by them; gobsmacked by the sheer abundance of statues and images. I’m not referring so much to the obvious shrines (there are five of them on the mountain including Kami-no-Yashiro Shrine at the summit), but the rabbit warrens; the places that are crammed villages of altars, and statues of gods, and flying banners, and cloth bibs tied on stone deities, and tiny toriis, all overflowing and tumbled in together. It is all evidence, all a testament to the hundreds of thousands of devotees over hundreds of years. And of course every time we come to another tunnel of toriis I revel once again in their radiant beauty.
In the end I’m left, finally, with an understanding of the cult of Inari, for indeed it is a cult, not in the modern usage of the word, but in the same way that in ancient times worship of Aphrodite was a cult, an inherent part of the culture. This place, this mountain is Ground Zero, is the very birthplace of the worship in Japan of crops as deities. It all began here. There are now more than 30,000 Inari shrines throughout the country, and thousands come on a pilgrimage here to worship, to pray to, to revere the god of rice, and by extension the god of sake, and the god of prosperity and good fortune.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.